As parents we know that toddlers need a healthy, balanced diet to thrive, and that the foods they learn to like in their early years can help shape eating habits that influence their health in later life.  However we also know that the toddler years are a time of rapid change, when our little ones are trying to assert themselves, develop rather radical likes and dislikes and aren’t afraid to show it!!  So how can you make sure that your toddler is eating what he should be, whilst avoiding inevitable confrontations?  We have some advice from the experts…

Changes to expect as your child becomes a toddler

From the baby that took to weaning like a duck to water, ate every food offered and always wanted more, you may notice some changes after your child’s first birthday:

  • Food preferences – this might be for different textures, tastes and colours
  • Likes to feed himself or herself and be more independent
  • Shows sudden changes in likes and dislikes
  • Refuses to try new foods – this usually decreases as toddlers approach school age.

The Ten Steps for Healthy Toddlers

In order to to help families cater for toddlers’ unique nutritional and behavioural needs and encourage positive mealtime behaviour, the Infant & Toddler Forum – a team of specialist paediatricians, health visitors, dietitians and a psychologist who work together to improve nutrition in the under-3s – developed the Ten Steps for Healthy Toddlers.

“Healthy eating at this age isn’t just important for growth and development: toddlers learn to like the food that parents offer them, and they can retain these preferences as they get older. This shapes their later eating habits and health.

Judy More, Paediatric Dietitian

New parents may feel overwhelmed by all the “dos and don’ts” associated with feeding little ones, so we’ve summarised the key points into the Ten Steps for Healthy Toddlers.”

1. Eat together as a family and make mealtimes relaxed, happy occasions

  • Make food easy to eat – finger foods are good.
  • Eat the foods that you would like your toddler to eat.
  • Praise your toddler when he or she eats well or tries something new – toddlers take time to learn to like new foods.

2. You decide which nutritious foods to offer but let your toddler decide how much to eat

  • Never insist your toddler eats everything on his or her plate.

3. Offer foods from all 5 food groups each day

  • Together they give the right mix of nutrients your toddler needs.

4. Have a routine and offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day

  1. Offer 2 courses at each meal and only offer nutritious snacks.
  2. Don’t allow grazing on food.

5. Offer 6-8 drinks a day

  • Give all drinks in a beaker or cup – not bottles.
  • 3-4oz or 100-120ml is about right. Water is a good choice.

6. Give vitamins A & D each day

  • Choose a vitamin supplement suitable for toddlers – most toddlers don’t get enough in their food.

7. Respect your toddler’s tastes and preferences – don’t force feed

  • Understand that some children eat almost everything while others are much more picky.
  • Some like foods kept separate at a meal and others are happy with foods mixed in together.

8. Reward your toddler with your attention – never give food or drink as a reward, treat or for comfort

  • Play, read or talk with your toddler as a reward.
  • Always give fruit or a nutritious pudding – don’t use it as a reward for eating other foods first or for good behaviour.

9. Limit…

  • Fried food, crisps, packet snacks, pastries, cakes and biscuits to very small amounts.
  • Sweet foods to four times a day e.g. as part of the three meals and one snack.

… and avoid

  • Sweetened fruit squashes, fizzy drinks, tea and coffee.
  • Undiluted fruit juices – only give juice well diluted at meal times.
  • Whole nuts which may cause choking or be inhaled.

10. Encourage physical activity for at least 3 hours every day and about 12 hours sleep

  • All activity such as active play inside or outside, walking, running and dancing counts. Limit TV and other screen time like computers to just 1 hour a day.

For more information on how to encourage healthy eating, check out our the NowBaby toddler section.

There’s also further information on healthy eating for toddlers, including practical tips and advice on portion sizes, planning meals, and offering snacks and drinks on the Infant and Toddler Forum website.