Making healthy a habit

Toddlers (between 1 and 3 years of age) go through a transition in food choices and eating habits. They begin to adopt adult food patterns. Since food preferences are established early in life, help your child develop a taste for healthy foods.

To stimulate interest in a healthy diet, serve a variety of foods with appealing colors, different textures and new flavors. Toddlers have limited stomach capacity, so it is important to serve foods with high-nutrient density to support optimal growth. Limit juices, sweets and foods with 'empty' calories.

Giving your child room to grow

After the first year, children grow at a slower pace and appetite may diminish. They explore feeding themselves, first with fingers and then using utensils from the age of 15 to 18 months. Give your child many opportunities to practice these skills, but lend a hand when frustrations arise. As skills develop, step back and let your child take over. Make sure that you provide additional nutritious snacks at least once or twice a day along with three or four regular meals. They need a variety of foods from all the main food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and beans and oils.

Milk it for all it's worth

Milk is important to a toddler's diet because it provides calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones. Between ages one and two children can drink whole milk that contains the dietary fats needed for normal growth and brain development. After age two, meals should be supplemented with milk and milk products to meet calcium needs for growing bones and teeth.

Dealing with toddlers that are difficult to feed

It is normal for a pleasant child who cheerfully "eats everything" to become suddenly and unaccountably fussy about food. Sometimes there can be tantrums. The child might reject every healthy food the parent serves or demand the exact same food at every meal.

Conscientious parents are surprised and troubled when the child:

  • Refuses to eat
  • Plays with food instead of consuming it
  • Eats less than usual
  • Dislikes and refuses vegetables, fruit, meat or milk
  • Complains about chewing
  • Demands the same food at every meal
  • Prefers ‘junk food’ to healthy food
  • Makes a mess at the table
  • Throws tantrums about food

All of these behaviors – surprising, troubling, and inconvenient to parents - are typical in children and can be managed with patience and perseverance. If eating battles arise, parents must respect the child’s needs while still ensuring the right nutrients are consumed. Remember: Parents decide what healthy meals and snacks to offer and when to offer them. Children can control which of these healthy foods to eat, how much to eat and whether to eat them at all.

A good pattern to follow is to offer three meals and two or three snacks each day. Children who 'graze' continually tend to have no appetite for scheduled meals. Drinking too much juice or milk between meals can have the same effect. Learn more about picky eating behaviors.

From Providing Healthy Choices to Eating Healthy Yourself

Tips for feeding toddlers

  • Serve the same foods to your toddler that the rest of the family is eating at the same time
  • Schedule regular meals and snacks: three major meals and two or three each day
  • Offer a wide range of fresh foods from all the main food groups
  • Provide creative choices of flavors, colors and textures and arrange food to create visual appeal
  • Permit toddlers to respond to their own internal cues for hunger and fullness - never force feed
  • Offer small amounts of nutrient-rich foods at a time; do not offer high-calorie, low-nutrient foods
  • Try to keep mealtimes pleasant and avoid foods that might cause choking such as grapes, hot dogs, popcorn, nuts, raw carrots and hard candy
  • Limit a child's consumption of juices and other sweetened beverages
  • Wean off the bottle and start feeding with a cup, spoon and bowl
  • Encourage your child to engage in physical activities
  • Monitor your child's growth
  • Be a good role model by eating healthy yourself

"I always tell my kids… you don’t have to eat all of it, but you do have to try it."

- Mother of two girls, ages 2 and 6