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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Toddler/Preschooler Nutrition

Moving into the toddler and preschool years from infancy is notable for the child's increasing physical growth and achievement of developmental milestones. There are also major changes in eating habits and mealtime behavior as children become toddlers. Although challenging for parents, these changes are an important part of every child's normal development. Toddlers are developing a sense of independence by learning how to feed themselves. Although usually more competent at feeding themselves, preschoolers still struggle with independence, making themselves even more unpredictable.

The following information summarizes these major developmental changes in eating habits and mealtime behavior, as well as the nutritional needs of toddlers and preschoolers. The goal is to make it easier for you to help your child learn healthy eating habits. It is essential that even young children learn healthy eating habits, to:

  • Develop normally and reach their full growth potential
  • Be healthy
  • Avoid childhood health problems directly related to nutrition, such as iron-deficiency anemia, poor growth, obesity and cavities
  • Stay healthy into adulthood, by reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis and some forms of cancer
Think Differently

Toddler and preschool diets are very different from infant diets. While older infants get most of their nutrition from breast milk and/or formula plus a few solid foods, toddlers drink milk and other liquids and eat an increasing variety of solid foods. One of the first and most important steps in this transition away from an infant diet is weaning to a cup, usually by 12 to 14 months.

Infants generally need to be fed, but toddlers want to be independent and feed themselves, no matter how messy. Infants often happily stare at their caretakers while being fed, but toddlers and preschoolers can be frustrating at mealtime, as they are easily distracted.

Expect Smaller Appetites

In their first year of life, babies grow more than they will during any other year in their lives (tripling their birth weight), and they need a lot of food to keep up with this growth. Toddlers and preschoolers grow at a much slower rate and, therefore, don't need as much food. It is common to notice a decrease in appetite starting around a child's first birthday.

Be Prepared For Messy Eating

Although your first attempts to introduce cereal or jarred foods to your infant were probably messy, few things will compare with the mess created by a toddler learning to feed himself. Some food makes it into your toddler's mouth, but more food may end up on the floor, highchair, clothes, hair and face. Be patient! As your toddler practices eating, he is learning many things. For example, the taste, smell and texture of foods are new to him, as are using his fingers, hands, arms and utensils to eat. So be prepared for the mess, try to relax, snap lots of pictures and take steps to make cleanup easier.

  • Feed your child in a highchair, or a booster seat at the table. To reduce messy spills and decrease the chance of choking, do not let your child get up from the table and walk around while eating or drinking.
  • Use a bib. Larger ones cover more clothing. Bibs with Velcro are easy for parents to take on and off, but most toddlers figure out how to remove them after a few months, too! Some bibs even have pockets to catch falling food and crumbs.
  • Dress down for meals. If your toddler refuses to wear a bib, dress her in older clothes that are easily washable.
  • Use child-friendly dishes. Choose small plastic spoons and forks (no knives); some have curved handles that make it easier for toddlers to get food into their mouths. Consider buying special unbreakable bowls that have deep sides and suction cups on their bottoms.
  • Protect the floor below. Put a plastic mat or some newspaper on the floor under the child's chair.
  • Be prepared for spills. Keep a broom or a wet-dry vacuum nearby for quick cleanups.
Serve Child-Sized Portions Of Well-Balanced Meals

The average 1 year old needs about 1,000 calories per day, but the number of calories varies with a child's body size, activity level and age. It is not necessary to count calories but more important to offer nutritious foods from each of the food groups every day.

Your child will get enough calories and all the necessary nutrients from an average daily diet that includes:

  • Grains (bread, cereal, rice, pasta) - 6 servings
  • Vegetables - 2 to3 servings
  • Fruits - 2 to 3 servings
  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) - 2 servings
  • Meats (meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, eggs) - 2 servings

Note that children 1 year and 2 years old need the same number of servings as children 3 and 4 years old, but in smaller portions.

It is also important that fat intake never be restricted for children younger than 2 years old. Fat provides fuel for proper brain growth and development during this period of remarkable growth and high energy needs. After age 2, children should gradually eat fewer high-fat foods and make the transition to a heart-healthy diet, just like older children and adults, with no more than one-third of total calories from fat and no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.

Make Snacks Part Of The Daily Meal Plan

Young children have relatively small appetites with very high levels of activity, so they usually need to eat every two to three hours. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, most children need mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Some still may need a bedtime snack. Serve healthful snacks, such as:

Fresh fruits, dried fruits, fruit-filled cookies.

Vegetables with low-fat dip. Be sure to prevent choking in children younger than age 3 by avoiding all raw vegetables that are hard to chew, such as carrots or green beans.

Cheese cubes, cheese sticks, yogurt, milk.

Whole-grain bread, bagels, whole-grain crackers, unsalted whole-wheat pretzels, rice cakes, dry cereals (low or no sugar).

Peanut butter (smooth, spread thinly on bread or crackers), hummus, bean dip.

Feed Picky Eaters

Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously picky eaters because of the decrease in their appetites (compared with infancy) and because of their emotional development, specifically first learning about independence, and then testing the limits of that independence. Children this age also tend to prefer things that are familiar to them, so they are often hesitant to try new foods. In addition, when young children refuse to eat food, they often get a lot of attention from their parents, which reinforces a negative behavior. Read more about preventing this behavior or dealing with an already picky eater.

Keep Mealtimes For Meals

In an effort to get children to eat or to sit quietly at the table while the rest of the family eats, parents may be tempted to give them toys or turn on the television as distractions. However, in the long run, it's probably better to avoid this strategy. First, parents should not try to get their children to eat. A parent's job is to simply to offer nutritious meals and snacks at appropriate times throughout the day. It is the child's job to decide whether to eat and how much. Second, eating meals and snacks while watching television can lead to overeating and unwanted weight gain later in life.

Meals and snacks are also important social times for children and families, so make them special by sitting down to eat with your child. In fact, children eat better when an adult is nearby, perhaps sharing the meal or snack with them.

Last updated February 17, 2011