Nutritional guidelines for toddlers

July 22, 1999 at 12:00 PM ET

Nutritional Guidelines for Toddlers
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Nutritional Guidelines for Toddlers

To tackle this challenging topic, it's best to start with the basics. Below are a set of guidelines for nutrients critical to toddlers, a list of the foods that provide them, and—getting to the heart of the matter—ideas for how to get them to eat that food.

Daily requirements for a one-to-three-year-old:

  1. Protein: A minimum of 16 grams a day. 16 ounces of milk plus one ounce of meat is ample protein for a toddler.
  2. Fat: At least 30 percent of a toddler's calories should come from fat. Too little can result in "failure to thrive," where children do not get enough food to supply their energy and growth needs.
  3. Calories: 40 calories/day/inch of height = 1000 to 1300 calories/day. Calorie distribution is apt to look like this:
    • 16 g protein = 64 calories
    • 44 g fat = 396 calories
    • 210 g carbohydrate = 840 calories
    Total = 1300 calories
  4. Sodium: 325-1000 mg.
  5. Vitamin C: 40 mg.
  6. Vitamin A: 400 ug. RE
  7. Calcium: 800 mg. Even if a child drinks the recommended two cups of milk a day, he still needs 200 more milligrams of calcium. Offer yogurt, cheese, tofu, and leafy greens.
  8. Iron: 10 mg.
  9. Zinc: 10 mg. A mild zinc deficiency in toddlers is more common than realized. Symptoms are poor appetite, sub-optimal growth and reduced sense of taste and smell. The best sources of zinc are meat, eggs and seafood.
  10. Folate: 50 ug.

The last four are the ones most often deficient in toddlers.

How to Use the Guidelines

Each day, try to serve the following:

  • 2 to 3 cups of milk. (Milk can take many forms, including yogurt, cheese, pudding.) Some children are not good milk drinkers and must rely on other foods for their protein. Conversely, other toddlers drink milk to the exclusion of other foods, resulting in deficiencies of iron or other nutrients.
  • 4 servings of fruits and vegetables- (One tablespoon per year of age is the rule for serving size.) One serving should be high in vitamin C and another in vitamin A.
  • 4 servings of bread and cereal- Toddlers are apt to eat more of these, which is okay as long as it's not to the exclusion of other food groups. One serving should be of an iron-fortified baby cereal. A serving size is about 1/4 to 1/3 an adult portion (for example, 1/4 slice toast, 1/4 cup pasta).
  • 2 servings of meat, beans, eggs, tofu, or peanut butter- A good serving of protein should be served at every meal. A serving equals 1/2 ounce.
  • A meal should provide protein, bread or cereal, fruit or vegetable or both, and milk.

As you can see, toddlers need remarkably little food. A typical meal may consist of 1 1/2 cups milk, 1/4 slice toast, a few bites of scrambled egg, and a tablespoon of applesauce. It's not surprising that the most common concern of a toddler's parents is that their toddler doesn't eat enough, especially vegetables. While what the eat may not look like much, keep in mind that toddlers are small and not growing too quickly.

There is, however, truth to the fact that toddlers notoriously favor a limited number of foods, making the second most common complaint, "My child is such a picky eater." Why is it that your toddler will eat only macaroni and cheese, and a two-year-old in Mexico will accept a tortilla wrapped around beans? Children learn to accept foods in a social and cultural context and are capable of learning to like and accept a wider variety than most people think.

Research shows that two factors chiefly determine a child's preference for food. Not surprisingly, one is an unlearned liking for sweet taste. The second is familiarity. Toddlers simply prefer the foods that are familiar to them, having nothing to do with their defining characteristics—smell, taste and texture—hence, beans and tortillas in Mexico, and macaroni and cheese in the US. "Neophobia" is the fear of the new and unknown, and for toddlers, that can translate into a reluctance to try new foods.

Neophobia makes sense when viewed as a normal, adaptive response, and rather than reflecting a lack of cooperation, it may be a young organism's mechanism for avoiding unfamiliar, potentially toxic foods. A "cave baby" might soon have died if she was willing to try every berry she could get her hands on. Likewise, your child may refuse the food gifts of a stranger -- a healthy response! Once you recognize food "negativity" as an adaptive response, you can take the necessary steps to get your toddler to accept new foods in spite of it. Increasing her variety of liked foods is your goal since a wider variety is more apt to ensure an adequate nutrient intake.

Nor should the initial rejection of a food be interpreted as a fixed and true dislike of it. Only after several exposures will he learn the food is safe to eat. After several occasions of tasting the food with no negative side effects, such as nausea or vomiting, he learns the food is okay. Even one experience of lousy gastrointestinal consequences, however, can cause a long-term rejection of a food.

Knowing this, the most successful tactic is to offer a couple opportunities a week to try a new food. Don't coerce your child to eat it, but make clear that you expect him to taste it. Always allow him to spit it out if he wants. It is important to establish a policy of at least tasting a new food in late infancy, before the strong sense of autonomy and independence takes hold. Never force a child to eat, though. That approach, sometimes successful in the short-term, will backfire later on.

Equally as important as offering the new food often is the atmosphere in which it is offered. Certain commonly accepted feeding practices have unintended effects on a toddler's food preferences. For example, dessert (usually sweet) comes at the end of a meal and is often used as a reward for "eating your vegetables," or is withheld as a punishment for not eating them. This has the effect of making the restricted food (in this case, dessert) more highly desired—they want what they can't have. According to Dr. Leann Birch, this strategy reduces a child's preference for the food he is forced to eat—all too often, the nutritious ones.

But you really don't want your toddler eating dessert if he hasn't eaten his dinner. What to do? First of all, rethink what you're serving for dessert. For most people, sweets are palatable even when they are full, which may be why a non-hungry toddler is still willing to eat a bowl of ice cream even though she wasn't hungry for dinner. Try offering desserts that make a positive nutritional contribution to the meal. For example, instead of ice cream, serve a pudding made with skim milk, such as rice pudding. Serve fruit salad or a fruit and yogurt 'sundae' instead of pie. If it's cookies, make them whole-grain oatmeal. That way, you can even allow toddlers to eat dessert first if they want!

Because of their small size and slow growth, toddlers' appetites are small. It's important not to make a fuss if they refuse to eat. They'll eat when they're hungry, and the more you force, the stronger they'll refuse. A toddler's eating is erratic and unpredictable, but viewed over several days, will balance out in terms of average daily needs. So don't worry if on some days she refuses to eat anything, because she will make up for it elsewhere.

Coping with picky, erratic eating can be exasperating, even in light of your intellectual approach to it. To help deal with it, understand your role well and know you have carried it out the best you can.

Tips for Encouraging Your Child to Eat

Your job is to offer a wide variety of wholesome foods in a non-pressured, supportive setting, and according to a regular, predictable schedule. Try to:

  • Present new foods at least twice a week.
  • Offer new foods along with old favorites.
  • Serve small, toddler-size portions. Too much on the plate can make them feel overwhelmed.
  • Foods should be easy to chew. Toddlers can't chew tough things.
  • Food should be bite-size.
  • Toddlers like colorful foods.
  • Try changing the venue of his meals—serve lunch in the playhouse, snack as an afternoon tea party.
  • Toddlers enjoy playing with their food. It is a part of learning about it, so, within reason, allow this to happen.
  • Let them help in food preparation.
  • Grow a vegetable garden.
  • Make food attractive—arrange it in the shape of an animal, a face, etc.
  • Offer limited choices. For example, ask "Do you want orange juice or apple juice?" instead of "What do you want to drink?"
  • Eat as a family as much as possible. Kids learn by imitating what they see.
  • Help ensure that they come to the table hungry.
  • Don't use food to cure boredom or as a pacifier.

Toddlers need snacks to get them through the day and because they eat so little, they have no room for calories without nutrients. To make sure the snacks you serve aren't "empty calories," keep your pantry full of healthful snacks and pack some along when you go out. 

Healthy Snack Ideas for the Toddler on the Go

  • bananas 
  • small boxes of favorite cereals
  • boxes of raisins
  • Fig Newtons
  • whole wheat, low-salt pretzels
  • homemade mini-muffins (Keep a supply in your freezer.)
  • peanut butter crackers (Make sandwiches out of whole grain crackers and natural peanut butter.)
  • mini-bagels
  • cheese cubes
  • rice cakes
  • small juice boxes
  • whole grain granola bars
  • zip lock bags of toddler-made gorp (Let him decide what to mix in!)

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A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.