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Tiny Eaters: Tips for Feeding Toddlers (1 to 3 Years)

Toddlerhood — ages 1 to 3 — is a stage filled with exploration, boundless energy and curiosity. As your little one grows, they need energy and nutrients from their daily diet to fuel their busy activities.

As with most parenting challenges, understanding what and how much to feed your toddler can be helpful. With the help of Banner Children’s dietitian Julie Lammers, we share tips on how to form healthy toddler eating habits and make mealtime a delightful, nutritious journey.

What should I feed my toddler?

Your toddler needs all the same nutrients you do — just in different amounts. One way to ensure your little one gets the nutrients their body needs is by including foods from all five food groups.

“Toddlers should eat a variety of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and dairy every day,” she said. “It is important to explore different foods with different tastes, textures and colors to see what your toddler may like.”

It’s also important to offer the same (or similar) foods to your child that you are eating. “It’s a common myth that toddlers have to eat toddler food, and they can’t eat what adults are eating,” Lammers said. “Your toddler can eat the same foods, just slightly modified to limit choking hazards.”

How much should my toddler eat?

Let your toddler decide how much to eat. Don’t force them to finish their meals or try a new food. Provide smaller portions and allow them to eat as much or as little as they want. 

“Toddlers and young children can usually self-regulate the amount of food they need each day,” Lammers said. 

Milk is still an important part of your toddler’s diet. It’s a good source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, which are good for their growing bones and overall development. However, too much dairy can cause issues like anemia and constipation.

Unless advised differently by your health care provider, here are general recommendations for children:

  • Until the age of 2, aim for 4 to 5 servings of whole milk per day. A serving size can be ½ cup of milk, ½ cup of yogurt or ½ ounce of cheese.
  • After they turn 2, they may drink up to 16 to 24 ounces of low-fat or nonfat milk daily.

Some kids don’t like milk or can’t drink or eat dairy due to an allergy. Talk to your child’s provider about dairy alternatives to ensure they still get the necessary nutrients.

Helpful eating tips for healthy toddler growth

Your role is to give your child healthy meals, make mealtime enjoyable and respond to your little one’s needs. Here are some tips to make feeding your toddler easier:

Make food easy and safe to eat
  • Cut or chop food into bite-sized, easy-to-chew pieces. Consider cooking or steaming hard fruit and vegetables.
  • Serve food near room temperature.
  • Be careful with the following foods: hot dogs, raw hard vegetables, larger chunks of meat/cheese, whole grapes, hard candies, nuts and seeds, popcorn and peanut butter. They can be hard to chew and swallow.
  • Seat your child in a secure chair for mealtime.
  • Always watch your child while they eat.
Involve them in food buying and prep

Talk to your toddler about food while grocery shopping. Involve them in preparing meals. Let them do simple tasks like stirring food.

Give small amounts of new foods

When your toddler is trying new food, offer a small portion. You can always give them more if they show interest and like it. 

“If they touch the food but don’t put it in their mouth, this is also considered trying it,” Lammers said. “If they are unfamiliar with the food, they may need to use their other senses before deciding to put the food in their mouth, which is OK.”

Let them self-feed

Let your child feed themselves with their fingers and child-friendly spoons and forks. This is important for forming fine motor skills and allowing them to decide when to start and stop eating.

Eat together as a family

Eating with your child is helpful as they can see you eating the same foods, which helps them know the food is safe. “If you are being a healthy eating role model for your child, this can help them to learn to like and accept foods you eat too,” said Lammers.

Avoid distractions 

Put away electronics and toys while eating. “Eating is a time to focus on taste, texture, hunger and fullness and not a time for distraction,” Lammers said.

Offer water between meals 

Sipping on milk between meals can decrease appetite. Offer milk with meals or snacks and limit sugary drinks, including 100% fruit juice. Understand more about how much water your child should drink each day.

Don’t stress about the mess

Little kids are messy eaters because their motor skills are still developing. Consider putting a plastic tablecloth under the food or on the floor and wearing a bigger bib to help with cleanup.

Remember, things change

One day, your toddler loves sweet potatoes. The next day, they don’t. It’s normal for their food likes and dislikes to change. This is common and doesn’t last forever.

“It is OK if your child is selective in their food choices,” Lammers said. “Your job is to provide healthy options, and your child’s job is to decide whether or not they are going to eat the food and how much.”

Bottom line

Feeding your toddler is a journey filled with discovery. As your toddler explores new tastes and textures and asserts their independence, remember that fostering healthy eating habits is a gradual process.

If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits or growth, contact their provider or a Banner Health specialist who can provide support and guidance. 

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