Feeding Your Toddler: Ages 1 to 3 Years Old

Eating the toddler years

After eating enthusiastically for the first year of life, your toddler’s eating habits may suddenly change over the course of the next 24 months. To your surprise, they may actually eat less than before and begin to push away at certain foods. That’s okay.

Julie Simpson, MS, RD, CDE, a Banner Health registered dietitian, shares some tips to help you through every stage of toddlerhood.

Ages 12 – 24 Months

During the second year of life, Simpson says it’s important to offer a variety of healthy foods with different tastes, textures and colors. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, children should get about 40 calories a day for every inch of height.

“Your child will be able to eat all kinds of foods, so it is important for them to participate at mealtime and offer them the same foods as the family,” Simpson said. “Provide smaller portions and only offer certain foods once your child can chew and swallow well.”

Eating Tips

  • Milk: Provide whole milk until age two, unless otherwise specified by your doctor, registered dietitian or healthcare provider. Simpson recommends six servings a day, with a serving size being ½ cup milk, ½ cup yogurt and ½ ounce cheese. “Make sure you don’t go overboard on dairy,” Simpson said. “More than 24 ounces a day of milk can lead to anemia, decreased appetite and constipation.”
  • Spoon: Your toddler can now use a spoon, though they may lack proficiency for some time. Let them practice eating at mealtime with the family.
  • Don’t Overfeed: Toddlers and young children can usually self-regulate the amount of calories they need each day. Don’t force them to finish their meals if they are no longer hungry.
  • No Technology: Turn off electronics while eating. “Eating is a time to focus on taste, texture, hunger and fullness and not a time to distract,” Simpson said.

What to Avoid

Choking at this age is still a danger,” Simpson said. “Try and avoid these food items as they can pose as choking hazards.”

  • Raw veggies (try steaming and cutting veggies into small, bite-sized pieces)
  • Whole grapes (cut into quarters)
  • Peanut butter
  • Hard candy (candy in general)
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Chunks of apple, meat and cheese (cut into tiny, bite-sized pieces)
  • Hot dogs
  • Foods and drinks high in sugars, such as soda, juice and cookies

Ages 24 – 36 Months

By age two, your toddler should be eating three healthy meals a day, plus two healthy snacks. They’ll use kid-size plates and cups, as well as kid-sized utensils with better dexterity, but don’t be surprised if they are eager to make their own food choices.

“It is okay if your child is a picky eater—persistence is key,” Simpson said. “Your job as a parent is to provide healthy options, and your child’s job is to decide whether or not they are going to eat the food you provide and how much.”

Eating Tips

  • Milk: By age two, they should drink 16-24 ounces of low-fat or nonfat milk each day, unless your healthcare provider recommends something else.
  • Hydration: Your toddler should be drinking at least eight ounces of water each day, particularly during the hot months of summer to avoid dehydration.
  • Don’t Force Food: Encourage them to try new food, but don’t force it. It could take several attempts before your child likes a food, and that’s OK.
  • Grocery Shopping and Meal Prep: Involve your child in picking out healthy foods and have them help wash fruits and veggies. Make food a positive experience for them.
  • Sippy Cups: By this time, toddlers should take their milk from a sippy cup, so they can start developing their drinking skills.
  • Feed Themselves: Toddlers like to feed themselves, so whenever possible, offer your child finger foods instead of cooked ones that require a fork or spoon.

What to Avoid

Choking is still a danger at this age, so follow the “What to Avoid” for 12 to 24 months when preparing food for your little one.

If you are concerned about your toddler’s eating habits or have any questions related to your child’s growth and development, speak with a Banner Health provider, and they can make a referral to a specialist.

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