Kid Articles

Feeding Your Toddler: A Creative Challenge

By Sue Gilbert, MS, Nutritionist


Now your little baby is a toddler, and you still have a lot to learn about feeding your toddler! At this stage, your toddler's growth rate and appetite slows down. A toddler's first agenda is to establish himself or herself as an individual. Stubbornness and fierce independence may be displayed at mealtime. A new challenge emerges for you because "toddler-hood" is an important time to establish healthy, lifelong food preference and eating habits. In order to do that, it helps to know what you're up against and how to deal with it.


Toddlers are notorious for picky eating. Children only want to eat a few foods and learn to accept those foods in a social and cultural context.  A two year old in Mexico will accept a tortilla wrapped around beans while your toddler prefers macaroni and cheese. If a bean tortilla doesn't appeal to your baby, rest assured that Mexican child would probably find the idea of macaroni and cheese disgusting.


What impacts a toddler's food preference?

Research has shown that a couple of factors primarily determine a child's food. Not surprisingly, one is an unlearned liking for sweet taste. The second determinant is familiarity. Familiarity is unrelated to any characteristic about that food, such as smell or taste or texture. Toddlers simply prefer the foods that are familiar to them, thus the beans and tortillas in Mexico versus macaroni and cheese in the United States. Thus, we refer to toddlers as "neophobic" or fearful of the new and unknown. For toddlers, that causes reluctance to try new foods.


Neophobia is a normal, adaptive response and doesn't necessarily represent a lack of cooperation. In nature, it may be a young organism's mechanism for avoiding unfamiliar, potentially harmful toxins. Likewise, your child may refuse food gifts from 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.


Initial rejection of a new food by your child shouldn't be interpreted as a fixed and persistent dislike of the food. She needs more chances to try new foods. Only after several exposures will she learn the food is safe to eat. Only after she tries the food several times without a negative response afterward (i.e. nausea or vomiting), will she learn the food is safe to eat. However, even one experience of lousy gastrointestinal consequences can cause a long-term rejection of a food.


Keeping this in mind, you need to develop a system to introduction new foods. A good "food introduction" tactic is to schedule new food samplings each week, making sure to reintroduce food several times.  Do not force your child to eat it, but set up the expectation you expect her to at least taste it. Forcing a child to eat certain foods may be successful for now but will backfire in the long run. So allow your child to spit it out if they want to. Establish the policy of at least tasting the new food in late infancy before the strong sense of autonomy and independence sets in. Although just being around the food does help, tasting it leads to ultimate acceptance.


Feeding atmosphere

The atmosphere under which we offer new foods is also important. In our culture we have a few feeding practices that affect toddler's food preferences. For example, dessert (usually sweet) comes at the end of a meal as a reward for "eating your vegetables" or is withheld as punishment for not eating your vegetables. This creates an unhealthy preference for the reward food. According to studies, when children must eat obstacle foods (i.e. vegetables) to receive reward foods (i.e. dessert), the child develops a disliking for the obstacle food. The same thing occurs if your child has to 'drink their milk' before watching TV, or "eat their eggs" before going out to play. However, you don't want your toddler eating dessert if he or she hasn't eaten dinner. How do you deal with this? First of all, rethink what you serve for dessert. Most people have no problem "finding room" for dessert. This explains why a non-hungry toddler still wants to eat the bowl of ice cream after refusing dinner. Try making dessert a food you feel good about your toddler eating, regardless of what she has or has not eaten ahead of time. The dessert should make a positive nutritional contribution to the meal. Instead of ice cream, serve a pudding made with skim milk, like rice pudding. Serve fruit salad or a fruit and yogurt 'sundae'. If it's cookies, make them whole grain oatmeal. Allow them to eat dessert first if they want.


Because of their small size and slow growth a toddler's appetite is small. There will be plenty of times when she's just not hungry. It's important not to make a fuss if she refuses to eat. She'll eat when she's hungry and the more you force, the stronger she refuses. A toddler's eating is erratic and unpredictable but viewed over several days her intake will meet her daily average needs. Therefore, don't worry if on some days she refuses to eat anything, it will be made up for 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. Your job is to offer a wide variety of wholesome foods in a low pressure, supportive setting, with a regular, predictable schedule. To help encourage your toddler to eat:


  • 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 a toddler 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 meal venue - 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, within reason allow this to happen
  • Let toddlers help with food preparation
  • Grow a vegetable garden
  • Make food attractive, arrange food in the shape of an animal, a face, etc
  • Offer limited choices. e.g 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.


What to eat

Okay, so now you know how to feed your child, but what exactly, does a toddler need? Nutritionally speaking. According to The Food And Nutrition Board and The Institute Of Medicine, the dietary reference intakes (DRI) for a toddler aged 1 to 3 include:


  • Protein: 16 g/day - 16 ounces of milk plus one ounce of meat is ample protein for a toddler.
  • Fat: 44 g/day - at least 30% of a toddler's calories should come from fat to supply energy and growth needs
  • Calories: approximately 1000 to 1300 calories/day


Calorie distribution is apt to look like this:
  • 16 g Protein = 64 calories
  • 44 g Fat = 396 calories
  • 175 g Carbohydrate = 702 calories
  • Total = 1162 calories
  • Sodium: 325 - 1000 mg/day
  • Vitamin C: 15 mg/day
  • Vitamin A: 300 ug RE
  • Calcium: 500 mg/day
  • Iron: 7 mg
  • Zinc: 3 mg - a mild zinc deficiency is more common than realized in toddlers. Symptoms are poor appetite, suboptimal growth and reduced sense of taste and smell. The best sources for zinc: meat, eggs and seafood.
  • Folate: 150 ug/day


The last four nutrients show up as the most frequent nutritional inadequacies of toddlers.


These specific nutritional needs translate into the following daily guidelines for feeding a toddler:
  • 2 cups of milk (milk can take many forms like yogurt, cheese, pudding): some children do not drink enough milk and must rely on other foods for protein and calcium while other toddlers drink milk instead of other foods, resulting in iron deficiencies of iron or other nutrients.
  • 4 servings of fruits and vegetables (one tablespoon per year of age is the rule): serve one vegetable high in vitamin C and one high in vitamin A.
  • 4 servings of bread and cereal: toddlers love bread and cereal and will eat plenty of it, just make sure they don't eat too much. One serving should be an iron fortified baby cereal. A serving size is about 1/4 to 1/3 an adult portion like1/4 slice toast, 1/4 cup pasta.
  • 2 servings of meat, beans, eggs, tofu. or peanut butter: a good serving of protein fed at every meal equals about 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 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 slice toast, a few bites of scrambled egg, and a tablespoon of applesauce. It doesn't look like much. But toddlers are small and they are not growing too quickly. So, it's not surprising the most common concern of toddler's parents is "My child doesn't eat enough. It is true that they don't enough at meals to meet their needs. They can't hold that much at one time, so, toddlers need snacks to get them through the day. Because they eat so little, there's no room in their diets for calories without nutrients. Make sure the snacks you serve aren't empty calories'. Instead, serve nutritious snacks like yogurt, dried fruit, whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter, or fruits.


Getting your toddler to eat healthy food isn't easy. But once you understand the obstacles and arm yourself with the tools to overcome those obstacles, you'll be well on your way to raising a life-long healthy eater.