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Feeding toddlers - introduction

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The toddler years are a time for learning. Toddlers are learning about new foods at a time when long term eating patterns are being created. Teaching your toddler healthy eating habits can help them grow up to be healthy adults.

  • parents decide what food to provide – children decide how much to eat
  • if you provide healthy food, your toddler will eat well whatever they choose
  • toddlers need less food in their second year because they are growing more slowly
  • toddlers have small stomachs so need to eat small amounts often.

Try to keep meal times relaxed and happy, and avoid food battles with your toddler.

There are other topics with information about feeding toddlers

Contents


What is 'normal' toddler eating?

It is normal for toddlers to be less interested in food than they were as babies. Here are some reasons why:

Toddlers grow more slowly than babies

Children grow less in the second year of life. In the first 12 months, babies grow very fast. As toddlers aren't growing as quickly, their appetite often drops. This is normal and does not mean your child is being difficult or is unwell – they just aren't as hungry because they aren't growing as quickly!

Toddlers have small appetites

We sometimes have unrealistic ideas about how much a toddler should eat. Toddlers have small tummies and appetites. They need small, regular meals and snacks. Three small meals and two or three healthy snacks per day are enough for most toddlers.

Children are good at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. They can easily lose this skill if they are pushed to eat more than they want to or are forced to finish everything on their plate.

Toddler's appetites vary

It is normal for a toddler's appetite to vary from day to day and even from meal to meal. If they don't eat much at a meal or snack, the next time to eat is not far away.

Toddlers want to be independent

The world is a big place, especially for a toddler. Eating is one of the few things that a toddler can control so it is not surprising that they like to say 'no' to food – this is normal!

Toddlers are developing their big and small movement skills

Toddlers are learning new skills all the time. As they get better at moving around they want to spend more time exploring their world. Sometimes there are just more exciting things to do than eat!

The role of parents and the role of children 

It is up to parents to decide what food and drinks they will provide for their child. It is up to the child to decide what and how much they will eat.

  • If you provide a variety of healthy food and drinks for your toddler, you know whatever they choose will be nutritious.
  • Children are good at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. This skill can easily be lost if children are forced to eat, or told to finish everything on their plate. They may learn to keep eating even when they've had enough. This can lead to weight problems later. 

At meal times

  • Turn off the TV, put toys away and pets outside so children can focus on eating.
  • Eat together as a family so your toddler can enjoy family time and see others enjoying a range of foods.
  • Give your toddler small amounts of a new food at first.
  • Be patient. If your toddler refuses food, try not to react. They can learn it's an easy 'button' to push! Take the food away without comment.

There is much more information in the topic 'Feeding toddlers - 10 tips for happy meal times'

Never force a child to eat. It can cause choking or make them dislike that food. It could also start a power struggle about food with your child.

What should toddlers eat and how much?

It is important to offer your toddler a range of foods, choose foods from the five food groups as below. The number of serves will give you an idea of how much your child should eat. This is a guide only, remember, appetites vary from child to child and from day to day!

  • Grain (cereal) foods: At least four serves per day e.g. 1 slice bread, ½ cup cooked rice or pasta, 2 breakfast biscuits and 1 small crumpet or English muffin, 3 large plain cracker biscuits, 2 breakfast biscuits e.g. Weetbix, 2/3 cup breakfast cereal flakes or ¼ cup muesli, ½ cup cooked porridge, ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, noodles or quinoa.
  • Vegetables and legumes (beans): At least two and a half serves per day e.g. 1 cup salad and ½ cup cooked green or orange vegetables, ½ medium potato or other starchy vegetable, (e.g. sweet potato), ½ cup cooked dried or canned beans, peas or lentils (e.g. baked beans), 1 medium tomato, ½ cup sweetcorn
  • Fruit: At least one serve per day e.g. 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear, 1 slice melon or 2 small fruits (e.g. kiwi, apricots, plums), 1 cup diced or canned fruit (no added sugar)
    Or only occasionally: ½ (125ml) cup fruit juice (no added sugar), 30g dried fruit (e.g. 4 dried apricot halves, 1 ½ tablespoons sultanas), .
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives: At least one and a half serves per day e.g. 1 cup (250ml) milk or a breastfeed, 1 cup (250ml) calcium fortified soy milk, ¾ cup (200g) yoghurt, ¾ cup (200g) custard,  2 slices of cheese (40g) or ½ cup grated or ricotta cheese
  • Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes/beans, nuts and seeds: At least one serve per day e.g. 2 thin slices of cooked lean meat, chicken or turkey, ½ cup cooked stew, casserole or mince, 2 thin slices of ham or beef, 2 eggs, 1 cup cooked dried or canned beans, peas or lentils (e.g. baked beans), 2 fish fingers or 1 sausage (occasionally only), 1 small cooked fish fillet (100g) or 1 small can of fish (e.g. tuna), 1½ tablespoons nut or seed paste (e.g. peanut, almond or tahini).

For more information have a look at the topic 'Feeding toddlers – what and how much'.
There is information there about

  • Types of foods and size of a serve
  • Easy meals and snacks

Don't worry if your child doesn't eat all of these every day. Children's appetites vary each day depending on how active they are, or if they are tired or unwell. 

  • Toddlers have small stomachs – about the size of their fist.
  • They need to eat small amounts often, eg. 3 small meals and 2–3 snacks each day.
  • Offer small serves and remove uneaten food without comment.

Foods such as biscuits, chips, cordial and soft drinks should only be offered occasionally, eg. at parties. Don't be tempted to buy the 'junk food' children see on TV ads. Have plenty of healthy options in the house.

It's best not to have 'junk foods' in the house. If children can't see them, they are less likely to ask for them.

Drinks

The only drinks toddlers need for good health are water (tap water is best) and milk (a maximum of 500ml per day).

Breastmilk

As long as you and your toddler are enjoying breastfeeding, don't be in a rush to give
it up. Most toddlers can manage three small meals as well as snacks and breastfeeds.

A toddler should not need to be breastfed overnight. If you toddler is not interested
in eating food it may be because he is filling up on too much breastmilk. This can lead to him missing out on important nutrients. If needed you can cut back on the number of breastfeeds. Start by skipping the feed your toddler seems least interested in.

If you would like further information about breastfeeding speak to your child and family health nurse, doctor or visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association website: www.breastfeeding.asn.au 

Milk

Plain cow's milk can be offered as a drink from one year of age. Toddler milk (also known as toddler formula) is usually not needed. A toddler who is eating from all the food groups does not need to drink toddler milk.

Toddlers less than two years of age should have full cream milk. After two years of age children can drink reduced fat milks with the rest of the family. Your toddler should not need milk overnight.

Soy milk can be used instead of cow's milk if preferred. Choose soy milk that has added calcium (at least 100mg calcium per 100g). Rice milk is very low in protein and should not take the place of cow's milk, soy milk or breast milk.

It is best to offer milk in a cup. Limit milk to 500mls per day. Too much milk can fill toddlers up and make them less hungry for food. This can make meal times difficult. It can also mean that toddlers miss out on important nutrients.

Water

Tap water is healthy, freely available and helps protect against tooth decay. Most children enjoy water if they get into the habit of drinking it from a young age. Start by setting a good example yourself and always have water available for the whole family.

Fruit juice, cordial and other drinks

Fruit juice, cordial and sweetened drinks (e.g. soft drink) are not needed. Only offer them on special occasions and resist having them in the house.

Drinking too much juice can give toddlers runny, loose poos (toddler diarrhoea). It can also cause tooth decay and excess weight gain. If you choose to give your toddler juice, dilute one part juice to three parts water. Don't give your toddler more than one small glass (125ml) of diluted juice each day with a meal. If you are giving your toddler juice, always offer it in a cup, not a bottle.

Tea and coffee should not be given to children. They are low in nutrition and high in caffeine. Caffeine can make it difficult for the body to absorb iron and may cause sleeping problems.

When should I start using a cup instead of a bottle?

Children who drink from a bottle for too long have a higher chance of tooth decay and ear infections. It may also reduce their appetite for foods. This can lead to poor nutrition (such as low iron).

Drinking from a cup is an important skill for babies and toddlers to learn. Babies can start practising drinking from a cup from around six months of age. Offer small amounts of tap water in a cup.

When your child starts drinking normal cow's milk at 12 months of age, use a cup. A bottle is not needed.

What about iron?

Iron is needed to carry oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency anaemia (low iron) is common in children. It can cause tiredness, irritability and loss of appetite. If toddlers drink too much milk they may eat less food, including iron rich foods. Therefore, too much milk may cause low iron levels.

  • The best sources of iron are: beef, lamb, liver, pork, chicken, turkey and fish.
  • Other sources of iron are: iron fortified cereals (e.g. baby rice cereal, Weetbix), wholegrain breads and cereals, legumes (e.g. baked beans, lentils), eggs, green leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli, spinach), peanut butter and other nut/seed pastes (e.g. tahini).

Iron from eggs and plant foods is better absorbed if eaten with meat (e.g. grated zucchini with minced meat). Vitamin C can also help the body absorb more iron.

Some good sources of vitamin C are: oranges, strawberries, tomato, broccoli and capsicum.

Iron rich meal and snack ideas:

  • Peanut butter on wholemeal bread.
  • Baked beans in tomato sauce on wholemeal toast.
  • Ham/tuna/egg sandwich with wholemeal bread.
  • Spaghetti Bolognese.
  • Lentil and vegetable soup.
  • Shepherds pie.
  • Beef, chicken or lentil patty with wholemeal bread.

Use the food groups in the topic Feeding toddlers – what and how much as a guide to make sure your toddler is getting enough iron in her food. If you are worried that your child is low in iron, contact your child and family health nurse or doctor.

What if my toddler is vegetarian?

People who are vegetarian may avoid meat, chicken, fish, eggs and/or milk. These foods provide important nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and calcium.

When following a vegetarian diet it is important that your toddler eats other foods that will provide these nutrients. ,

For much more information about vegetarian diets have a look at the fact sheet A guide to vegetarian diets in children produced by dietitians at the Women's and Children's Health Network in South Australia.

What about calcium?

Calcium is needed for strong, healthy bones and teeth. Toddler's bones are growing all the time. They need a lot of calcium. The best sources of calcium are cow's milk, yoghurt, custard, cheese and soy milk with added calcium.

Your toddler will be getting enough calcium if they have 11⁄2 serves from the 'milk, yoghurt, cheese' group per day.

Food allergies

Food allergies have become more common in recent years. Allergies tend to run in families.

Symptoms of food allergy include:

  • local reactions – e.g. a red rash around the mouth where the food has touched the skin
  • general reactions – skin rashes on other parts of the body, hives, swelling, vomiting, wheezing or other breathing problems. In rare cases, collapse.

Note: If there are severe symptoms including breathing difficulties or collapse call 000 for an ambulance.

If you think your toddler has a food allergy stop giving the food you think is causing the reaction. See your doctor to help you find the cause and work out a plan. A referral to a specialist might be needed.

What if there is a family history of food allergies?

If there is a family history of allergies

  • do not delay starting solid food after six months
  • do not avoid foods that often cause allergies.

This area is being researched and recommendations are changing as we learn more about allergies.

Have a look at the topic Reactions to foods for more detailed information.

Iodine

Iodine is a mineral needed by the body in small amounts. The thyroid, a small butterfly shaped gland in the neck, needs iodine to produce hormones. These hormones have an important role in regulating our metabolism. Thyroid hormones also help regulate physical and mental development especially in children and babies, including babies before they are born.

Related topic on our Pregnancy website

Eating well in pregnancy (includes information about iodine)
http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=438&np=460&id=2769

More information

Better Health Channel
 http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/ 

Safe eating - hygiene

Food should always be prepared in a clean kitchen. Always wash your hands well and use clean equipment to prepare, serve and store food.

  • Foods like meat, chicken, fish and eggs should be well cooked.
  • Fruit and vegetables should be washed or peeled before use.
  • Dairy foods should always be pasteurised (i.e. not 'fresh' from the farm).
  • Always use products before their 'use by' date.

If using pre-packaged food, canned food or food defrosted from the freezer, take only
as much as you are going to use at that time. Store any extra in a clean, covered container in the fridge. Use it by the end of the next day.

If food has been offered but not eaten, it is important to handle and store it correctly to avoid food poisoning. These guidelines will help you decide what to do with uneaten food.

Do not keep food out in high temperatures. If food has been kept out at room temperature for:

  • 2 hours or less – eat it straight away or put it in the fridge
  • more than 2 hours (but less than 4 hours) – eat it straight away (do not put it in the fridge)
  • more than 4 hours – throw it away.

Preventing choking

Children of any age can choke on food, but children under four years are most at risk because they:

  • Do not have the back teeth to chew and grind food.
  • Are still learning to eat, chew and swallow.

Gagging is different to choking. Gagging is a normal part of learning to eat chewable foods. It is a normal response and children recover quickly. Children should gag less as their chewing skills develop.

There is more information in the topic 'Choking on food and other objects'

How to make eating safer:

  • Do not give food or drink to children when they are running, playing, laughing or crying.
  • Always sit children down to eat.
  • Stay close and watch children while they eat.
  • Never force children to eat.
  • Encourage children to eat slowly and chew well.
  • Encourage children to feed themselves.

How to make food safer to eat

Type of food

Examples

How to modify to make food safer

Foods with skins

Sausages, hotdogs, frankfurts.

Remove skins, cut lengthwise and cut into small pieces.

Round foods

Grapes and cherry tomatoes.

Cut in half.

Foods with seeds, pips and stones

Cherries, stone fruit, olives.

Remove seeds, pips and stones and cut into small pieces.

Foods containing small bones

Fish, chicken.

Remove bones and cut into small pieces.

Foods that are hard, crunchy
or stringy

Hard fruit and vegetables such as raw apple, carrot and celery.

Corn chips, popcorn, nuts and hard or sticky lollies.

Very hard crackers that don't dissolve or break up easily.

Grate, very finely slice, cook or mash.


Don't serve these.

Don't serve these.

Foods that are tough and chewy

Meat with gristle and bone. Tough meat.

Remove fat, gristle and bone. Cut into small pieces.

Mince, shred or slow cook.


Caring for teeth

Tooth decay is common in toddlers who suck on or fall asleep with bottles of milk, cordial or juice.

  • Wean your toddler from the bottle if she is still using one.
  • Encourage your toddler to drink from a cup.
  • Give your child tap water to drink. Tap water contains fluoride, which helps to protect teeth from decay.

Too many sweets, lollies and sticky dried fruit (sultanas, fruit straps) can also cause tooth decay. Offer these foods only sometimes and in small amounts.

Cleaning teeth

As soon as teeth appear, clean them with a soft cloth or a small soft brush. Your toddler will soon want to brush his own teeth, but will need your help until he is about eight years old.

  • From birth to 18 months of age there is no need for toothpaste.
  • From 18 months you can start to use a small amount of low fluoride or children's toothpaste. Teach your toddler to spit this out rather than swallow it. There is no need to rinse.
  • From six years of age normal adult toothpaste can be used.

For more information on caring for your toddler's teeth have a look at the topic 'Teeth - dental care for children'

Keep active

Toddlers should be active every day. Keep play simple and fun. Try to get everyone involved. Avoid games with lots of rules and don't focus on winning or losing.

Toddlers learn about play and exercise by watching you. You can let them lead the play and encourage their efforts. Show them that you enjoy playing with them.

Some easy ideas for being active:

  • Take your toddler to the local playground, gardens, park or zoo.
  • Take your toddler for a walk or bike ride.
  • Keep a balloon in the air by continually tapping it up.
  • Teach your toddler to swim.
  • Stand in a circle, kick a soft ball to one another and gradually get further apart.
  • Create an obstacle course, inside or outside and hurry through it.
  • Contact your local council for details of playgroups or kindergyms near you.
  • Limit time spent watching TV or the computer screen. Have a look at the topic 'Television' for information about how much screen time is best for toddlers.
  • Contact Playgroup SA for your nearest group.

Always watch toddlers while they are playing and join in yourself!

Healthy weight

Overweight and obesity are becoming more common in children, including toddlers. This can cause problems with health and self-esteem. Many parents don't realise when their child is overweight.

It's important to have your child's growth checked. The earlier problems are found, the more easily they can be addressed.

To help reduce the risk of your toddler being overweight:

  • follow the healthy eating tips in this booklet
  • make activity an everyday part of your life.

If you are worried about your toddler's weight talk to your doctor, dietitian or child and family health nurse. There is more in the topic Weight problems in childhood.

Want more information?

Resources

Booklets

Source of content

The content of this topic comes from a booklet produced by specialist Dietitians at the Women's and Children's Health Network (WCHN), SA Health. 'Tucker for toddlers'

Information in this booklet should not be used as an alternative to professional advice.

Food product information contained in this booklet was up to date at the time of revision. If you are not sure about a food, check with the manufacturer.

Women's and Children's Health Network Nutrition Department
72 King William Road North Adelaide SA 5006
Phone (08) 8161 7233

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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