12.5 – Nutrition in the Toddler Years

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize nutritional requirements and dietary recommendations for toddlers.
  • Explore the introduction of solid foods into a toddler’s diet.
  • Examine the feeding problems that parents and caregivers may face with their toddlers.


By the age of two, children have advanced from infancy and are on their way to becoming school-aged children. Their physical growth and motor development slow compared to the progress they made as infants. However, toddlers experience enormous intellectual, emotional, and social changes. Of course, food and nutrition continue to play an important role in a child’s development. During this stage, the diet completely shifts from breastfeeding or bottle-feeding to solid foods along with healthy juices and other liquids. Parents of toddlers also need to be mindful of certain nutrition-related issues that may crop up during this stage of the human life cycle. For example, fluid requirements relative to body size are higher in toddlers than in adults because children are at greater risk of dehydration. Toddlers should drink about 1.3 liters of fluids per day, ideally liquids that are low in sugar.


The Toddler Years (Ages Two to Three)

Subic Trip: Image of toddler with big smile.

Figure 12.5.1. Image of a toddler. “Subic Trip” by berniej is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

During this phase of human development, children are mobile and grow more slowly than infants, but are much more active. The toddler years pose interesting challenges for parents or other caregivers, as children learn how to eat on their own and begin to develop personal preferences. However, with the proper diet and guidance, toddlers can continue to grow and develop at a healthy rate.


Nutritional Requirements

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 includes an excellent chapter(Ch. 2) on infant and toddler feeding.  According to the Guidelines, “In the United States, some dietary components are of public health concern for infants and toddlers…During the second year of life, the dietary components of public health concern for underconsumption are vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber, and potassium and for overconsumption are added sugars and sodium.

A toddler’s serving sizes should be approximately one-half that of an adult’s. One way to estimate serving sizes for young children is one tablespoon for each year of life. For example, a two-year-old child would be served 2 tablespoons of fruits or vegetables at a meal, while a four-year-old would be given 4 tablespoons or a quarter cup. As serving sizes are so small, it is important to “make every bite count”.

Here is an example of a toddler-sized meal:

  • 1 ounce of meat or chicken, or 2 to 3 tablespoons of beans
  • One-half slice of whole-grain bread
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of cooked vegetable
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of fruit
6 examples of grains.
Grains: 6 servings per day. 4 tablespoons of cooked oatmeal. Half slice of whole grain bread. Quarter cup dried cereal. 4 tablespoons whole wheat pasta. 2 crackers. 4 tablespoons of brown rice.

The following visuals are from Mom to Mom Nutrition by Katie Serbinski, MS, RD.  Visit her website for more information on toddler nutrition and menu ideas. Figure 12.5.2. Serving sizes of typical grains. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission. 

4 servings of fruit
Fruit: 2 to 3 servings per day. Half cup of juice. Half of a banana. Strawberries. Quarter cup of fresh of canned fruit.

Figure 12.5.3. Serving sizes of typical fruits. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission.

Veggies: 2 to 3 servings per day. 1 tablespoon per year of age. Peas and carrots shown.
Veggies: 2 to 3 servings per day. 1 tablespoon per year of age.

Figure 12.5.4. Serving sizes for vegetables by age. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission.

Protein: 2 servings per day.
2 tablespoons of ground meat (turkey). Half a hard boiled egg. 1 tablespoon of peanut butter. Two 1-inch cubes of chicken breast. Half cup of beans.

Figure 12.5.5. Serving sizes of typical proteins. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission.

Dairy: 2-3 servings per day.
Half cup cottage cheese. Half cup of milk. Half cup of vanilla greek yogurt. Quarter cup of shredded cheese. 1 inch cube of cheddar cheese. 1 slice of cheese.

Figure 12.5.6. Serving sizes of dairy products. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission.

Learn what and how much your toddler should be eating with actual pictures of toddler serving sizes.
Half an orange. Quarter cup of veggies. 4 tablespoons brown rice. 2 tablespoons of ground beef. Quarter cup of fruit. 2 to 4 crackers. Half tablespoon of hummus.

Figure 12.5.7.  Two examples of meals for toddlers. https://momtomomnutrition.com/nutrition/toddler-serving-sizes/Used with permission.



The energy requirements for ages two to three are about 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day. In general, a toddler needs to consume about 40 calories for every inch of height. For example, a young child who measures 32 inches should take in an average of 1,300 calories a day. However, the recommended caloric intake varies with each child’s level of activity. Toddlers require small, frequent, nutritious snacks and meals to satisfy energy requirements. The amount of food a toddler needs from each food group depends on daily calorie needs (Table 13.5.1 ).

Table 12.5.1: Serving Sizes for Toddlers

A table showing the daily toddler serving sizes of the major food groups
Food Group Daily Serving Examples
Grains About 3 ounces of grains per day, ideally whole grains
  • 3 slices of bread
  • 1 slice of bread, plus ⅓ cup of cereal, and ¼ cup of cooked whole-grain rice or pasta
Proteins 2 ounces of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or legumes
  • 1 ounce of lean meat or chicken, plus one egg
  • 1 ounce of fish, plus ¼ cup of cooked beans
Fruits 1 cup of fresh, frozen, canned, and/or dried fruits, or 100 percent fruit juice
  • 1 small apple cut into slices
  • 1 cup of sliced or cubed fruit
  • 1 large banana
Vegetables 1 cup of raw and/or cooked vegetables
  • 1 cup of pureed, mashed, or finely chopped vegetables (such as mashed potatoes, chopped broccoli, or tomato sauce)
Dairy Products 2 cups per day
  • 2 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
  • 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk, plus 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 cup of fat-free or low-fat milk, plus 1 cup of yogurt

Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/what-and-how-much-should-my-preschooler-be-eating. Accessed June 7, 2019


For carbohydrate intake, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) is 45 to 65 percent of daily calories (113 to 163 grams for 1,000 daily calories). Toddlers’ needs increase to support their body and brain development. Brightly-colored unrefined carbohydrates, such as peas, orange slices, tomatoes, and bananas are not only nutrient-dense, they also make a plate look more appetizing and appealing to a young child. The RDA for protein is 5 to 20 percent of daily calories (13 to 50 grams for 1,000 daily calories). The AMDR for fat for toddlers is 30 to 40 percent of daily calories (33 to 44 grams for 1,000 daily calories). Essential fatty acids are vital for the development of the eyes, along with nerve and other types of tissue. However, toddlers should not consume foods with high amounts of trans fats and saturated fats. Instead, young children require the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of healthy oils, such as canola oil, each day.



As a child grows bigger, the demands for micronutrients increase. These needs for vitamins and minerals can be met with a balanced diet, with a few exceptions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers and children of all ages need 600 international units of vitamin D per day. Vitamin D-fortified milk and cereals can help to meet this need. However, toddlers who do not get enough of this micronutrient should receive a supplement. Pediatricians may also prescribe a fluoride supplement for toddlers who live in areas with fluoride-poor water. Iron deficiency is also a major concern for children between the ages of two and three. You will learn about iron deficiency anemia later in this section.


Learning How to Handle Food


Figure 12.5.8. I love to eat! Image of a toddler after eating. “I LOVE TO EAT!!” by Ben McLeod is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

As children grow older, they enjoy taking care of themselves, which includes self-feeding. During this phase, it is important to offer children foods that they can handle on their own and that help them avoid choking and other hazards. Examples include fresh fruits that have been sliced into pieces, orange or grapefruit sections, peas or potatoes that have been mashed for safety, a cup of yogurt, and whole-grain bread or bagels cut into pieces. Even with careful preparation and training, the learning process can be messy. As a result, parents and other caregivers can help children learn how to feed themselves by providing the following:

  • small utensils that fit a young child’s hand
  • small cups that will not tip over easily
  • plates with edges to prevent food from falling off
  • small servings on a plate
  • high chairs, booster seats, or cushions to reach a table


Feeding Problems in the Toddler Years

During the toddler years, parents may face a number of problems related to food and nutrition. Possible obstacles include difficulty helping a young child overcome a fear of new foods, or fights over messy habits at the dinner table. Even in the face of problems and confrontations, parents and other caregivers must make sure their preschooler has nutritious choices at every meal. For example, even if a child stubbornly resists eating vegetables, parents should continue to provide them. Before long, the child may change their mind, and develop a taste for foods once abhorred. It is important to remember this is the time to establish or reinforce healthy habits.

Ellyn Satter states that feeding is a responsibility that is split between parent and child. According to Satter, parents are responsible for what their infants eat, while infants are responsible for how much they eat. In the toddler years and beyond, parents are responsible for what children eat, when they eat, and where they eat, while children are responsible for how much food they eat and whether they eat.

Satter states that the role of a parent or a caregiver in feeding includes the following:

• selecting and preparing food

• providing regular meals and snacks

• making mealtimes pleasant

• showing children what they must learn about mealtime behavior

• avoiding letting children eat in between meal- or snack-times

Ellyn Satter Associates. “Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” © 2019 by Ellyn Satter. published at EllynSatterInstitute.org.


High-Risk Choking Foods

Certain foods are difficult for toddlers to manage and pose a high risk of choking. Big chunks of food should not be given to children under the age of four. Also, globs of peanut butter can stick to a younger child’s palate and choke them. Popcorn and nuts should be avoided as well because toddlers are not able to grind food and reduce it to a consistency that is safe for swallowing. Certain raw vegetables, such as baby carrots, whole cherry tomatoes, whole green beans, and celery are also serious choking hazards. However, there is no reason that a toddler cannot enjoy well-cooked vegetables cut into bite-size pieces.


Picky Eaters

The parents of toddlers are likely to notice a sharp drop in their child’s appetite. Children at this stage are often picky about what they want to eat. They may turn their heads away after eating just a few bites. Or, they may resist coming to the table at mealtimes. They also can be unpredictable about what they want to consume for specific meals or at particular times of the day. Although it may seem as if toddlers should increase their food intake to match their level of activity, there is a good reason for picky eating. A child’s growth rate slows after infancy, and toddlers ages two and three do not require as much food.


Food Jags

For weeks, toddlers may go on a food jag and eat one or two preferred foods—and nothing else. It is important to understand that preferences will be inconsistent as a toddler develops eating habits. This is one way that young children can assert their individuality and independence. However, parents and caregivers should be concerned if the same food jag persists for several months, instead of several weeks. Options for addressing this problem include rotating acceptable foods while continuing to offer diverse foods, remaining low-key to avoid exacerbating the problem and discussing the issue with a pediatrician. Also, children should not be forced to eat foods that they do not want. It is important to remember that food jags do not have a long-term effect on a toddler’s health, and are usually temporary situations that will resolve themselves.


Toddler Obesity

Another potential problem during the early childhood years is toddler obesity. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, in the past thirty years, obesity rates have more than doubled for all children, including infants and toddlers.  NCHS Data Brief reported that almost 14 percent of two to five-year-olds were obese in key findings from the NHANES survey 2015-2016.1Obesity during early childhood tends to linger as a child matures and cause health problems later in life.

There are a number of reasons for this growing problem. One is a lack of time. Parents and other caregivers who are constantly on the go may find it difficult to fit home-cooked meals into a busy schedule and may turn to fast food and other conveniences that are quick and easy, but not nutritionally sound. Another contributing factor is the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a problem particularly in low-income neighborhoods where local stores and markets may not stock fresh produce or may have limited options. Physical inactivity is also a factor, as toddlers who live a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to be overweight or obese. Another contributor is the lack of breastfeeding support. Children who were breastfed as infants show lower rates of obesity than children who were bottle-fed. Problems of time, access, and income are difficult to tackle as an individual.  However, there are strategies to prevent or address toddler obesity that parents and caregivers can do:

  • Eat at the kitchen table instead of in front of a television or mobile device to help children focus on what and how much they are interested in eating. It is easier to overeat when distracted while eating.
  • The size of a toddler’s fist is an appropriate serving size.  Serving large portions can encourage eating more than needed.
  • Plan time for physical activity, about sixty minutes or more per day. Toddlers should have no more than sixty minutes of sedentary activity, such as watching television, per day.

1CDC National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data brief 


Early Childhood Caries

Early childhood caries remains a potential problem during the toddler years. The risk of early childhood caries continues as children begin to consume more foods with high sugar content. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, children between the ages of two and five consume about 200 calories of added sugar per day. More of the added sugars were consumed at home versus away from home.2 Therefore, parents with toddlers should avoid sugar-sweetened cereals, snack foods, and beverages. Parents also need to instruct a child on brushing their teeth at this time to help a toddler develop healthy habits and avoid tooth decay.

More information can be found in the previous chapter, Chapter 12.4.

2 Ervin, RB et al. Consumption of Added Sugar Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2005–2008. NCHS Data Brief 87, 2012. Accessed June 30, 2019. 


Iron-Deficiency Anemia

An infant who switches to solid foods, but does not eat enough iron-rich foods, can develop iron-deficiency anemia. This condition occurs when an iron-deprived body cannot produce enough hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. The inadequate supply of hemoglobin for new blood cells results in anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia causes a number of problems including weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and irritability. It can also result in intellectual, behavioral, or motor problems. In toddlers, iron-deficiency anemia can occur if their food choices do not provide enough of this nutrient. As a result, their iron stores become diminished at a time when this nutrient is critical for brain growth and development.

There are steps that parents and caregivers can take to prevent iron-deficiency anemia, such as adding more iron-rich foods to a child’s diet, including lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, and iron-enriched whole-grain bread and cereals. Including foods rich in Vitamin C will increase iron absorption. A toddler’s diet should provide 7 to 10 milligrams of iron daily. Although milk is critical for the bone-building calcium that it provides, intake should not exceed the RDA to avoid displacing foods rich with iron. You can find many more suggestions on the Better Health channel.


Toddler Diarrhea

As with adults, a variety of conditions or circumstances may give the toddler diarrhea. Possible causes include bacterial or viral infections, food allergies, or lactose intolerance, among other medical conditions. Excessive fruit juice consumption (more than one 6-ounce cup per day) can also lead to diarrhea. Diarrhea presents a special concern in young children because their small size makes them more vulnerable to dehydration. Parents should contact a pediatrician if a toddler has had diarrhea for more than twenty-four hours, if a child is also vomiting, or if they exhibit signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or tongue, or sunken eyes, cheeks, or abdomen. Preventing or treating dehydration in toddlers includes the replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes (sodium and potassium). Oral rehydration therapy, or giving special fluids by mouth, is the most effective measure.


Developing Habits

Eating habits develop early in life. They are typically formed within the first few years and it is believed that they persist for years, if not for life. So it is important for parents and other caregivers to help children establish healthy habits and avoid problematic ones. Children begin expressing their preferences at an early age. Parents must find a balance between providing a child with an opportunity for self-expression, helping a child develop healthy habits, and making sure that a child meets all of their nutritional needs. Following Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding (see above) can help a child eat the right amount of food, learn mealtime behavior, and grow at a healthy and predictable rate.

Bad habits and poor nutrition have an accrual effect. The foods you consume in your younger years will impact your health as you age, from childhood into the later stages of life. As a result, good nutrition today means optimal health tomorrow. In the next chapter, you will learn about how nutritional needs change from the later childhood years, through adolescence and adulthood, and into old age. The choices that you make at every age accumulate over time and greatly impact your health into the golden years.


Key Takeaways

  • By the toddler years, young children are able to self-feed and begin to develop eating habits and preferences.
  • The energy requirements for ages two to three are about 1,000 to 1,400 calories per day.
  • In general, a toddler needs to consume about 40 calories for every inch of height.
  • Growth slows during the toddler years, but children are more active at this stage and undergo a great deal of intellectual, emotional, and social development.
  • Some food- and nutrition-related problems that can occur during the toddler years include choking, picky eating, food jags, early childhood caries, iron-deficiency anemia, and toddler diarrhea.


Discussion Starter

How do the nutritional needs of a child change from infancy into the toddler years? Discuss the changing needs for energy, macronutrients, and micronutrients as young children mature.


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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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