Good food choices for toddlers

Toddler | | Helen Farnsworth

Good nutrition in early childhood is linked to better long-term health, so a varied diet containing the right nutrients and energy is what your toddler needs.

Here are a few special ‘watch outs’ that are important to remember to ensure your little one is getting enough of what they do need and not too much of what they don’t:

• Don’t overfeed them on milk – From one year of age, children don’t need as much milk anymore (if you are breastfeeding, carry on feeding on demand, but otherwise aim for about 400ml whole cows’ milk or formula per day, less if other dairy foods are included in their diet). Giving them too much milk can be linked to poorer dietary habits and can stop them from eating enough other foods at mealtimes.

• Feed regularly – aim for 3 meals spread throughout the day and 1-2 healthy snacks. Toddlers love routines!

• Watch portion sizes – these will vary depending on your child’s age and appetite. Let them guide you on how much they want to eat.

• Keep experimenting with new tastes and textures – offer as much variety of different foods as possible.

• Salt – Make sure that the foods you are offering are not too high in salt. Toddlers need a small amount of salt, about a third of the amount recommended for adults, which means 1–3-year-olds shouldn’t have more than 2g salt (0.8g sodium) per day. This can be quite hard to achieve as salt is present naturally in a lot of foods, including fruit and vegetables and dairy products, and is added to a lot of other everyday foods, like breads, breakfast cereals, pasta sauces, houmous, soups and biscuits.

To help you achieve this target, there are a few things to consider: 

• If you are cooking your own meals for your toddler, don’t add salt. Flavour with herbs/spices instead, and avoid using ingredients that are very high in salt such as stock cubes, processed meats such as ham and sausages, and large amounts of cheese.

• If you are feeding your toddler shop-bought foods, check the nutritional information on the food packaging – compare different packs and look for the lowest levels of salt per 100g.

• Foods specifically designed for toddlers have to meet strict nutritional guidelines and therefore do not contain high levels of salt. These are a much better choice than standard ready meals that tend to be too high in salt for children.

• As an example of how easy it is to reach a toddler’s maximum daily salt intake recommendation, if you feed your toddler 1 boiled egg (= 0.2g salt), 1 medium slice of 50:50 bread spread with salted butter (= 0.5g salt), 20g cheddar cheese (=0.36g), a HiPP tray meal for 15m+ (= 0.2g salt), two breadsticks with 25g houmous (= 0.45g salt), and 300ml whole cows’ milk (0.3g), you will have reached your child’s daily limit for salt (and this doesn’t include all the salt naurally present in fruits, vegetables and other foods you are likely to be offering).

• Another ‘watch out’ is free sugars. These are found in foods such as biscuits, cakes, sweets, desserts, fruit juices, smoothies, etc. and if consumed in large amounts, can lead to problems such as tooth decay and obesity, so make sure you only give your little one foods and drinks with free sugars as an occasional treat.

• High fibre, low fat diets may be healthy for adults, but they’re not suitable for toddlers. You can gradually increase the amount of dietary fibre you offer throughout toddlerhood, but high fibre foods can be too bulky for their small tummy (a toddler’s tummy is only a third of the size of an adult’s!) and limit the amount of food they can eat. With dairy foods, make sure you choose the full fat versions rather than ‘light’, ‘semi-skimmed’ or ‘low fat’, as your little one needs the extra dairy fat as an energy source.

For more information on how to feed your toddler, click here.