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Your Toddler's Nutritional Needs

By: Catherine Gough - Updated: 1 Aug 2013 | comments*Discuss
Toddlers Healthy Diet Growing Children

Young children need to eat well for energy and growth. Many toddlers are fussy eaters but vital nutrients are found in a wide variety of foods – so it should always be possible to provide a healthy, balanced diet.


Toddlers need about 1000 calories a day (the daily intake for adult women is 2000 and 2500 for men) from across all the major food groups:
  • meat, fish, poultry and eggs – 2 portions daily
  • bread, cereals, rice, potatoes and pasta – 5 portions daily
  • fruit and vegetables – 5 portions daily
  • dairy produce and other calcium-rich foods – 4 portions daily
Portion sizes: toddlers vary in the amount they eat – anything from a quarter to half an adult portion size. They may prefer to eat little and often rather than have three larger meals a day.


Carbohydrates are found in starchy foods like bread, cereals, rice, potatoes and pasta. They provide children with much of the energy they need every day.


Fats play a vital role in providing energy, carrying vitamins around the body and helping build cell membranes. Toddlers need more fat than adults – up to a third of their total food intake – so a low-fat diet is not appropriate.

Some of this can come from saturated fat, found in foods like cheese, whole milk, yoghurt and fatty meat. However, many toddlers eat too much saturated fat, which can cause obesity and lead to heart disease in later life. The main culprits are junk and fried foods and snacks like crisps, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and pastries. Fruit, raw vegetables, toast, crackers and cereals make much healthier snacks.

Good sources of unsaturated fats – which should make up the majority of fat intake – are oily fish; olive, vegetable and nut oils and spreads; avocadoes, nuts and seeds. Remember that toddlers can choke on whole nuts and they may also cause allergic reactions in some children, check out the information on allergies at our sister site www.kidsallergies.co.uk.

A note about oily fish: due to high levels of dioxins in oily fish, the government advises that boys eat no more than four portions a week and girls no more than two (to protect their reproductive health).


Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth. Milk is the most important source, which should be full fat up to the age of two. A pint a day is about right. Calcium is also found in dairy products; tinned fish like sardines, pilchards and salmon; tofu; eggs; bread (fortified with calcium by law); green leafy vegetables; okra; dried fruit like raisins, apricots and figs; pulses; seeds and nuts.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium. The most obvious source is sunlight; food sources include oily fish, eggs and spreads.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is essential for healthy skin, boosts the immune system and helps the body to absorb iron. It’s found in citrus fruits, berries, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin C can be destroyed in cooking, so serve vegetables raw or cook only lightly. It also diminishes over time – frozen vegetables are better than fresh ones that have been sitting around for days.


Without iron, the body can’t make haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. Red meat is a good source and so is liver (no more than once a week because too much vitamin A can be harmful). Good non-meat sources include green vegetables; dried fruit; beans, lentils and chickpeas; fortified breakfast cereals; and follow-on formula milk. Don’t be tempted to give iron supplements, because too much iron can be dangerous. If parents are concerned that a child might be anaemic (lacking in iron), they should always seek medical help.

Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, so aim for a good balance of each on the plate, serve a piece of fruit after meals, or offer a glass of orange juice alongside.

Sugar and Salt

Sugary snacks and drinks can spoil children’s appetites and are bad for their teeth. Too much sugar also contributes to obesity and can lead to diabetes later in life. It’s best to keep these for treats.

Too much salt (sodium) is bad for the kidneys and can cause high blood pressure later in life, so keep snacks like crisps to a minimum and don’t add any more salt at the table or in cooking. Processed foods may also contain a lot of salt.

Vitamin Supplements

Unless a child is really missing out on essential nutrients (which won’t happen if they’re getting a balanced diet), vitamin supplements are unnecessary.

Vegetarians and Vegans

A balanced vegetarian diet should provide toddlers with all the nutrients they need. However, experts do not recommend a strict vegan diet at this age.

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What exactly constitutes a "portion" of meat, fish, poultry and eggs; bread, cereals, rice, potatoes and pasta; fruit and vegetables; and dairy produce?
littleacceb - 16-Aug-12 @ 5:49 PM
Thank you for the clear presentation of this very accurate information. Dislike the ad in the centre but overall it's very informative and cheers :) As to the 'Vegan toddlers' don't bother doing it. I'd also advise not to push the parents' vegetarian choice on a toddler either. The toddler has not yet developed and needs to learn to like various foods. Not trying foods early 'First Tastes' might falter the development of the toddler if not followed and each item substituted correctly.
CollegeStudent - 8-Apr-11 @ 12:12 PM
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