Giving your toddler a balanced diet
Your toddler is growing and developing at an incredible rate, so he needs the right combination of calories and nutrients to help keep him going. There's plenty you can do to encourage him to eat a balanced diet, even if he seems to be a fussy eater.
What is a balanced diet and why is it so important?
A balanced diet should contain lots of different foods, offered in a variety of combinations. This will ensure that your toddler gets everything he needs to grow, develop and explore. It also helps him to learn about new flavours, and develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
However, providing a balanced diet for a toddler every day can be quite a challenge. So try not to worry if you don't always achieve it. As long as your toddler eats well most of the time, he will be getting plenty of nutrients.
What foods does my toddler need for a balanced diet?
Don’t feel that you have to stick to a certain food to provide your toddler with a specific nutrient. For example, meat will give your toddler protein, but he can also get protein from chickpeas, baked beans and peanut butter.
You can also give your toddler what he needs by choosing recipes with nutrient-rich foods. If he turns his nose up at a boiled egg and a glass of milk, try giving him a homemade pancake instead. Same nutrients, different food!
Offer both a sweet and savoury course at lunch and dinner, so he gets even more chances to eat different foods. Being creative and offering variety with his meals will help to make eating more exciting for him.
To help your toddler eat well, try to give him something from each of the following food groups every day:
Starchy foods (carbohydrates)
Offer starchy foods with each meal and for some snacks. Starchy foods include:
- potatoes and sweet potatoes
Foods made from flour, such as crackers and bread, are also starchy foods. Offer a combination of both white and wholegrain foods, or choose half-and-half varieties. Your toddler may like white bread but only eat wholemeal toast. Or he may tuck into wholegrain cereals, such as porridge, but only eat white pasta. Experiment to see what works best for him.
Don't be tempted to only offer your toddler wholegrain foods. They're more filling than other carbohydrates, which means your toddler may stop eating before he's had enough calories and nutrients.
Fruit and vegetables
These are especially important as they contain essential vitamins and minerals to help your toddler grow. You may find that he enjoys certain fruits more than vegetables, probably because of their sweet taste. But keep offering veg so that your toddler learns that they're a normal part of a meal.
Keep your toddler interested by choosing unusual fruit and vegetables. You could try arranging fruit and vegetables into the shape of a face, or cutting them up and offering them with a dip.
Multicoloured plates of fruit or vegetables may also help to tempt him. Banana, kiwi fruit, blueberries and strawberries work well as a mini fruit platter. Or you could use red pepper, sweetcorn, broccoli and cauliflower to make a colourful vegetable medley.
Try to always offer your toddler fruit as part of his sweet course. This way he'll learn that dessert doesn't have to mean sweets, chocolate, biscuits or cake.
High-iron and high-protein foods
Your toddler needs to have foods that are high in iron and protein two times or three times a day. Some of the best sources are:
- chopped or ground nuts and nut products such as peanut butter and almond butter (whole nuts pose a choking risk)
- pulses such as lentils, chickpeas and beans
Toddlers can choke on whole nuts, so try grinding them up and mixing them into his meal.
Make sure that any meat products you buy are high-quality, and are made of lean meat with little or no added salt. Keep these foods interesting by experimenting with marinades for meat, and making your own mild curries, lentil dhal or hummus.
Dairy products are high in calcium, which is important to help your toddler grow strong bones and teeth. Ideally, he should have three portions of dairy every day.
Dairy foods include:
- cheese and cheese sauces
If you want to feed your toddler yoghurt, opt for a plain, full-fat variety, or one that doesn't have a lot of sugar. To sweeten plain yoghurt, try mixing it with fruit.
Milk is still a good source of calcium for your toddler, but he doesn’t need as much as he did when he was a baby. Aim to give him about 350ml (two thirds of a pint) to 500ml (a pint) of milk a day. It’s best not to offer more than this as it may reduce his appetite for other foods.
The World Health Organisation recommends that you continue to give your toddler breastmilk until he's two, or even older. If this isn't right for your family, it's fine to give him cows' milk instead. There's no need to give your toddler follow-on formula milk, though.
If you do decide to give your toddler cows' milk, make sure it's full-fat until he's two. He'll need the extra calories for all that rushing around. Full-fat milk also contains more vitamin A than lower-fat varieties. Once your toddler is two, you can start offering semi-skimmed milk if you want to, but avoid skimmed milk until he's at least five.
Are there any foods that I should limit?
Yes. Some foods have lots of calories, but not much in the way of nutrients. The following should only be offered as an occasional treat, if at all.
Foods high in fat and sugar
Fatty and sugary foods include:
- ice cream
Your toddler needs plenty of calories to keep him energised, but these foods have little nutritional benefit. They can also increase the risk of him becoming overweight. Stick to small portions and try to offer healthier alternatives where possible.
Sweets and chocolate
These can make a great treat, but they shouldn’t be eaten every day. Sugary foods contain little or no goodness and can spoil your toddler’s appetite. They can also damage his teeth.
Your toddler needs no more than 2g of salt a day. It can be tricky to keep an eye on how much he eats because some foods naturally contain salt. Here are some tips on how to avoid giving your toddler too much:
- Offer crisps and salty snacks no more than once a week. A whole bag of crisps is too salty for your toddler, so only give him a few at a time.
- Try not to add salt to your toddler’s meal. Use herbs and spices to add flavour instead. If you and the rest of your family would like extra seasoning, add it separately.
- Limit the number of ready meals and takeaways that your toddler eats. These foods often contain a lot of hidden salt. If you give your toddler a ready meal, give him a small portion and add plenty of vegetables.
Oily fish are a great source of omega-3 fats, vitamins, and minerals. Salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna are all oily fish. You don’t need to give them to your toddler too often though. This is because oily fish contain small amounts of toxins which can build up over time. Offering them once a week or twice a week is fine.
There's no need to limit most types of white fish, though. For example, your toddler can eat as much cod, haddock, plaice and skate as he likes. However, some white fish contain similar levels of certain toxins as oily fish, so it is recommended that toddlers eat no more than four portions a week of:
- sea bream
- sea bass
- rock salmon
Children younger than 16 should avoid shark, swordfish and marlin. This is because they contain more mercury than other fish, which isn't good for growing bodies.
If your toddler has asthma, hayfever or a food allergy, check with your health visitor or GP before offering foods containing peanuts. You should also do this if allergies run in your family. This way you can help to prevent a possible allergic reaction. Speak to your GP or health visitor for more advice.
Does my toddler need a vitamin supplement?
The government recommends that all children between six months and five years take supplements containing vitamins A, C and D. This will help to prevent rickets (a bone disease), and to promote healthy growth.
Having a vitamin supplement is especially important for toddlers who fall into one of these categories:
- Fussy eaters.
- Those living in northern areas of the UK, where there may be fewer hours of bright sunshine.
- Those of Asian, African or Middle Eastern origin who have darker skin.
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