Feeding your toddler
Parents sometimes worry that their toddler is not getting enough healthy food. It can help to remember:
- you are the most important role model for your toddler - it is important your toddler sees you eating and enjoying healthy food
- it’s up to you to decide what food and drinks you will provide for your child - they can then decide what and how much they will eat
- if you provide healthy food and drinks, your toddler will eat well, whatever they choose.
What to feed your toddler
Your toddler has a small stomach - about the size of their fist - so they need to eat small amounts often.
For example, three small meals and two to three snacks each day.
Offer small serves and remove uneaten food without comment.
You shouldn’t ever have to force your child to eat. Children are good at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full.
This skill can be easily lost if children are forced to eat, or are 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.
Try to make meal times relaxed and happy, and avoid battles about food.
Toddlers should eat a variety of nutritious foods every day, including at least:
- two serves of vegetables - eg: one cup of salad and ½ cup cooked vegetable
- one serve of fruit - eg: one banana and one slice melon
- 1½ serves of dairy foods - eg: ¾ cup of yogurt and one cup of milk
- one serve of protein - either lean meat, fish, poultry (chicken), eggs or legumes like baked beans, tofu or lentils
- four serves of grain/cereal foods - eg: one slice bread, ½ cup cooked rice or pasta, two breakfast biscuits and one small crumpet or English muffin.
Don’t worry if your toddler doesn’t eat all of these every day. Their appetite can vary each day depending on how active they are, or if they are tired or unwell.
If your family is vegan and does not eat animal foods like meat, milk, cheese or eggs, it will be harder for your toddler to get enough calcium, iron and protein for healthy growth.
Check with your doctor or a dietitian about what to do.
Serve water with each snack or meal. Plain water is the best drink for children.
It’s cheap, it has no added sugar and it helps prevent tooth decay.
Most children enjoy drinking water if they get used to drinking it early.
Milk is an important drink for children but they can easily fill up on milk and have less appetite for other foods.
Up to 500 millilitres of full-cream milk a day is plenty. To help prevent tooth decay, it’s best to give them milk in a cup, not a bottle.
Breastmilk provides great health benefits for toddlers well into their second year of life.
Breastfeeding may continue for as long as the mother and child wish.
Children aged one to two years need full-cream milk. Reduced-fat milk should be encouraged for children over two years.
Junk food and drinks
Takeaway foods, junk food, biscuits, chips, fruit juice, cordial and fizzy drinks are not needed in a toddler’s diet.
Offer them on special occasions only and try not to have them in the house.
Don’t give children tea, coffee, sports drinks, energy drinks or alcohol.
Your toddler probably doesn’t sit still for long, so you might want to try any of these on-the-go snacks:
- fruit and softened vegetables cut into sticks or small pieces -add some low-fat dip
- cheese cubes or sticks and sultanas
- wholemeal toast cut into fingers
- hard-boiled eggs
- homemade biscuits
- iceblocks made from freezing pureed fruit
- a tub of yoghurt
- small tin of baked beans.
Make sure they stop and sit down to eat.
Encouraging your toddler to eat
Feeding toddlers can be hard for parents. Toddlers are more independent in their second year and may want to control what they eat.
It’s normal for your toddler’s appetite to slow down at this age because they’re not growing as quickly.
If you are having trouble getting your toddler to eat, try any of the following ideas:
- eat with your toddler and show them how much you enjoy healthy food
- let your toddler help you get food ready - they can wash fruit and vegetables, pass you things to be chopped up
- make the food into a picture of a face on their plate
- vary where you eat - have a picnic in the garden, or put food in the centre of the table so everyone can serve themselves
- eat with other families
- try to feed your toddler early in the evening, before they get tired
- encourage an interest in food - talk to them when you are shopping, grow herbs or vegetables at home
- let them eat the same food at every meal until they are ready to move on to a new food.
It is best to avoid the following:
- threats, scolding, rushing or bribery
- sitting at the table for a long time
- comparison with other children
- tricks or games to induce eating
- offering sweet food as a reward
- giving up on a food after just one try - it can take 10 times or more before a toddler will accept a new food.
Never force your 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.
Children under four years are at risk of choking on hard foods as they don’t have the back teeth needed to chew food well.
You can reduce choking risk by doing the following:
- always sit children down to eat
- don’t give food or drink when children are running, playing, laughing or crying
- stay close and watch children while they eat
- encourage children to eat slowly and chew well
- cook, mash or grate hard fruits and vegetables like apples and carrots
- do not give foods that are tough and chewy, like some meats
- cut small round foods like grapes and cherry tomatoes in half
- remove skins from sausages and frankfurts and cut into small pieces
- remove seeds, stones, pips or bones from foods like fruit and fish
- do not give corn chips, popcorn, nuts, hard or sticky lollies or hard crackers.
If you are worried about what your child eats, talk with your doctor or other health professional.
Regular checks of their height and weight will help you know if they are growing well.
Find out more, including where you can get support to help with feeding your toddler, on the following pages:
- child heath - community care centres, remote health clinics, Go for 2 and 5
- counselling and relationships - Parentline
- learning and development - Raising Children Network.
The information in this tip sheet was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.
Last updated: 03 February 2020