Toddler and Preschooler Nutrition

As a parent you’re dealing with so much uncertainty, angst and confusion about pretty much everything around your child. Feeding them is one of those challenges. But it doesn’t need to be a source of daily stress. Here are a few tips that might help you raise a healthy eater for a lifetime.

Offer a variety of healthy foods

Offer your child fruit and/or vegetables, whole grains and a protein food for every main meal. Dairy can be offered as snack or with the main meals. The more variety you offer the better – choose fruit and vegetables of many different colors, different whole grains and a variety of protein sources. A greater variety keeps meals interesting and flavorful. It’s also the key to a healthy and balanced diet because each food has a unique mix of essential nutrients.

Be mindful of soda, sweets and snacks

Offer water instead of sugary drinks like regular soda and fruit drinks. Other foods like hot dogs, burgers, pizza, cookies, cakes and candy should only be occasional treats or “fun foods”.

Focus on the meal and each other

Your child learns by watching you. Let your child choose how much to eat of the foods you provide at a time set by you. Children copy your likes, dislikes and your interest in trying new foods. Cook together, eat together, talk together, and make meal time family time.

Be patient with your child

Children enjoy food when eating it is their own choice. Accepting new foods takes time. Give a taste at first and wait for their reaction. Let your child serve themselves by taking small amounts. Offer new foods many times. It may help to separate foods from each other to increase tolerance. Let your child explore a new food by touching it, smelling it, even lick it or putting it in the mouth and spitting it out again.

Involve your child in kitchen activities

Depending on your child’s age and skills, let them wipe tables, hand you food items to put away, place things in trash, tear lettuce or greens, add ingredients to bowls, scoop mashed potatoes, stir batter or assemble a sandwich or pizza.

Watch for choking hazards

Some foods are easy to choke on while eating. Children need to sit when eating. Foods like hot dogs, grapes, and raw carrots need to be cut into small pieces the size of a nickel. Be alert if serving 3- to 5-year-olds foods like popcorn, nuts, seeds, or other hard foods.

Don’t worry too much

This guideline is based on average needs and is the recommended amount to offer each day. Do not be concerned if your child does not eat the exact amounts every day. Your child may need more or less than average. Also, children’s appetites vary from day to day. Some days they may eat less; other days they may want more.

Daily offered foods

1,000 cal
(2-3 yrs.)
1,200 cal
(3-4 yrs.)
1,400 cal
(4-5 yrs.)
1,600 cal
(5-6 yrs.)
Vegetables 1 cup 1½ cups 1½ cups 2 cups
Fruits 1 cup 1 cup 1½ cups 1½ cups
Grains 3 oz 4 oz 5 oz 5 oz
Proteins 2 oz 3 oz 4 oz 5 oz
Dairy 2 cups 2½ cups 2½ cups 3 cups
Oils 1 Tbsp 1¼ Tbsp 1¼ Tbsp 1½ Tbsp
Limit “Fun” Foods <100 cal/day <100 cal/day <110 cal/day <130 cal/day

Vegetables: offer vegetables of different colors, legumes, potatoes, corn, peas, beans, plantains, etc. 1 cup counts as: 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables; or 2 cups leafy salad greens; or 1 cup 100% vegetable juice

Fruit: offer a variety of different colored fruit every day. 1 cup counts as: 1 cup raw or cooked fruit; or 1/2 cup dried fruit; or 1 cup 100% fruit juice

Grains: make half of the grains whole grain such as whole wheat, oat, quinoa, brown rice, popcorn. 1 oz counts as: 1 slice of bread; or 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal; or 1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal

Protein: meats and poultry should be lean, nuts and seeds should be unsalted or lightly salted. 1 oz counts as: 1 ounce lean meat, poultry, fish or seafood; or 1 egg; or 1 Tbsp nut butter; or 1/2 ounce nuts/seeds; or 1/4 cup cooked beans, legumes or peas

Dairy: focus on whole or low-fat milk and yogurt. 1 cup counts as: 1 cup milk or yogurt; or 1 cup fortified soy or nut beverage; or 1 1/2 ounces cheese

Oils: good oils for cooking are canola, olive and sunflower seed oil; choose cold-pressed, virgin oils over processed, heated oils and margarines

Limit Fun Foods: processed vegetables: fried, breaded or stir-fried vegetables, etc.; processed fruits: jelly, jams, conserves, spreads & desserts, etc.; grains: fried snacks, salty snacks and crackers, bakery items, bars, etc.; protein foods: fatty cuts of meat, red meat, poultry skin, fried/breaded proteins, etc.; dairy: cream, ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, sweet yogurt, dairy desserts, etc.; fats: butter, lard, margarine, bacon fat, shortening etc. added sugar: sweets, desserts, pastry, bakery, milk drinks, chocolate, soda, sweet beverages, etc

Focus On: fresh, raw ingredients that are little to not processed; bake, grill, sauté in little vegetable oil; use little salt and sugar, focus on herbs and spices instead; offer unsweetened beverages: water, club soda, infused water, herbal tea

Daily Activity: encourage children 2 to 5 years old to play actively every day

Table adapted from 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Download the guide as pdf:

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