Toddler Nutrition Must-Haves

by Teresa J. Mitchell

Toddler NutritionToddlers can be affectionate and charming, confrontational and obnoxious.

They never stop moving and have strong opinions on what they want. You better believe whatever it is they want, they want "it" now!

You see "terrific" toddler behavior in the playroom and you see it at the dinner table. Let's look at a few toddler 'tudes that affect mealtimes with tots.

Toddler Attitudes Toward Mealtime

Toddlerhood can be a maddening time for parents. These small people are transitioning from a baby into their own person. Your toddler makes you aware of preferred clothing and you can be assured, you'll also know just which foods will be tolerated -- today anyway.

Your goal is get your kid to eat enough healthy food to grow and thrive. Your child could have a different agenda.

Mission Exploration!

Mealtime offers a chance for your tot to learn about the world. Food looks intriguing, feels squishy or gritty. Some things bounce, others splat. The tiny explorer can even experiment with your reactions. Fun stuff! Eating a bit might be secondary to learning.

Take advantage of "mission explore" and encourage your child to try new foods and textures. Some will be enjoyed, others accepted and some rejected outright.

Toddlers mimic your behavior and that includes eating what you eat. What a chance to expand your child's culinary repertoire! Give a small serving of what's on your plate. You scooped yours from the serving bowl, but your child will prefer it right from mom or dad.

Serve meals and snacks on a predictable schedule. A familiar and comfortable routine sets the stage for any unusual food you might offer, like diced carrots instead of mashed ones.

Toddlers Have Definitive Opinions

Your toddler knows which food taste good and how they should be arranged on the plate. During the second year, a better vocabulary expresses those opinions empathically. You're apt to hear "yuck," "dat icky" or rejection could be expressed by spitting it out and glaring. Try not to giggle -- they're being quite serious!

"Defiance appears to be a positive step in development," says Theodore Dix, associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many parents would willingly skip this "positive" step! You can minimize your frustration by following these concepts:

  • Don't take it personally. Accepting a new food takes time. Some kids need to see a food 20 or more times before it's familiar enough to actually taste it.
  • Toddlers prefer simple foods and they like to know just what they're eating. Many believe that peas should be peas and cheese should come in little squares far away from those peas. Casseroles might be a no-go for a few more months.
  • Cater to personal preferences. Does your child like toast in triangles, bananas in strips and foods on the plate never, ever touching another food? Accommodate these requests when possible.

Independent and Proving It!

"Me do!" Take a deep breath and remind yourself that your toddler's declaration of independence is a good thing. You can foster that drive to do things by encouraging self-feeding. Whether using fingers, a spoon or a fork, your child will become more skilled at self-feeding as the weeks go by.

Toddlers know that they can help out with jobs. Instead of rolling your eyes, take advantage of that enthusiasm. When you're out shopping, ask for help picking out fruits and vegetables. Since they're handpicked, your child might be more willing to try them...or not.

Food Needs for Toddlers

During the first year, your baby was a growing machine. This year growth slows down and your child's appetite might decrease as a result. Think of a golf ball instead of a baseball when dishing up a toddler's plate.

Your child needs:

  • Three meals and two or three snacks
  • About 1000 calories
  • Iron-rich foods
  • Calcium-rich foods

If you want your child to develop a healthy attitude towards food, follow this golden rule: You decide which foods to offer. Your child decides how much to eat, what to eat and how to eat it.

MyPlateMyPlate™ can help you fill your toddler's day with healthy food choices. Think of the plate as an entire day's worth of eating. Try to make half of what your kid eats vegetables and fruits. Make the other half grains and protein food. Add milk or another dairy product.

Each section on the place mat stands for a food group. When food choices follow the picture on the place mat, you can relax. Your toddler's diet looks good.

• Green is for vegetables. For best nutrition serve a colorful variety. Good choices include broccoli, squash, carrots and sweet potatoes.

• Red equals fruits and takes up a smaller place than the vegetables. They add nutrients like Vitamin C and potassium. Great choices include oranges, mangoes, strawberries, peaches and apples.

• Orange means grains; food made from oats, wheat, cornmeal barley and other grains. Focus on whole grain products. They haven't had nutrients removed during processing.

• Purples represents protein foods. Your child can get protein from meats, dry beans, eggs, nuts, seeds and tofu. Try to use more lean or low-fat options and less deli and processed meats.

• Blue stands for dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese and calcium-fortified soy milk. These provide calcium, protein and vitamin D that builds healthy bones and teeth. If your child's over 2 years old, ask your pediatrician if you should offer low-fat milk.

Although fats aren't on the guide, your child needs healthy ones each day. Most oils such as olive oil or canola oil, and oil-rich foods like nuts, olives, and avocados are high in what's considered "good" fats.

You might not hit every nutritional mark every day. That's okay. Just strive to provide a wide variety of nutrients in your child's diet.

Danger! Toddler Food Alerts!

Certain foods should not be on your toddler's menu. These might pose a choking hazard, be avoided for food allergy reasons or for other reasons.

Choking risks: Toddlers can choke on large chunks of food and round foods. Cut meats, string cheese, cherry tomatoes and grapes into small pieces. Shred or dice carrots. Some parents cut food so it's no thicker than their child's little finger. Spread peanut butter thinly and skip the chunky for now. Gum and nuts should be avoided.

Allergies: Peanuts, shellfish and sesame seeds are common allergens. If your child attends daycare, check that no other children have nut allergies.

Fish with high mercury content: You'll want your child to skip the same fish you avoided during pregnancy .

Food that might contain bacteria: Certain foods are at risk of being contaminating with bacteria. Rare ground beef, lox, raw cheeses, unpasteurized juices, sprouts and raw eggs could contain harmful bacteria.

What's up with your toddler on the food front? Is there a favorite food or routine. Does your little one survive on four bites and 20 minutes of sunshine or nosh on everything and anything? Let us know!