Your toddler is walking, running, climbing—and growing by leaps and bounds every day.
As you continue to introduce table foods and he gets to explore new, exciting textures, flavors and tastes, you probably have a lot of questions about feeding toddlers such as what your toddler should eat, how often and how much.
If your toddler is a picky eater (most are and it’s completely normal) you’re probably concerned about whether he’s eating enough and if he’s getting the nutrition he needs.
On the other hand, if your toddler is eating too much, that might also be a concern especially because nearly 1 in 4 children start kindergarten overweight or obese, a January 2014 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found.
Here, learn everything you need to know about feeding toddlers, including the foods to focus on, the right portion sizes, and when to offer healthy meals and snacks.
How much should my toddler eat?
After their first birthday, toddlers’ growth isn’t as rapid as it was during the first year of life. Still, they continue to grow at a slow, steady rate.
Despite their increased activity, their appetites may also slow down. Since they’ll be busy with more exciting activities, they may also not be interested in eating.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says toddlers should eat approximately 40 calories per inch of height. Depending on your child’s age, size and activity level, that can vary between 1,000 and 1,400 calories a day.
How often should toddlers eat?
Toddlers should be offered three healthy meals and two healthy snacks a day but it’s OK if your child isn’t interested in eating or refuses to eat.
A toddler’s appetite can change day to day and persuading or pushing your child to eat is a bad habit to teach. If he eats when he’s not hungry, he won’t learn when he’s actually hungry or full.
Without the ability to recognize his hunger and satiety cues, he may grow into an older child and adult who overeats.
Pushing your toddler to eat when he’s not hungry can also make mealtimes a negative, unhappy experience for you and him, so it’s best to let him decide if he wants to eat and how much.
When should toddlers eat?
Be sure to have a schedule of regular meal and snack times with some flexibility built in. Toddlers should eat approximately every 3 hours but again, if your tot isn’t hungry, it’s OK.
Not only is routine good for toddlers, but eating regularly prevents their blood sugar from crashing and ensures they’re never overly hungry.
Teaching your child to eat regularly is also a healthy eating habit you’ll want your toddler to have throughout life.
What are toddler portion sizes?
It can be tricky to figure out healthy portion sizes for toddlers and easy to overestimate how much food to serve.
When my kids were toddlers, I never really knew how much they should be eating. Although I never pushed them to eat, looking back, I realize their portion sizes were way too large.
Portion sizes for toddlers are much smaller than you may think. For example, the AAP says one serving of vegetables is equal to one tablespoon for each year of age.
A good rule of thumb is to serve your toddler a quarter of what a healthy portion is for an adult.
What foods should toddlers eat?
The AAP has general guidelines for the types of foods and portion sizes toddlers should consume each day.
Just as their appetites can change however, so can their food preferences so don’t stress if you don’t meet all of these requirements all of the time.
Vegetables and fruits
2 to 3 servings of each a day.
6 servings a day, at least half of which should be whole grains.
2 to 3 servings a day
Protein (meat, fish, poultry and tofu)
2 servings a day
Legumes (peas, lentils and beans)
2 servings a day
What foods should toddlers avoid?
The toddler years are an important time to expose children to a wide variety of new, healthy foods.
Although a baby’s food preferences actually start to form during pregnancy, the foods they like and dislike continue to develop throughout the toddler years.
Unfortunately, for many toddlers those opportunities are too often being replaced by foods that lack nutrition and are high in sodium and sugar.
In fact, a June 2018 study led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found toddlers between 19 and 23 months consumed an average of 7 teaspoons of added sugar on any given—that’s more sugar than a Snicker’s® bar!
Stick with whole foods, instead of fast food, processed, packaged and prepared foods and limit sodium, saturated fats and sugar.
Tips for Feeding Toddlers
When it comes to food, the toddler years can be tough. Your child may have willingly accepted a variety of fruits and vegetables when he was a baby, but getting him to take a bite of broccoli now is proving more difficult.
My advice: stick with it.
So many parents say their kids are picky eaters and turn to quick, easy, processed foods and frozen kid-friendly meals just so their child will eat.
But this habit actually reinforces picky eating because kids don’t have the opportunity to eat real, healthy, whole foods.
The key is to continue to offer healthy foods and the right portion sizes and let your child feed himself, whether he wants a small bite, the whole meal or nothing at all.
Teaching toddlers what to eat, when to eat and how to have healthy eating habits will help to ensure they’ll grow into healthy, lifelong eaters.