Toddlerhood is a time when children learn about new foods and where lifelong eating habits are often established. These habits will enable them to grow up to be healthy adults.
As your child moves from infancy to toddlerhood, their growth rate steadily slows down. Toddler’s food intake may also slow down, and combined with an increase in independence, they may start saying no to some foods and want to make their own choices.
This is typical toddler behaviour, so as a parent, you can help your child develop by providing the right types of foods at the right times and leave the rest up to your child. Toddlers typically develop good signals for hunger and fullness and should be able to decide how much and, in fact, whether they want to eat at all.
Tips for developing healthy eating habits
- Be a good role model and eat healthy, regular meals – your toddler will pick up good habits by watching you. Eating together provides a great opportunity for family bonding.
- Make sure your toddler eats regularly with a routine that consists of three meals with two to three snacks between meals.
- Offer small serves and your toddler will ask for more if they are still hungry – don’t force them to eat if they don’t want to.
- Set aside 20 to 30 minutes for main meals, 10 to 20 minutes for snacks, and avoid distractions like TV, toys or games during meal times.
- Avoid distractions like TV, toys or games during meal times.
- Offer nutritious foods and change up the taste, texture, and appearance to add variety.
- Allow your toddler to have some choice, but keep their choices simple by offering two or three healthy food options.
- Avoid biscuits, soft drinks, lollies, cordial, flavoured milk and juices as these are high in sugar and may reduce their appetite for healthier foods.
Refusing to try new foods is common and these may need to be offered 10 times or more (every two to three days) before they are accepted. Find out more tips for overcoming fussy eating.
Food your toddler needs
The most common nutritional deficiency in childhood, iron deficiency anaemia, can result from toddlers filling up on large volumes of milk or juices which are devoid of iron. Toddlers require no more than 1.5 serves of dairy per day (one serve is a cup of milk (250mL), 2 slices of cheese (40g), or ¾ cup of yoghurt (200g)) and should avoid fruit juice. Water should be your toddler’s main drink . Water is freely available, contains no sugar, kilojoules, or artificial colours or flavours, and most children will enjoy water if it is offered from an early age.
Include iron-rich foods in your child’s diet, such as soft meats, iron-fortified cereals, bean and legumes, wholegrain breads and cereals, and green leafy vegetables.
Small portions are less overwhelming to toddlers, while bigger portions may encourage overeating.
It’s important that toddlers and young children are offered small, frequent snacks throughout the day because generally toddlers can’t eat enough food at main meals to provide them with the sufficient energy and nutrients they need. Foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats (like cakes, biscuits, lollies and sugary drinks) should be avoided and healthy snacks offered instead, which can include:
- Fresh fruit slices or canned fruits in natural juice
- Small tub of yoghurt
- Rice cakes or pikelets with a thin spread of cream cheese or avocado
- Sandwiches with natural peanut butter, ham and cheese or vegemite
- Cheese sticks or cheese slices
- Baked beans on toast
- Plain milk – choose full cream milk for children under 2, and reduced-fat milk from 2 years onward
- Soft vegetables like steamed sweet potatoes or carrot sticks
- Fruit smoothie – milk blended with fresh fruits
Play, exploration, and positive language
Most learning for babies and toddlers happens through play, usually with parents and siblings. Toddlers can become more familiar and comfortable with healthy food through play. Encourage exploration with these ideas:
- Read your toddler books with bright pictures about eating and trying new foods.
- Pretend play using home corner games, prepare meals for a teddy bear picnic, or pretend to do the grocery shopping.
- Sensory play with foods outside of mealtimes, such as using hands to find toys in a bucket of rice.
- Encourage supervised self-feeding with utensils or finger feeding – it can be a little messy but it’s an important part of learning.
Use positive language that focuses on the qualities (colour, size, shape, texture) of food items rather than judgement language (yum, yuck, good, bad). Try making trying new foods fun by staying calm and curious – this helps your child to feel safe to explore new foods.
Did you know?
Healthy children are born able to regulate their hunger and fullness.