You know the foods your toddler should be eating, but some days, getting him to eat anything is a challenge. Picky eating is normal for toddlers, says Jill Castle, M.S., R.D., and Maryann Jacobsen, M.S., R.D., coauthors of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. To maximize good nutrition, put toddlers on a regular schedule of healthy eating every two to three hours. “Because toddlers can be picky, parents can relax a little more, as toddlers will have several opportunities to eat throughout the day,” Castle says. To make sure your growing toddler gets enough nutrition for his developing body, aim for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least two healthy snacks each day.
Start your toddler’s day with a balanced meal served at the same time and place every day to make eating a regular ritual. “Toddlers are ready to start having structure to their eating schedule, as opposed to infants, who should be fed on demand,” says Melinda Johnson, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But unlike with older kids, breakfast doesn’t need to be the biggest meal of the day: Toddlers still have small stomachs and cannot eat large portions, so snacks are more essential for refueling throughout the day.
So how much food should be provided during meals? Start with one toddler-size serving of each food followed by more if the child is still hungry. “The goal is not to overwhelm them with too much food on the plate,” Johnson says. A nutritious breakfast might include grains — toddlers need three servings per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — plus two other food groups. Try serving a whole-grain waffle cut into bite-size pieces, banana slices, and milk.
Provide snacks at regular intervals between meals, starting with one at least one and a half hours before lunch. Think of them as nutritional complements to meals, so avoid processed foods and sweets, and try to represent at least two food groups in each snack (and at least three food groups at each meal). The high nutrient content of snacks is essential to a healthy toddler diet. “If a toddler eats a good amount of snacks, he may not eat much at the following meal,” Castle says. “But this is okay when the snacks are nutritious.” For a healthy, toddler-friendly snack, pair cottage cheese with pineapple or deli turkey with wheat crackers.
Offer food groups that are different than those your toddler ate at his morning meal. If she had yogurt and berries for breakfast, serve whole-grain bread spread with mashed avocado and a side of cooked peas or black beans for lunch. Although toddler appetites are expected to change daily, take notice if your child consistently picks at lunch or dinner. Think about what happens before the problem meal. If you serve a snack too close to mealtime, try skipping the snack and offering the meal earlier. Or if your child is filling up on high-calorie liquids, remember to limit them to 2 cups of milk or milk products and 4 to 6 ounces of 100 percent juice each day. “I recommend parents keep water as the beverage in between meals. Too much juice or milk between meals can fill up little tummies,” Jacobsen says.
A healthy afternoon snack eaten two to three hours after lunch will keep your toddler’s energy and focus from waning as the day goes on. Serve thin apple slices with a few cubes of cheddar cheese or a hard-boiled egg cut into quarters. As with meals, remember to serve nutritious snacks at the same time each day while your tot is in one place. This keeps him from snacking mindlessly and will help him understand the role of snacks as part of a healthy diet that fuels the body. “‘Grazing’ is not snacking,'” Johnson says. “Snacks are eaten at a table, when the child is sitting down — not just handed to them as they run around. Snacks have purpose.”
Dinner is the meal that toddlers tend to eat least because they are tired, have met their nutrient needs already, or may have already sated their hunger with an earlier snack. Don’t stress if this is the case. Trust your toddler’s appetite when she says she’s full. “There is no need for parents to push more at certain meals, as children will regulate their intake well if parents provide structure and balanced meals,” Jacobsen explains. Jacobsen and Castle suggest, however, that parents identify a few of their child’s favorite nutritious foods and regularly rotate these fail-safe choices in to the dinner menu while exposing kids to foods they may not have eaten yet. Other tasty and healthy dinner ideas can include meatloaf with sweet potato wedges and baked beans, or whole-wheat pasta, diced steamed broccoli, and shredded baked chicken with tomato sauce.
Depending on how much your toddler ate throughout the day, he may need a snack before bedtime. Offer something easy on tiny tummies to help transition him into bedtime, like half a cup of milk for young toddlers or something light and low in sugar, like applesauce, for older toddlers. An evening snack may not be needed if there are fewer than two hours between dinner and bedtime.