Toddlers hate to be predictable – one minute they’re playing quietly on the living room floor, and the next they’re trying to climb the stairs from the outside of the banister. One night bathtime is the best kind of adventure, but two days later the idea of even getting their hair wet has them shrieking. And one day, something is their very favorite food ever, but the next, it’s too yucky to even have on their plate.
This unpredictability is part of what makes toddlers so much fun, but it’s also a source of stress for many parents and families, especially when it comes to mealtime. Between picky-eating habits like avoiding vegetables, meals where they barely seem to pick at what’s on their plate, and the impossibility of keeping track of what they like, it’s easy to start to get stressed that they’re not getting the nutrition that they need. But how much food do toddlers need?
Toddler daily nutrition
Before looking at the amounts that toddlers Baby’s age should be eating in a day, it’s important to remember that these are rough guidelines, and that toddler nutrition works best in averages – a toddler may not eat much, or eat much of one kind of food on one day, but they'll generally balance it out over the course of a few days. If you’re especially concerned about whether they are getting a balanced diet, or enough to eat, keeping a food diary for a week or two may clarify whether they are actually missing out on some nutrients, or if they're just being a toddler about getting them.
Generally, if a toddler is growing at a steady rate that their pediatrician isn’t concerned about, and they're at a healthy weight, there’s no reason to worry too much about their food intake. Keeping up on well-child visits is one of the best ways pediatricians and family doctors have to keep an eye on their smallest patients, to make sure they’re growing at healthy rates.
Depending on their size and activity levels, toddlers Baby’s age should be getting about 1,000 to 1,400 calories in a day, and those calories should, generally, and on average, be spread out between these amounts of different food groups:
- Grains: At two years old, toddlers should be getting around three ounces of grains in a day, and at three years old, they should be getting roughly somewhere between four and five ounces of grains in a day. About half of these should be whole grains, including whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, or even popcorn.
- Vegetables: At two, toddlers should get around a cup of vegetables in a day, and by three, toddlers should be eating about one and a half cups.
- Fruit: At two years old, toddlers should be eating one cup of fruit a day, but by the age of three they can have anywhere between one and one and a half cups.
- Milk: Two-year-olds and three-year-olds both should be drinking about two cups of milk a day. Milk is an important source of both calcium and vitamin D, but it’s also important for toddlers not to get too much milk, since too much milk can start to get in the way of toddlers feelings of hunger, and especially with hunger for iron-rich foods. This is especially important, since after 12 months old, toddlers are more at risk for iron-deficiency anemia.
- Meat and beans: For protein sources like these, toddlers two years old should be eating somewhere around two ounces a day, and three-year-olds should be eating three to four ounces.
“But they used to eat so much more!”
The toddler years can come as a surprise because, in the first year, babies grow so fast that they end up needing to eat large amounts in order to keep up. Babies also tend to be less opinionated about what they put in their mouths, while toddlers love having opinions more than anything, and if their opinion is “no,” so much the better. Slowed growth and greater pickiness mean that toddlers are naturally going to eat a lot less than they did in the first year, even though they move around a lot more.
Promoting healthy eating habits
It’s tempting for parents to urge toddlers to eat more, especially on days when they only graze lightly, but it’s perfectly normal and healthy for toddlers to have unpredictable and uneven appetites, and letting them decide when they stop and start eating teaches them to trust their own appetites and hunger cues. One of the best ways to promote healthy eating habits as your toddler grows is to avoid food-bribes – either using treat food as a bribe, or bribing your child to eat more. The first kind of food-bribe sets up a pattern of comfort-eating, or eating as a reward, instead of eating out of hunger, and the second kind encourages children to ignore their bodies’ hunger cues.
- Mary L. Gavin. “Nutrition Guide for Toddlers.” Kids Health. The Nemours Foundation, November 2014. Retrieved September 6 2017. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/toddler-food.html#.
- “Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your Two-Year-Old.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, March 16 2017. Retrieved September 6 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Feeding-and-Nutrition-Your-Two-Year-Old.aspx.
- Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your Three-Year-Old.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, December 29 2016. Retrieved September 6 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Feeding-and-Nutrition-Your-Three-Year-Old.aspx.
- “Sample Menu for a Two-Year-Old.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, December 21 2015. Retrieved September 6 2017. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Sample-One-Day-Menu-for-a-Two-Year-Old.aspx.