How many meals should my toddler be eating?
Meal plans for toddlers. Where do you start? The best way to ensure your toddler is eating enough is by establishing a regular feeding routine. A helpful rule of thumb is to provide your toddler something to eat or drink every 2 to 3 hours, or 5 to 6 times a day. (1)
Aim for your toddler to have three balanced meals and a total of 2 to 3 snacks in between meals each day. Remember it is normal for your child’s hunger to vary day to day. How much your child consumes over the course of a week is a better indicator of proper nutrition than what they ate over the course of a single day (1)
Meal plans for toddlers – Carbohydrates
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits, vegetables, and grains are amazing sources of carbohydrates which are the main source of energy for both you and your toddler! They should feature in your meal plan for toddlers. Offer at least 1-2 servings at each meal and also offer them some snacks (2)
Introducing a variety of fruits and vegetables at an early age can help your child become more comfortable with different colours, textures, and flavours. Providing variety also helps ensure your toddler is consuming a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals, as well as, insoluble and soluble fibre!
A helpful tip is including vegetables and fruits in every meal and snack. Your child may choose not to eat the vegetable or fruit, but giving them the choice to have it without pressure encourages a healthy relationship with food and mealtime.
You may find your child will only eat raw vegetables and does not favour cooked vegetables- or vice versa. This is okay! It is good to still continue offering both raw and cooked vegetables in their meals. (3)
Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and other starchy foods
These are stratchy foods include cereal, yam, rice, potatoes, pasta, couscous, chapattis they provide your toddler with energy and fibre (3).
It is fine to offer your child wholegrain options, but is it not advised to only give wholegrain starchy to children under 2 years old. As it may fill them up before they have all the nutrients they need.
What about Protein
It is recommended 1-3 years old have around 14.5g of protein per day. Beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, dairy products, eggs, meat, chicken, fish are all great sources of protein and iron- important nutrients for your toddler’s growth and development. Provide your child with one to two portions of protein sources each day. (3)
What about Fat in meal plans?
Fat is an especially important nutrient for toddlers in providing the energy their brain and body needs to tackle the day. Roughly, 30 to 40% (one year old) or 30 to 35% (two- to three-year-old) of your toddler’s calorie intake should be in the form of fat. (3)
Great fat sources for toddlers include whole fat milk products, creamy nut and seed butters (not whole nuts as these are a choking risk), plant oils, and fatty fish.
Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel provide omega 3 fatty acids which are beneficial for brain health and function. Hemp seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are great plant-based sources of omega 3’s.
The recommendations are 2 portions of fish a week and one of them should be oily – but offer a small portion to children.
Meal plans for toddlers –How much dairy should my toddler eat a day?
Aim to provide your child with around 12oz (350ml) of milk or 2 servings of dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt, or fromage frais (cream cheese) each day.
After 1 year of age, toddlers can consume whole cows’ milk. Full fat dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese are also great sources of calcium, as well as, vitamin A. (3)
What about low-fat dairy for my toddler?
Should your toddler have low-fat dairy? Skim, 2% or other low-fat milk products are not recommended for toddlers under the age of two as they do not contain enough fat or calories for proper growth and development.
After two years of age, you may introduce low-fat milks assuming they are consuming enough fat in their overall diet. (3)
Can my child consume alternative milks?
Yes, from 1 year of age, a toddler may have unsweetened milk alternatives such as soya, almond, and oat beverages in their meal plan.
To ensure your toddler is intaking enough calcium, make sure these alternatives are calcium-fortified. Rice drinks are not recommended as they contain higher levels of arsenic. (3)
Common Mineral Deficiencies: Calcium and iron
What about calcium in a toddler’s meal plan. Calcium aids in the maintenance of strong bones, teeth and a healthy nervous system. For toddlers between 1 to 3 years of age, 350 mg of calcium a day is recommended. (4). The BDA has a great calciumwith a table providing information on how much calcium is in certain foods!
The most common sources of calcium are cow, sheep, or goat milk and other dairy products. Some plant-based products are often fortified with calcium, including fortified milk, yoghurt and cheese alternatives. As well as, fortified tofu, cereals, and bread products. Other sources of calcium include vegetables such as kale and broccoli and tinned fish such as sardines, salmon, and pilchards.
Calcium is naturally found in plant-based sources such as spinach, beans, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. However, these sources contain naturally occurring oxalates which block calcium absorption. On the bright side, oxalate content can be significantly reduced through different cooking methods! Absorption of calcium may also be increased when paired with a vitamin C rich food source. (4)
The mineral iron is important in maintaining adequate haemoglobin in the body which promotes the transport of oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also important for a healthy immune system! (5)
For toddlers between 1 to 3 years of age, 7 mg of iron a day is recommended. The BDA has a great iron fact sheet.
Iron is present in both plant and animal sources. Iron in meat, fish, and eggs are in the form of haem iron which is easily absorbed in the body.
Iron in plant foods such as beans, pulses, nuts, and grains are in the form of non-haem iron, which is not easily absorbed in the body.
Similarly, to calcium, we can increase the absorption of non-haem iron by pairing it with a rich source of vitamin C such as red bell pepper, citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes! Additionally, non-haem iron is more readily absorbed when paired with sources of haem iron! (5)
When meal planning for toddlers – How will I know if they are eating enough?
While it is recommended your toddler has about three balanced meals and two to three snacks a day, this may vary from day to day. Don’t worry, this is completely normal. You can plan all your toddlers meals but you can’t make them eat them.
Your child is the best judge of their own hunger or fullness! To raise an intuitive eater, encourage your toddler to listen to their hunger and fullness signals. You may even be able to see their physical or verbal signals yourself!
When your child is hungry, they may communicate this to you in several ways. They might reach for or point to food, act excited when they see a food they enjoy, use hand motions and sounds, and/or open their mouth when food is offered.
When your child is full, they may communicate this to you in various ways! They might push food away, close their mouth when food is being offered, turn their head away, and/or use hand motions or sounds to signal they are done eating or no longer hungry. (6)
To help your child develop a healthy relationship with food it is important to not use food as a form of reward or punishment. You simply provide the meals and they decide what and how much to eat. So, if you haven’t already, toss the old school mindset of “no dessert until you finish your plate!”.
If you do have any concerns that your toddler is not eating enough, it may be beneficial to schedule a visit with their pediatrician and/or registered dietitian.
Meal Plans for toddlers and Feeding Schedule
Below is a rough feeding schedule, adjust your child’s feeding schedule to what works with you and your family’s routine. As mentioned previously, they should eat every 2 to 3 hours. (7)
- Wake up
- Breakfast: 7:00 am
- Morning Snack: 10:00 am
- Lunch: 12:00 pm
- Afternoon snack: 3:00 pm
- Dinner: 5:30 pm
Drinks in a meal plan for toddlers
For proper nutrition and healthy growth and development, the only drinks your toddler needs are water and milk! Sugar from juice may cause diarrhea in your toddler so it is not advised for them to drink it often or in large quantities. Juice is okay in small amounts however; a helpful trick is diluting the juice with a little water.
Easy Meals for Toddlers
Ideas for breakfast
Here are a few ideas to help with meal plans for toddlers:
• ½ hard boiled or scrambled egg, ¼ avocado, 1 piece of white or whole grain toast, 3 sliced fresh strawberries.
• ½ cup cooked oats, 2 tbs nut butter, pear slices, 1 tsp sprinkle of hemp seed.
Ideas for lunch
• 1/3 cup cooked pasta noodles with butter and 2 tbs cheddar cheese, 2 tbs green peas, 2 steamed broccoli florets, 2 ounces chicken nuggets, and ½ of a sliced peach.
• Small quesadilla with cheddar cheese, 1-ounce black beans, fresh tomatoes, 2 ounces rotisserie chicken, ¼ of an avocado and ¼ cup roasted Brussel sprouts.
Ideas for dinner
• 1/3 cup white rice, ½ corn on the cob with butter, ¼ cup roasted baby carrots, and a burger patty (salmon, beef, turkey or chicken) with ½ avocado.
• ¼ cup roasted butternut squash, 1 to 2 stalks roasted asparagus, ½ cup turkey chili.
Ideas for snacks
If you are looking for fun and delicious snack ideas that your toddler will love, take a look at Dietitian with a Difference’s recent blog post, 15 Fun, Healthy and Delicious Snacks for Kids!.
Meal plans for toddlers can be challenging. Knowing what, how much, and when to feed your child may feel confusing at times. I hope this article helped to clear up any confusion and brought you some peace in knowing your child will never eat “perfectly”. To be real, we will never eat “perfectly” either.
Nonetheless, our toddlers may still improve on their confidence to try new foods. Striving to raise an intuitive eater is one of the best things you can do for your littles ones’ relationship with food and mealtime as a whole. Eating to support one’s health lies beyond the nutrient content on their plate- it is also the memories and emotions that come with the meal.
By raising your little one as an intuitive eater, they will be able to better honor their hunger and fullness, gain a sense of independence and confidence, and eat a healthy balance of very nutrient dense foods and less nutrient dense foods with complete mental and physical satisfaction. With our support, they can comfortably and happily consume a wide variety of foods whilst reaching their nutritional needs for optimal physical and mental growth and development.
If you’d like more like this, you can find more from me by downloading my new e-book or, for a one-to-one consultation, visit www.dietitianwithadifference.co.uk.
Thank you to Paige Courtier, Student Dietitian for helping with researching and writing the blog