Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(9):1533-1534

See related article on nutrition in toddlers.

Raising a healthy, active toddler takes work, and parents need to know the best foods to give their child. Feeding toddlers isn’t always easy, but knowing about nutrition and eating habits will help you make the best choices for your child.

Milk and dairy

Cow’s milk has protein for strength and growth, calcium for strong bones and teeth, and vitamins A and D for eyes and bones. Children older than one year should have two or three 8-oz servings of milk every day. Yogurt and cheese are also good dairy foods for children.

Babies should not drink cow’s milk. After they turn one year old, most children should drink whole milk for at least one year. The fat in milk helps children grow and helps their brains to develop. If you have an overweight child, ask your doctor about using 2 percent milk. Toddlers should not drink nonfat or skim milk.

Some children drink too much milk, especially if they use a bottle instead of a cup. Try to get your child to drink 2 cups of milk each day, then add variety with other healthy dairy foods.

Juice, fruit drinks, and soda

Children can become overweight from drinking too much soda, fruit drinks, and juice. Toddlers love these drinks, but parents need to limit how much their children get. Too much will cause children to gain weight and get bad teeth.

Children should drink milk with every meal. Try plain water for drinking between meals. Look for 100 percent fruit juice as a snack or treat, but limit it to less than 8 oz. per day. Give your child whole fruit instead of fruit juice.

Multivitamins

Most children do not need a multivitamin. There are enough vitamins and minerals in small amounts of food. Your toddler should get plenty of vitamins from fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and whole-grain bread products. Even if your child is a fussy eater, he or she is probably getting enough vitamins and minerals.

Some children who do not drink enough milk might need to take extra vitamin D. Your doctor also might do a blood test to see if your child needs extra iron. If your child does not eat meat or has a chronic illness, talk to your doctor to see if your child needs extra vitamins.

Fats

It seems like everyone wants to avoid fats, but fats are actually very important for children. About one third of a toddler’s calories should come from fats. You should give your toddler healthy fats such as peanut butter, milk, meat, and eggs. Examples of bad fats are French fries, potato chips, doughnuts, chocolate, and butter.

If your child is overweight, the best thing you can do is set a good example by eating healthy foods yourself. Do not eat junk food, but instead eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads. Do not put your child on a diet without talking to your doctor first.

Eating habits

It is hard to know what toddlers will eat. They skip meals, refuse to eat some foods, and sometimes eat only one thing for days at a time. This is normal and is usually nothing to worry about. Your doctor will measure your child’s growth every few months and show you the progress on a chart. It is important to give your child a variety of healthy foods to choose from. Remember that you might have to offer your child a new food 10 times before he or she likes it.

Children prefer frequent small meals. It takes many years for your toddler to get used to eating three meals a day, the way most adults do. Think of snacks as “mini-meals” rather than treats. For example, a midafternoon snack might be chocolate milk, peanut butter on bagel pieces, and carrot sticks.

Letting toddlers feed themselves is important, even if it’s messy. Children should get to make choices and use their fingers to pick things up. Turn off the television and sit at the table to eat with your child. This teaches your child good eating habits.

More information

Talk to your doctor about the best nutrition for your child. There are also several Web sites that have good information about nutrition for toddlers:

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