Your toddler needs plenty of variety and lots of different nutrients from fresh, natural foods. Encourage your little one to try new foods regularly, and to enjoy versions of healthy family meals, and she’ll soon be on her way to establishing healthy eating patterns—and learning to love great food!
Q: What does a varied “toddler” diet mean?
A: A varied diet includes a variety of different foods. We know that kids need the basics of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins and minerals, and the best way to ensure that they get what they need is to offer as many different foods as often as possible.
Q: How many servings of carbohydrates does my toddler need each day?
A: Try to ensure that every meal has at least one or two servings of carbohydrates, and that your child has at least one or two carb-rich snacks as well. Add a little mashed potato, some couscous, pasta, quinoa, or rice to his main meal, alongside fresh vegetables (which are also rich in carbohydrates). Also offer toast, oatmeal, or cereal with breakfast, and perhaps some breadsticks and fresh fruit at snacktime. Sandwiches, pasta dishes, risottos, and baked potatoes are also high in carbohydrates.
Q: Are there any grains that are too harsh for my toddler’s digestion?
A: Whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats, millet, and corn are good sources of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and are a great addition to a toddler’s diet. It is, however, better to stick to small portions because they are rich in fiber and can fill up little tummies very quickly. Too much fiber increases the speed at which foods are digested, which can lead to inadequate intake of some nutrients.
Q: How can I persuade my toddler to eat meat?
A: Often it’s the texture rather than the taste of the meat that toddlers object to. Minced meat is good for little ones; make sure you choose lean mince. When making dishes such as bolognese or shepherd’s pie, I often brown the minced meat and then chop it for a few seconds in a blender, so it has a less lumpy texture. Combining a tasty minced meat with a mashed potato and carrot topping, or mixing it with pasta, are other good ways to make it easier to eat.

You can also encourage your toddler to enjoy eating meat or chicken by making mini-meatballs that he can pick up with his fingers. My recipe for Chicken meatballs contains sautéed red onion, carrot, and apple, so is very tasty and appealing to little children. These can also be made using minced beef. Also consider adding tiny pieces of meat to pastas or risottos, where they aren’t quite so overwhelming.

If your child is still resistant to eating meat, don’t despair. Pulses such as chickpeas, butter beans, kidney beans, peas, and lentils can all be added to soups, stews, casseroles, or pasta dishes to provide a good source of protein; they can even be offered on their own, as they are easy for little fingers to manage. Rice and whole grains, such as barley, wheat, buckwheat, corn, and oats, are also high in protein, as are nut butters or ground nuts, seeds and quinoa, which can be eaten on their own, or added to your child’s favorite dish.

A little hummus with some whole-grain toast, for example, is a good protein-based snack. Don’t forget, too, that eggs and dairy products are as high in protein as meat, so a scrambled egg with a little grated cheese will be a perfect high-protein meal.

Q: Do toddlers need five servings of fruits and vegetables every day?
A: Toddlers need at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but it doesn’t need to be as daunting as it sounds! At this age, a serving is roughly what your toddler can hold in her hand. So a couple of grapes, a few pieces of apple, or a tablespoon of corn or peas will count as one serving. Vegetables blended into pasta sauces, and hidden in dishes such as spinach and ricotta lasagna or butternut squash risotto, are other good ways to get your toddler to eat her veggies. Potatoes don’t count, but sweet potatoes and carrots do, so mash potatoes with these as a topping for cottage pie.

A handful of berries or dried fruit, such as raisins or apricots, make good snacks, and you can sprinkle oatmeal or breakfast cereal with berries. A small glass of fruit juice or a smoothie also count as a serving. Homemade fresh fruit popsicles are another tasty way to get your little one to eat more fruit .

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are best for your child as the pigment contains antioxidants, so make sure there is plenty of color on your child’s plate.

Q: Why are fruits and vegetables so important?
A: It probably goes without saying that fruits and vegetables contain most of the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for your child to grow and develop, and to remain healthy and full of energy. They contain fiber, which encourages healthy digestion and normal bowel movements, and also antioxidants that are vital for good health, and can prevent many health problems. The secret is to go for variety—and plenty of color—which will ensure your toddler gets the whole spectrum of nutrients she needs. A sweet potato or some butternut squash makes a great alternative to an ordinary baked potato, and a handful of berries, or a piece of fresh, ripe melon, or mango, can offer a fantastic nutrient boost. If it’s bright, it’s bound to be healthy! Berries are particularly good as they are rich in vitamin C, which helps us absorb iron from our food.
Q: My child eats no fruit or vegetables at all, but drinks a lot of juice. Is this enough for his five servings a day?
A: Juice is a good way to get a serving of fruit or vegetables into a fussy eater, but it isn’t really enough. For one thing, juice contains no fiber, which is important for healthy digestion and bowel movements. Secondly, even the freshest, pure juices contain high levels of natural sugars, which can not only damage your toddler’s teeth and encourage a sweet tooth, but wreak havoc with his blood sugar levels. What’s more, his little tummy may be filled by even small servings of juice, preventing him from eating a healthy, balanced main meal.

If he’s keen on juice, I suggest looking for some fresh fruit and vegetable blends, preferably with “bits,” which do at least offer a little fiber. Always dilute your toddler’s juice, and offer it after he’s eaten a meal, when it will add to his overall nutrient intake, keep him hydrated, and help the absorption of iron in his food.

It is, however, a very good idea to work on including vegetables and fruit in his daily diet, even if you have to hide them. For some good ideas, see Juicy nutrients.

Q: My toddler’s diet seems to consist of three or four favorites, but these include just two fruits. Is this enough or does she need more variety?
A: Most little ones have particular favorites, and are reluctant to try new foods, particularly in the fruit and vegetable range! If she’s eating three or four different fruits and vegetables regularly, it’s likely that she will be getting a fairly good range of nutrients. It does, of course, depend on what these are! For example, if she eats only peas, corn, apples, and bananas, she’ll be missing out on some of the essential vitamins and minerals—in particular, antioxidants—found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. It’s worth trying to include more of these whenever possible, even if you have to purée them into soups or pasta dishes until she acquires a taste for them.

Continue to offer a variety of foods at mealtimes. Make food look appealing—how about threading some bite-sized pieces of fruit onto a straw? What’s more, it sometimes helps to sneak a new food into a plate of favorites without drawing attention to it. Curiosity or hunger may win out. Also consider offering “tapas”-sized bits of new fruits and vegetables, with a favorite dip to try with them. Serve different fruits and vegetables to the whole family, too, and make a good show of enjoying them. Your little one will want to be part of the fun and may just give them a go.

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