Healthy Food for Toddlers to Eat

Table of contents 

 

Melissa is a health writer with over 12 years of experience in the field of nutrition.  She specializes in helping women move away from restrictive habits that lead to vicious yo-yo weight cycles.  Melissa enjoys writing about health, nutrition, and fitness with the goal of simplifying complex health topics for the reader. 

The toddler years, defined as the age of 1-3 years old, are a crucial time in a child’s life for growth and development. Proper nutrition and a balanced diet are key to supporting this growth and sets the stage for optimal health later in life. 

However, toddlers are very active and curious about the world around them. This means they can get easily distracted during meal and snack times. Offering nutritious, healthy foods that toddlers will want to eat will get them more excited to try new things.

There are some key nutrients of importance for toddlers to make note of - iron, zinc, potassium, Vitamins D and E - to name a few. The omega-3 fatty acids DHA, EPA, and ALA are also common to be lacking in a toddler’s diet. Providing healthy food for toddlers and encouraging them to have a varied diet every day will support your toddler’s health and development.

Foods for Toddlers

Some of the best healthy food for toddlers to eat are ones that provide them with the crucial nutrients they need for proper growth. It is important to offer a variety of foods from each food group. Toddlers need a balanced diet with plenty of choices in order to meet their nutritional needs. Offering a variety of foods also encourages your toddler to experiment and increases their exposure to a wide array of health-promoting nutrients.

While variety is key, there are a few nutrients and foods of particular importance during the toddler years. The healthiest foods for toddlers are the ones that provide adequate amounts of these key nutrients.

Iron

Iron is an essential nutrient for toddlers, and one that many are not getting enough of. One of iron’s primary roles in the body is to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that helps deliver oxygen. If your child’s diet is lacking iron, they are at risk for anemia. This can cause weakness, social withdrawal, and learning and behavioural issues.

Some of the best iron-rich foods include spinach, beans, and fortified foods and drinks. To boost the iron absorption, it is recommended to consume vitamin C containing foods with iron. Toddlers require 7-10 milligrams of iron per day, which is approximately 1 cup of raw spinach or fortified cereal.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is another necessary nutrient in your toddler’s diet. It plays a vital role in building strong bones and teeth, and works closely with calcium to do this. It also may play a role in our immune system. Many of us are able to make vitamin D from sun exposure, but not always in adequate amounts.

Foods that naturally contain vitamin D include mushrooms and spinach. Fortified foods and beverages also contain vitamin D - such as fortified milk, yogurt, and orange juice.

Toddlers need 600 IU (International Units) per day of vitamin D daily. This equals around 3 cups of milk, orange juice, or 3-4 ounces of salmon.

Calcium

Calcium is another essential nutrient for your child, promoting the development of healthy and strong bones, teeth, and muscles. Foods rich in calcium are dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other foods include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli as well as legumes like beans, lentils, and peas.

Toddlers require 700 milligrams of calcium per day, which equals 2-3 servings of high calcium foods. One serving is approximately 1 cup of dairy milk, soy milk or yogurt, or 1.5 ounces of cheese. 

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an important vitamin that acts as a powerful antioxidant. It helps to protect cells against damage caused by free radicals, which are damaging particles your toddler may be exposed to in their environment. Excessive exposure to these free radicals may lead to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and cataracts later in life.

Vitamin E rich foods include sunflower seeds, almonds, and leafy greens, as well as fortified cereals.

Vitamin E requirement for toddlers is 6 milligrams per day, which can be met from one serving of vitamin-E rich food or drinks.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral for proper growth and development. It is involved in the immune system and in managing important mental tasks such as memory, attention span, and learning. Additionally, studies have shown increasing zinc intake may help toddlers reach a healthy height and weight.

Good food sources of zinc include red meat, nuts, shellfish, potatoes with skin, beans, and mushrooms, as well as fortified cereals. The recommendation for toddlers is 3 milligrams per day. This can typically be met if your child is eating a variety of zinc-rich foods.

Potassium

Potassium is an important mineral that plays a role in regulating our nervous system, blood pressure, and in protecting our bones. A diet with plenty of potassium-rich foods such as salmon, tomatoes, and spinach will help your toddler meet their needs.

The recommendation for potassium for toddlers is 2000 milligrams per day, which is approximately 4 servings of high-potassium foods.

Omega-3 Fats (DHA, EPA, ALA)

You may have heard of the omega-3 fats as the “healthy” or “essential fatty acids,” and for good reason. Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and have numerous health benefits. There are 3 types of omega-3 fats - docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

These essential fats help feed your toddler’s brain and keep it healthy. They may help better manage psychological and behavioral conditions, such as attention problems or depression.

Seaweed, nori, spirulina, and chlorella are different forms of algae that many people eat for their health benefits. Seaweed and algae are important sources of omega-3 for people on a vegetarian or vegan diet, as they are one of the few plant groups that contain DHA and EPA.

. ALA is found in plant-based foods such as flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts. The daily recommendation for toddlers is 0.7 grams per day.

Offering a variety of these nutritious foods will expand your toddler’s palate as well as boost their overall health.


How to choose healthy food for toddlers

As a parent, you play an important role in your toddler’s food choices. But, that can sometimes feel overwhelming. A big part of choosing healthy food for toddlers is simply knowing what to look for.

It’s helpful to understand what to look for on the nutrition label, proper food safety and choking hazards. This can help you identify what foods to keep on hand.

What to look for on the nutrition label

      • Added sugar - Many products, especially those designed for toddlers, can be filled with extra sugar that is not naturally present in that food. This is called “added sugar” and is listed on the food label. Toddlers should have less than 25 grams of added sugar per day.

      • Sodium - Excess sodium, or salt intake can have negative effects on our health. The amount of sodium is always listed on the nutrition label in milligrams per serving. The recommendation for toddlers is 800 milligrams per day or less. Offering your child more whole foods rather than processed convenience foods will naturally lead to less sodium intake.

      • High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) - This genetically modified sugar has found its way into many toddler products. The debate is still out on its potential effects on our health, but it is a big source of added sugar. If you see HFCS as one of the first ingredients on the ingredient list, steer clear of that product. You will not find any HFCS in any of our Else toddler drinks.

 

Proper food safety and choking hazards

Young children have immature immune systems. When feeding your toddler, avoid the following to prevent foodborne infection:

      • All unpasteurized foods and beverages, including raw milk and unpasteurized juice and ciders 
      • Raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs
      • Raw and undercooked fish or shellfish
      • Raw sprouts
      • Honey until after their first birthday

Additionally, some foods pose a choking threat to toddlers and should not be given before the age of 4:

      • Tough meats like steak
      • Grapes
      • Tomatoes
      • Cherries
      • Hot dogs
      • Nuts
      • Seeds
      • Popcorn
      • Gum and hard candy

Foods to keep on hand

Most toddlers do not eat enough variety, and so keeping nutritious items on hand is important. Repeated exposure to healthy foods will increase the likelihood they will try them and develop a preference for them:

      • Fruits - apples, bananas, berries, mango, watermelon
      • Vegetables - broccoli, potatoes, green beans, peas, carrots, spinach
      • Whole grains - whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, cereal
      • Proteins -  beans, peas
      • Dairy/Plant-based Milk Alternatives - cheese, milk, yogurt, plant-based milk alternatives

Best Food for Toddlers for Brain Development

There are certain nutrients of critical importance for your toddler’s brain development. These include the omega-3 fats - DHA, ALA, and EPA, as well as other nutrients such as protein, zinc, and iron. Here are the top 9 foods for toddler’s brain health:

  1. Salmon - Fatty fish such as salmon are rich in the omega-3 fats for your toddler’s brain health.

  2. Eggs - Eggs are packed with choline, a nutrient vital for memory development.

  3. Peanut Butter - Peanuts are a great source of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that helps the body use glucose (carbohydrates) for energy.

  4. Whole grains - Whole grains such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, and cereals contain B-vitamins which nourish a healthy brain and provide energy.

  5. Oats - Oats provide vital energy needed for the brain, especially for learning and focus.They are also loaded with fiber, to keep your toddler’s brain and belly feeling full.

  6. Berries - Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are packed with antioxidants and may be involved in memory.

  7. Beans - Beans are brain food for your toddler. They contain a perfect blend of protein and complex carbs to keep your child’s focus and energy steady all day.

  8. Colorful veggies - Vegetables with a rich, deep color are the best sources for brain health - such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach.

  9. Dairy and dairy alternatives - Dairy and alternatives are packed with protein and essential B-vitamins. These are essential for the proper growth of brain tissue.

While knowing what to feed your toddler is incredibly important, knowing how much they should eat is just as essential.

 

How Much Toddlers Should Eat

Toddlers require about 1,000-1,400 calories per day based on age, activity level, and several other factors. It’s helpful to understand what that looks like in regards to the amount of food per day from each food group.

Grains: at least 6 servings per day, which equals:

  • 1/4 - 1/2 slice of bread
  • 2-3 crackers
  • 1/4- 1/3 cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
  • 1/4 - 1/2 bun, muffin, or bagel

Fruits and Vegetables: at least 5 servings per day, which equals:

  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup cooked, canned, or chopped raw
  • 1/4 - 1/2 small fruit/vegetable
  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup juice (limit fruit juice intake to no more than 4 ounces per day)

Dairy or Milk Alternative: at least 3 servings per day, which equals:

  • 1/2 cup milk or yogurt
  • 1/2 - 1 ounce of cheese
  • Note: You do not need to give your toddler low-fat dairy foods.

Protein Group: 2 servings each day

  • 2-4 tablespoons dry beans and peas
  • 1/2 - 1 egg

Fat Group: 3-4 servings each day

  • 1 teaspoon margarine, butter, oils

Aim to provide your toddler with a variety of these foods throughout the day to meet their nutritional needs. In addition to healthy foods, Else offers plant-based nutritious toddler drinks that can help your toddler meet their needs.

Sample Toddler Meal Schedule

Because a toddler’s appetite can vary so much, it is helpful to offer meals and snacks frequently. Think of each meal as being a “mini” meal of nutritious foods and beverages. In this way, if your child skips or meal or eats very little, they will have another opportunity to eat shortly thereafter. It is recommended to feed your child every 2.5-3 hours.

Here is a sample toddler meal and snack schedule:

  • 7 am: Breakfast - Scrambled egg and banana
  • 9:30 am: Morning Snack - Cut up celery spread with peanut butter and raisins
  • 12 pm: Lunch - Ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • (1 pm nap)
  • 3 pm: Afternoon Snack - Else Toddler Drink
  • 5:30 pm: Dinner - Protein source with peas and sweet potato

How to Prepare Healthy Food for Toddlers

Encouraging your child to eat better can sometimes feel like a challenge. However, there are a few simple steps to follow to create balanced, delicious meals for your toddler:

  • Offer at least 2-3 different food groups. Providing a combination of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fruits and vegetables will ensure a balanced meal. Your child may not try everything - and that’s okay. Offering a variety will encourage them to try at least one food.
  • Provide one fruit or one vegetable with each meal. Most toddlers don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Offering at least one with every meal will increase their likelihood of trying them.
  • Keep it simple. Toddlers like simple meals and don’t need a lot of ingredients. Use sectioned plates to separate the protein, starch, and fruit/vegetable so they can pick and choose what they want.
  • Present it in a fun way. Cutting vegetables or chicken into animal shapes can make the meal experience more fun for your toddler! Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works. You may find that your child loves veggies cut a certain way, but won’t touch them if presented in a different way.

how to prepare healthy food for toddlers

Foods for Picky Toddlers

Many parents assume their toddler will be delighted to try new foods. However, toddlers often stick to what they’re comfortable and familiar with and are reluctant to try new foods. They don’t like change and they want a sense of control and independence. Or, sometimes they’re distracted and just want to play.

However, there are ways to encourage your toddler to try new foods, support their independence, and help them to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. The way you offer new foods and the overall eating environment can make a huge impact in how toddlers eat.

  • Offer one food at a time. If you try to offer several new foods all at once, you’ll probably find your toddler pushing back because they feel overwhelmed. Instead, offer just one new food per meal, alongside a familiar food. In this way, they already know there is something on their plate that they enjoy.
  • Get your child involved in the process. When your toddler sees what you’re making and is part of the process, they feel special. They will then be more likely to try it because they helped create the finished product.
  • Be patient. Know that it may take multiple exposures for your child to try, and eventually like, a new food. Don’t get discouraged or give up. Keep presenting those same foods in different ways. Eventually, your child will give them more of a chance.
  • Supplement when needed. If you are trying everything under the sun but are still not gaining traction, Else is here to help. Our organic, delicious plant-based toddler drink is the perfect solution to fill the gaps in your picky toddler’s diet.

Tips for Mealtime

Mealtime does not have to be stressful. Creating a relaxed environment and letting your child take the lead can result in improved nutritional intake and less mealtime meltdowns.

  • There are no good or bad foods. Labeling the food on a child’s plate as “good” or “bad” can lead to confusion and result in an unhealthy relationship with food. Research shows that offering a treat during meals actually results in better intake as opposed to only offering it after the meal was consumed.
  • Don’t force or sneak foods. Let your child take the lead on what they want to eat on their plate. Young children crave independence, and so they will want to try food when they are ready to. Additionally, try not to “sneak” healthy food into your child’s meals. It is better for them to see, taste, and familiarize themselves with these foods so that they develop a long-term preference for them.
  • Let your child decide how much to eat. As parents we want what is best for our children. With this in mind, it is easy to unintentionally pressure our child to eat when they’re full. Your child does not have to finish all the food on his or her plate or drink all the liquid in the cup or bottle. Present the food in front of them and then let them make the decision how much they want to have.
  • Sit down as a family whenever possible. When you eat together as a family, you are teaching your toddler how to eat and helping them develop social skills. They also are able to see that you are eating the food on your plate which makes it feel less intimidating for them. It is a fact that children who eat with their parents are more likely to have a balanced diet.

Applying these strategies can make mealtimes more peaceful and enjoyable for parents and their toddlers, and ultimately, improve toddlers nutrition.

10 Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Toddlers

  1. Fruit and yogurt parfait
    Layer fruit on top of your toddler’s favorite yogurt. Top with their favorite low-sugar cereal or granola.

  2. Egg Muffins
    Whisk together 8 eggs, 1/2 cup milk, and your toddler’s favorite cut up veggies like broccoli, bell peppers, or tomatoes. Pour into muffin wells and bake at 375°F (191°C) for 15 to 20 minutes.

  3. PB & J Waffles
    This is a fun twist on a traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Spread peanut butter and low-sugar jelly on a whole grain waffle, and watch them enjoy!

  4. Smoothie
    Smoothies are a great way to offer more fruit and veggies than your child may normally eat at one meal. Add 1 cup milk, ½ cup fruit, ¼ cup veggies, and 1 tablespoon peanut butter or hemp seeds or a scoop of Else plant-based complete nutrition for toddlers for a protein boost.

  5. Breakfast Quesadilla
    Warm cheese, snipped spinach, and beans in a tortilla. You can also add scrambled eggs. Warm the quesadilla in a skillet just until the cheese melts.

  6. Snack Plate
    Toddlers love snacks, and so creating a snack plate is fun for them. Some foods to include are a low-sugar dry cereal, protein such as cheese, nut butter, or an egg, and fruit.

  7. Low-sugar cereal
    Whole grain cereals can be a great way to help your toddler meet their vitamin needs. You’ll want to look for options with little added sugar, a few grams of fiber and protein for a balanced source of energy. Plus, it’s an incredibly quick and easy breakfast.

  8. Overnight Oats
    Overnight oats are so quick and easy and can be made ahead of time. For the liquid you can always use Else Plant-based Complete Nutrition for Toddlers, instead of milk. Add a nutritional boost with plant-based yogurt or your toddler’s favorite fruit.

  9. Pancakes and fruit
    Make whole wheat pancakes with a side of fruit. Strawberries, blueberries,
    or bananas are delicious alongside pancakes.

  10. Apple slices with almond butter and string cheese
    Cut up apple slices and serve with 1 tablespoon almond butter and string cheese on the side. 

    10 Healthy Lunch Ideas for Toddlers

    1. Chickpea salad wraps
      Mash up chickpeas, mayo, and fresh dill and spread on a whole wheat wrap. It’s texture is similar to tuna, without the strong flavor. This lunch is rich in fiber, protein, folate and iron.

    2. Veggie pizza
      Add sauce, cheese, and your child’s favorite veggies to an english muffin or mini-naan bread. Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, until the sauce and cheese are bubbly.

    3. Pasta with marinara sauce and white beans
      Add marinara sauce to your child’s favorite pasta. Add on a scoop of white beans for a protein boost.

    4. Simple cheese quesadillas 
      Add shredded cheese to a whole wheat quesadilla. Add on diced grapes and steamed or roasted carrots on the side and salsa for dipping.

    5. PB&J or sunbutter and jelly with fruit
      Add peanut or sunflower butter to a whole wheat pita with jelly. Serve with fruit.

    6. Cottage cheese plate
      Serve with peaches canned in water, raspberries, or pineapples with a side of crackers.

    7. Waffle sandwich 
      Top waffle with mashed roasted sweet potato and fruit.

    8. Hard-boiled egg plate
      Serve eggs with crackers, berries, snap peas, and yogurt-covered raisins.

    9. Warmed leftover rice 
      Serve with mashed avocado, chicken, or fish on the side.

    10. Yogurt and fruit
      Top yogurt with fruit and a whole grain cereal for crunch.

      10 Healthy Dinner Ideas for Toddlers

      1. Black bean quesadilla 
        Add beans, and a sprinkle of shredded cheese to a whole grain quesadilla.

      2. Whole grain french toast sticks 
        Make whole wheat french toast with cinnamon and cut into sticks. Serve with light syrup and strawberries.

      3. Corn and Bean tacos
        Add thawed frozen corn and warm 15-30 seconds in the microwave. Serve in a whole wheat tortilla with salsa on the side for dipping. Add in cooked beans.

      4. Quick Pizzas
        Cut whole-wheat pita into wedges and top with pizza sauce and cheese. Heat in the oven at 325℉ or in a pan on the stovetop just until cheese is melted.

      5. Super simple fried rice
        Scramble an egg, stir in 1/4 cup peas, 1/4 cup of rice and a drizzle of reduced-sodium soy sauce. Add a fruit on the side like cut up apples or melon.

      6. Apple pancakes
        Add 1/2 cup grated apple to your favorite pancake batter. Add in 1 teaspoon cinnamon and cook as directed. Serve smeared with nut butter or a little honey.

      7. Cheesy veggie toast
        Top toast with shredded cheese, thawed frozen peas, broccoli or cauliflower florets, and microwave for 10 seconds to melt. Alternatively, you can serve the vegetables alongside the cheesy toast.

      8. Toddler cheese plate
        Serve with cheese, crackers, fruit, and fresh veggies.

      9. Avocado toast and scrambled eggs
        Spread mashed avocado on whole wheat toast, serve with scrambled eggs.

      10. Snack plate
        Create a fun snack plate with hummus, fruit, veggies, and cheese.

        10 Healthy Snack Ideas for Toddlers

        1. Cucumber sticks with hummus

        2. Pretzels with a cheese stick

        3. Greek plant-based yogurt with chia seeds

        4. Boiled egg with strawberries

        5. Banana with peanut butter

        6. Homemade granola bar

        7. Applesauce

        8. Cottage cheese with peaches

        9. Bran muffins

        10. Smoothie made with Else Plant-based Complete Nutrition for toddlers.

          10 Healthy Smoothie Ideas for Toddlers

          Smoothies are a great way to pack in more nutrition into your little one’s diet.Here are 10 super simple smoothie ideas for toddlers.

          1. Mango Peach Smoothie

            Ingredients:

            Blend together until smooth.
          2. Coconut Pie Smoothie

            Ingredients:
            • 3 bananas
            • ¼ cup almond butter
            • 14 ounce can coconut milk
            • ½ cup coconut flakes
            • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
            • ½ cup ice
            Blend together until smooth.
          3. Pineapple Green Smoothie

            Ingredients:

            Blend together until smooth.
          4. Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie

            Ingredients:
            Blend together until smooth.
          5. Peach Cobbler Smoothie
            Ingredients:
            Blend together until smooth.
          6. Sunshine Orange Smoothie
              Ingredients:
              Blend together until smooth.

            • Purple People Eater Smoothie

              Ingredients:
              Blend together until smooth.

            • Frozen Superhero Smoothie

              This smoothie is both a green and pink smoothie in one. Your toddler will love the colors!

              Green Smoothie Ingredients:

              Pink Smoothie Ingredients:
              Blend together until smooth. Serve the pink smoothie on top of the green.

            • Banana Berry Smoothie

              Ingredients:
              Blend together until smooth.

            • Green Pear Smoothie

              Ingredients:
              • 1 ripe banana, sliced
              • 1 pear, seeded and diced
              • 1 ½ cups kale, rinsed and stemmed
              • ⅔ cup Else Plant-based Complete Nutrition for Toddlers
              • 2-4 slices fresh peeled ginger
              • 1 tablespoon honey
              • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
              • ½ tablespoon ground cinnamon
              • 1 cup ice
              Blend together until smooth.

            Bottom line

            The toddler years are an amazing time of growth and development. But, also a time when it is paramount to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. If you have any concerns about your child’s nutrition, Else can help. Our delicious complete nutrition toddler drinks are an 100% organic, plant-based solution that can fill the nutrient gaps in your child’s diet.

            The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.


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