Despite parents' worries, children will select a diet that's good for them if they are given the right foods to choose from. How you've handled food up to now will influence how your toddler reacts to new foods. Try to introduce them in a matter-of-fact way. Offer small amounts of a variety of foods to help your toddler understand the concept of choice.
To make sure your child receives needed nutrients, plan meals around the five major food groups, those you've seen so often in the food pyramid: the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group; fruits; vegetables; meat and fish; and dairy products.
We spoke with Ann Shaw, Ph.D., a research nutritionist with the Human Nutrition Information Services (the agency that created the new food pyramid) to adapt the number of servings in each food group, as well as the serving sizes, for children ages 2 to 5. In general, children need about the same number of servings in each group as adults do, but their recommended serving sizes are approximately one-third smaller.
When your child is younger than 2, her nutritional requirements and the amount of food she needs are somewhat different, so rely on your pediatrician's advice. All children under 2, for example, have a need for fat, which should not be limited in their diets. The most important thing you can do for your "under 2" is serve a wide variety of foods from each of the five food groups.
For all young children, Shaw says, snacks should play an important role in fulfilling nutritional needs. Toddlers tend to have small appetites and may not be able to consume a full serving at one time. Also, large portions are often overwhelming, so start out with small portions. Your child can always ask for seconds.
We also talked to five dietitians and asked for tips to ease the transition from infant feeding to the wider world of toddler nutrition. They've come up with some practical - and creative - advice that underscores the importance of your role in setting your kids up for a lifelong commitment to good nutrition.
Breads, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta
Toddlers need at least six servings from this food group every day. One serving consists of one third cup cooked pasta, cereal, or rice; two thirds of an ounce of ready-to-eat cereal; or two thirds of a slice of bread.
Toddlers should consume a variety of breads, cereal, rice, and pasta so they receive enough fiber and carbohydrates, which provide energy. Toddlers need - and expend - tremendous amounts of energy. Also, many ready-to-eat cereals are enriched with iron and will help your child meet the daily requirement for this nutrient. This food group is one with which your toddler will be most familiar. Rice or barley cereal is the first solid introduced to a baby's diet. Soon they graduate to the little round cereal that is a perennial toddler favorite. Also, bits of bread, especially chewy bread and crackers, often soothe teething babies.
Most toddlers can handle a small sandwich, and this is a good way to serve them bread, says Corinne Montandon, Ph.D., R.D., a nutritionist with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. She recommends that you make sandwiches with nutritious whole-grain breads. Although many white breads are enriched (which means vitamins and minerals have been added), they don't contain as much fiber.
Your child may like white bread, but now you need to broaden his tastes. Try making a sandwich with half white and half wheat bread, then cut it into small triangles and arrange some shapes white-side up and some brown-side up, and also point some toward the top of the plate and some toward the bottom. Don't forget to try other kinds of bread, too, such as bagels or pita bread.
Montandon had these suggestions to help you add toddler appeal to some foods in this group:
- Mix a surprise into hot cereals, such as raisins, dried apricots or apple bits (all cut into very small pieces to prevent choking). Keep a variety of these surprises on hand and let your toddler choose the surprise for the day.
- Combine pasta with other things you want your toddler to eat: meat, cheeses, and vegetables. Macaroni and cheese and spaghetti and meat sauce are popular with toddlers.
- Smear graham crackers with peanut butter.
- Make mini grilled cheese sandwiches (cut a regular sandwich into quarters) or mini pizzas composed of English muffins, a little sauce, and grated cheese.
- Offer a bedtime snack of cereal and milk. Many toddlers love this snack at the end of the day.
Fruits and Vegetables
To get the vitamins and minerals they need, children should eat three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits every day. One serving equals two thirds cup of raw, leafy vegetable; one third cup of raw, cooked, or canned fruit or vegetable; a small piece of fruit; one half cup of fruit or vegetable juice; or one sixth cup dried fruit. These daily servings should include at least one vitamin C source (citrus fruits, strawberries, and melon) and one vitamin A source (deep green and yellow fruits and vegetables, such as peaches, carrots, spinach, broccoli, and squash).
Read labels carefully when choosing canned or processed fruits and vegetables, says Trish Riley Vignati, R.D., a research nutritionist at Emory University School of Public Health in Atlanta. Check for added sugar and salt, especially in canned vegetables, which often have an enormous amount of added salt. Look for cans marked "low-salt" or "no salt." Check fruit juice labels carefully, too, to be sure the product is 100-percent juice. Many have added sugar or water.
Children like the variety of bright colors and textures that fruits and vegetables offer, so it'll probably be easier than you might think to get your child to eat them. Vignati suggests these steps to make them even more enticing:
- Take your toddler shopping and let him select one new fruit or vegetable on each trip.
- Add fruits and vegetables (one at a time) to foods you already make. For example, add kiwi slices to yogurt or broccoli to spaghetti sauce.
- Involve your child in preparing vegetables. Even a very young child can wash carrots.
- Cut up a variety of vegetables (with or without help) and serve them raw or slightly steamed with a dip such as nonfat salad dressing.
Meat and Fish
To meet his protein requirements, a toddler's daily servings from this food group should add up to three and a half ounces of meat, fish, or the equivalent in meat alternatives such as cooked dried beans and eggs. One serving of meat or fish consists of one and two thirds ounces, and one serving of meat alternatives consists of one third cup cooked beans, one small egg, or one and one third tablespoons of peanut butter used in a sandwich. (These amounts are the equivalent of roughly an ounce of meat.)
When serving meat to your toddler, make sure it's been cooked thoroughly. Cut the meat into pieces that are small enough for him to manage, yet not large enough to choke on. When you serve fish, be especially careful to pick through the entire portion and remove any bones.
Because there are so many interesting ways to serve meats - in a vegetable stew, perhaps, or broiled or sautéed - parents should be able to avoid giving children fried meat, says Yvonne Bronner, R.D., a nutritionist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore. To make meat dishes as healthy as possible, remove excess fat and skin before preparing. Steering your kids clear of high-fat tastes early on gives them a head start on a lifetime of healthy eating habits. Bronner says a great way to get your toddler to eat meat (and some vegetables, too) is to include him in the preparation of a Chinese stir-fry (under close supervision, of course). Cut up an assortment of colorful vegetables - red, green, and yellow peppers, broccoli, carrots - and slice up some chicken or beef. Let your child pick out the bits he wants for his dinner, drop them into the pan, and you can both watch them cook.
Toddlers need at least three servings of dairy foods per day. One serving is equivalent to two thirds cup of yogurt, two thirds cup of milk, one ounce of natural cheese, or one and one third ounces of processed cheese. Dairy foods are an important source of protein and calcium - a vital nutrient for young children because it helps build strong bones. The right stuff for toddlers is similar to the right stuff for everyone. You'll just have to help get it down.
Children should consume 800 milligrams of calcium every day. Milk and yogurt are particularly rich in calcium, and relying on them can help your child meet the daily calcium requirement. Three servings of milk or yogurt add up to two cups per day. A cup of milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium and a cup of yogurt contains 340 milligrams. Ask your doctor whether you should feed your toddler whole or low-fat milk.
Cheese will add to the daily calcium count, but the amount of calcium in a serving of cheese varies from 175 to 300 milligrams, depending on the type. An ounce of American cheese, for example, has 175 milligrams and an ounce of cheddar has 200 milligrams. Many processed cheeses are convenient, but they're loaded with fat, so try not to serve them too often.
In addition to the approximately 600 milligrams of calcium that's found in three servings of dairy foods, your child will get some calcium from other foods in his diet, including dark green leafy vegetables, bread products (which are usually calcium enriched), and even orange juice.
Most children like milk but may reject yogurt because it has a slightly sour taste, says nutritionist Laraine Ludlow, who teaches a course for parents called "Nutrition and Your Child" at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY. To help your child cultivate a taste for yogurt, she recommends introducing it early on, at about the same time as milk. Ludlow also suggests dressing up yogurt and other dairy foods in these toddler-friendly ways:
- Mix yogurt with granola and top with fruit for a healthy "sundae."
- Whip up a nutritious shake by mixing a cup of vanilla yogurt and fruit in a blender.
- Make a light cream sauce using yogurt, add some cheese, then toss with pasta.
- Substitute milk for water when baking such foods as pancakes and cupcakes.
- Add flavorings, such as a dash of chocolate syrup, to milk. (Although flavorings contain some sugar, for the child who won't take calcium in any other form, this solution helps you deliver a much-needed nutrient.)