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What Are The Best Foods for Toddlers? A Guide to Toddler Nutrition & The 5 Food Groups

Your toddler never stops growing and developing. Even while your child is asleep their mind is active and their energy levels are restoring for another busy day. To fuel this constant growth and development, your toddler’s nutrition is essential. Every day your child needs enough vitamins, minerals and energy to help fuel this growth. However getting the right balance of energy and nutrients can sometimes be difficult. Here’s your guide to the best foods for toddlers, and how to help them adopt a healthy, balanced diet.

Setting Up a Healthy Balance

A healthy balance between good nutrition and physical activity has never been more important, especially in the early toddler years. Offering your child a variety of foods (as meals or snacks) regularly will allow your child to get not only energy but plenty of nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals) that are important for normal growth and good health. Dietary energy, measured in calories or kilojoules, comes from the breakdown of foods including proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Physical energy is the energy we use up moving around and performing activities.

The dietary energy in a toddler’s diet should be balanced with their physical energy and be age appropriate. This ensures they are not over consuming which can lead to unnecessary weight gain. With today’s diets containing excess refined sugar and unhealthy fats, even energetic toddlers are not immune to the excess intake of energy.

Variety in a toddler’s diet is essential for healthy growth and development. Offering your child a variety of foods throughout the day will provide them with the energy and nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals) they need.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends foods should be given from each of the 5 food groups – bread and cereals, fruit, vegetables, dairy foods and meat and alternatives.

These foods have been grouped together based on their similarity in nutrients. Below is a guide for the number of serves and serving sizes for toddlers aged 2-3 years. Remember it is just a guide as every toddler is unique, with different metabolisms and energy levels.

Food Group 1 – Breads and Cereals

This group comes from sources such as wheat, oats, rice, rye, barley, millet and corn.

What nutrients do these foods provide?

  • Carbohydrates
  • B vitamins
  • Protein
  • Iron
  • Fibre

Recommended serves per day: 4

Examples of a serve:

  • 1 slice bread/toast
  • ½ bread roll
  • 2-4 savoury crackers
  • 2/3 cup cereal (preferably wholegrain and with no added sugar)
  • ½ cup cooked porridge
  • 1 cereal biscuit
  • ½ cup cooked pasta/rice/noodles

Food Group 2 – Fruit

Fruits are the sweet edible flesh of a plant and it usually contains seeds.

What nutrients do these foods provide?

  • Vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and vitamin E
  • Minerals, such as potassium and magnesium
  • Fibre

Recommended serves per day: 1

Examples of a serve:

  • 1 medium fruit (pear/apple)
  • 2 small fruits (apricot/plum)
  • ½ cup juice (diluted, no added sugar)
  • 1 cup canned fruit (no added sugar)
  • 1½ tbsp sultanas/dried fruit

Food Group 3 – Vegetables

There are many types of vegetables and these come from many different parts of plants, such as the roots, stems, leaves, seeds, tubers and shoots.

What nutrients do these foods provide?

  • Vitamins, such as vitamin C and folate
  • Minerals, such as magnesium
  • Fibre

Recommended serves per day: 2½

Examples of a serve:

  • ½ cup cooked vegetables
  • ½ potato/carrot
  • ½ cup legumes, canned beans, peas or lentils
  • 1 cup salad vegetables

Food Group 4 – Dairy

This group includes milk, cheese and yoghurt. Reduced fat milk should only be given to your child after two years of age. Before that, they need the extra energy for their growth.

What nutrients do these foods provide?

  • Vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12
  • Minerals, including calcium, zinc and iodine
  • Protein

Recommended serves per day: 1½

Examples of a serve:

  • 250mL milk
  • 200g yoghurt
  • 250mL custard
  • 40g cheese (2 slices)

Food Group 5 – Meats and Alternatives

This includes red or white lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, tofu, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.

What nutrients do these foods provide?

  • Protein
  • Minerals, including iron, zinc and iodine
  • Vitamins, such as vitamin B12
  • Essential fatty acids

Recommended serves per day: 1

Examples of a serve:

  • 65g cooked lean meat
  • 80g cooked lean chicken
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup baked beans/legumes
  • 100g cooked fish fillet or tinned fish
  • Tinned fish

General Tips for Toddler Nutrition

  • Fats & Oils: Fats are essential for good health and are important to include in your toddler’s diet. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats to choose and can be found in foods including oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds and oils, such as olive oil. Recommended serves per day: 2. Serving size: 2tsp.
  • Family foods are ideal: avoid making special meals for your toddler. Strong, spicy and flavoured foods may not be too popular with your little one, but don’t be afraid to offer them anyway. They’ll soon let you know if it’s not to their liking.

For more on nutrients required, see Weaning Nutrients Macronutrients and Weaning Nutrients Vitamins and Minerals.

Extra Foods

Extra foods include cakes, crisp, pies, sausage rolls, pastries and biscuits. These foods are nutrient-poor and contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt. These should be chosen only in small amounts.

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