In today’s world, kids’ packaged foods are at our beck-and-call. As someone who grew up on sugary granola bars and fruit roll-ups, I know how deliciously addicting convenience food is. Unfortunately, research shows that children are consuming far more added sugar than past generations. In fact, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that almost 85% of infants and toddlers were fed foods with added sugars or artificial sweeteners regularly (even, daily). As parents, it’s our responsibility to nourish our children with balanced, nutritious food—after all, we want them to live long, healthy lives. Does this mean they can’t ever have added sugar? Of course not! At the end of the day, we want them to establish a healthy relationship with food. In part, that means there are no hard and fast rules. All foods fit. Thus, it’s about finding a happy medium. Today, we’re diving into nutrients toddlers need to be healthy as well as tips for picky eaters.
6 essential toddler nutrients
As a whole, it’s pretty easy to provide the nutrients your toddler needs—particularly once you learn what they are. But in the beginning (for the first six months, or so), babies get all the nutrients they need from breast milk and / or formula. And, these liquids will continue to be your baby’s main source of nutrition through the first 12 months. Gradually, you’ll serve more and more nutrients in the form of solids. By the time you have a toddler, these are the nutrients toddlers need to be healthy:
Iron helps move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. It’s essential! That said, iron supplements and iron-fortified foods are one of the leading causes of constipation in toddlers. So, it’s best to turn to iron-rich, real food sources to help meet your toddler’s need for iron. Iron is available in two forms: Heme and non-heme. Heme is found in meat, seafood, and poultry. It’s more absorbable than non-heme iron (plant-based sources of iron, like lentils, beans, tomato puree, and quinoa). Regardless, to increase absorption, pair iron with vitamin C. It can increase bioavailability up to 3x.
As a whole, healthy fats are vital for infants, babies, and toddlers. They protect major organs, increase nutrient absorption, prevent constipation, and stabilize blood sugar. And of course, they keep toddlers full and satisfied. The human brain is made up of nearly 60% fat, specifically the fatty acid: DHA. DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish (ex: sardines or salmon), grass-fed beef, and algae (only reliable plant- based source of DHA). If your little one is vegan or mostly plant-based, my recommended plant-based source of DHA supplementation is marine algae.
Once weaned from breast milk, all babies should be supplemented with a minimum of 400 IU of vitamin D3. Toddlers (age 12-24 months) need 600 IU of vitamin D3. Food sources of vitamin D for your toddler include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, herring, egg yolks, and beef liver. It’s best to supplement vitamin D, however, as food sources alone aren’t enough.
Choline is not a widely recognized nutrient, but it plays a crucial role in infant development! It supports brain development, enhances the memory, improves cognitive function, and more. Food sources of choline include eggs, liver, salmon, beef, beans, lentils, and plain yogurt.
Calcium is vital for building strong bones and teeth. For optimal absorption, pair foods with calcium with fat. Toddler-friendly foods with calcium include plain yogurt, canned sardines (mashed with avocado), kefir (add to a smoothie), salmon, chia seeds, tahini, and spinach.
Protein is essential for your toddler’s growth, maintenance, and more. Of all the nutrients toddlers need to be healthy, protein is key! It contains many nutrients that are needed for your child’s health. Key nutrients that we also get from protein foods include iron, omega 3s, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and selenium.
Trust Your toddler’s Hunger Cues
If you’re like me, you’ve wondered if your toddler is eating enough. Fear not! I can support you. In terms of how much your toddler should eat, this varies. Some toddlers have huge appetites, others don’t. Some toddlers are varied and adventurous eaters, others are particularly picky. But when presented with a wide variety of wholesome foods and are encouraged to follow their appetites, almost all healthy toddlers eat as much as they need to grow and thrive. Trust is key. As long as your little one is growing at a healthy rate (and your doctor agrees), he or she is likely getting all the nutrition necessary. A good rule of thumb: notice how often your toddler eats. Because most toddlers struggle with sitting long enough to eat an entire meal, pay attention to the frequency of their meals. If they eat five evenly spaced meals or snacks per day, they are likely eating enough.
8 Tips for Picky eaters
Picky eating is often the norm for toddlers. They are beginning to develop food preferences, opinions, and big feelings. Your toddler’s favorite food one day may hit the floor the next, or an avoided food might suddenly become the one he or she can’t get enough of. For weeks, they may eat 1 or 2 preferred foods—and nothing else. Don’t stress, as this typical toddler behavior. Just make healthy food choices available (see above for nutrients toddlers need to be healthy!). Know that, with time, your child’s appetite and eating behaviors will level out. In the meantime, below are some tips that can help you get through the picky eater stage.
As often as possible, eat together
This means no media distractions, like TV or cell phones at mealtime. Use this time to model healthy eating. Serve one meal for the whole family and resist the urge to make another meal if your child refuses what you’ve served. This only encourages picky eating. Try to include at least one food your child likes with each meal and continue to provide a balanced meal, whether she eats it or not.
Don’t Pressure or Punish
If your toddler refuses a meal, avoid fussing over it. It’s good for children to learn to listen to their bodies and use hunger as a guide. If they ate a big breakfast or lunch, for example, they may not be interested in eating much the rest of the day. It’s a parent’s responsibility to provide food, and the child’s decision to eat it. Pressuring kids to eat, or punishing them if they don’t, can make them actively dislike foods they may otherwise like.
Try, try again
Just because a child refuses a food once, don’t give up. Keep offering new foods and those your child didn’t like before. It can take as many as 10 or more times tasting a food before a toddler’s taste buds accept it. Scheduled meals and limiting snacks can help ensure your child is hungry when a new food is introduced.
Make food fun
Toddlers are especially open to trying foods arranged in eye-catching, creative ways. Make foods look irresistible by arranging them in fun, colorful shapes that toddlers can recognize. Children this age also tend to enjoy any food involving a dip! Finger foods are also usually a hit with toddlers. Cut solid foods into bite size pieces they can easily eat themselves, making sure the pieces are small enough to avoid the risk of choking.
variety is the spice of life
Offer a variety of healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and include higher protein foods like meat and deboned fish at least twice per week. Help your child explore new flavors and textures in food. Try adding different herbs and spices to simple meals to make them tastier. To minimize waste, offer new foods in small amounts and wait at least a week or two before reintroducing the same food.
Involve kids in the planning or shopping
Put your toddler’s growing curiosity to good use. Let you child pick which fruit and vegetable to make for dinner or during visits to the grocery store or farmer’s market. Read kid-friendly cookbooks together and let your child pick out new recipes to try.
Encourage Kitchen helpers
Some cooking tasks are perfect for toddlers (with plenty of supervision, of course): sifting, stirring, counting ingredients, picking fresh herbs from a garden or windowsill, and putting ingredients into a smoothie.
Implement a food bridge
Once a food is accepted, use what’s known as a “food bridge” to introduce your child to similar colors, flavors, and textures. This will help expand their palates. If your child likes pumpkin pie, for example, try mashed sweet potatoes and then mashed carrots.
This article is for informational purposes only. Nutrients toddlers need to be healthy will vary from child to child. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider.