During the early years, it’s important to get nutrition right; what your little one eats now impacts health, growth and development both in the short-term and in later life. Beyond nutrition, the right balance of food helps establish the habit of eating a healthy, varied diet with the rest of the family.
What's a balanced diet for toddlers?
However, while it’s sensible to include some of the principles of healthy eating for your toddler, it’s also important to make sure they get all of the nutrients they need in manageable packages – so, that means not having too many bulky, high-fibre foods, while including good-quality protein and healthy fats.
How much should my toddler eat?
As a guide, toddlers need three meals and two to three snacks, as well as six to eight drinks, each day. Children are good at judging their own appetite; some days they won't eat much and other days they’ll catch up. As their tummies are small, make sure you give ‘me-sized’ portions – this generally means a portion about the size of their cupped hand. Offering two courses at lunch and dinner can be a useful way of getting variety in, but don’t insist on a clean plate every time.
These mini egg & veg muffins make a great snack or a hand-held lunch. They're a good source of protein from the eggs plus fibre and other nutrients from the courgette, carrots and peas.
You may also be interested in our guide to children's appetite and advice for grown-ups on how to eat a balanced diet.
What do healthy meals for toddlers look like?
A healthy, balanced diet is made up of foods from all of the main food groups. This doesn’t have to be achieved at every meal, but it’s good to include something from each group at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with others delivered in snack form. The main food groups are:
Grains and other starchy carbohydrates
Include at least five toddler-sized portions per day such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes. These provide energy as well as the B group of vitamins. Higher fibre starchy foods, like wholegrain cereals and brown rice, also provide extra nutrients, but these should be introduced gradually because they can make the diet bulky.
Try this healthy recipe for microwave courgette and pea risotto with prawns as a good source of starch.
Fruits and vegetables
Include around five hand-sized portions of fruit and veg a day. Fresh, dried, frozen, canned or in juice form (but do limit juices to one per day as they're sugary) all count – aim to include as many different colours as possible to ensure a variety. Eating a ‘rainbow’, for example these frozen fruity skewers provide a great source of micronutrients including vitamin C and make a colourful and enticing snack or dessert.
Familiarity plays an important role in developing food preferences, so having a bowl of colourful fruit and vegetables on show may encourage your little one to give new fruits or veg a go.
Milk and dairy foods
Three servings per day of dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt and milk would be ideal. Full-fat varieties are best for toddlers, but from the age of two onwards, semi-skimmed milk may be introduced as long as their diet is varied and they eat well. Children from the age of one can drink unsweetened, calcium-fortified plant ‘milks.’ However, babies and young children under five should not be given rice drinks because of levels of arsenic in these products.
Try these cauliflower cheese cakes as a tasty lunch.
Meat, fish, beans and pulses and other protein foods
Include about two portions of protein per day – this includes meat, fish, eggs, nuts or pulses (e.g. beans and lentils, or foods made from pulses like tofu, dhal and soya chunks/mince). These foods provide protein as well as micronutrients including minerals like zinc and iron. It’s useful to include oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines and mackerel) once or twice a week.
Learn more about high protein foods.
What should my toddler drink?
Maintaining good levels of hydration is important especially in hot weather and when very active. Six to eight drinks per day (approximately 1 litre) is about the right amount. It's best to give water as their main drink and one or two cups of milk. Squash, juice and pop are all acidic and can cause tooth decay, so find out more about how to protect your children's teeth. Toddlers should be consuming drinks (including milk) from a cup, or free-flowing beaker, not from a bottle.
Should I supplement my toddler’s diet?
Don’t forget that, to boost their diet, vitamin drops are recommended for children under five. Some people can get Healthy Start vitamins free from their health visitor, but all toddlers should take vitamin D (plus vitamins A, C and E).
For more information, see the NHS Healthy Start advice page.
How can I avoid fussy eating?
Breast milk is slightly sweet tasting so it’s natural that babies and toddlers show a preference for sweeter foods. That said, other tastes can be learned through exposure and repetition. Don’t give up because sometimes it can take 10-15 attempts for a food to be accepted! If your toddler is fond of saying ‘no’, just try again another day and don’t forget to set a good example by eating the food yourself.
See our guides for more advice on feeding toddlers:
Healthy foods kids will love
Top 11 recipes for toddlers
Top 5 healthy family meals
A guide to get-ahead dinners
Nutrition for babies, toddlers and pre-school children: a Q&A with Frankie Phillips
Healthy eating: What young children need
This page was last updated in 14 February 2022.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
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