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Healthy Eating For Toddlers

Healthy Eating for Toddlers

Keep up with your toddler's changing nutritional needs

Isn't it amazing to see your toddler growing and learning so quickly? It's really important to make sure that they have a healthy, balanced diet packed with all the nutrients they need to help fuel all that amazing development.

So make sure that your toddler enjoys a combination of foods from these four groups: 

Starchy foods (carbohydrates)

o    For energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals 
o    Examples: sweet potatoes,  yam, plantain, cereals, pasta, bread, rice 
Minimum 4 servings in a day - 1 serving is about 15g or 1 slice of bread,  one-half cup of cooked rice/sweet potato, 1 cup of raw vegetables or 1 apple. Servings of liquids include 1 cup of skim milk, one-half cup of fruit juice.

Fruit and vegetables

o    For vitamins and fibre 
o    Examples: bananas, apples, pears, pineapple,  guavas, oranges, tomatoes, bell peppers, mangoes, pawpaw 
All these make great nutritious snacks for toddlers when cut into easy-to-eat finger foods. Offer them at every meal so your toddler learns to expect them as part of a normal meal.
Minimum 4 servings in a day

Meat, fish and pulses

o    For protein, fat, vitamins and minerals
Meats include chicken, fish, egg, mincemeat, while plant sources of proteins include (string) beans, green grams and other lentils.

Minimum of 1 serving for animal source of protein which is about 80g/palm size .or 2 servings for plant based sources in which 1 serving is ½ to ¾ cup of cooked legumes (beans/peas and others).

Milk and dairy: milk, cheese and yogurt for calcium, other minerals and protein

Milk, cheese, yogurts and other dairy foods provide protein and give your toddler essential calcium for growing bones. 

Studies indicate that drinking too much cows' milk can lead to anemia in babies less than one year old because it is very low in iron and fills up small tummies, meaning toddlers eat less of the valuable iron-rich foods. Growing up milks have been modified and fortified to address this need. A minimum of 300ml growing up milk or 2 servings of dairy products, which can be as a drink or included in other foods e.g. breakfast cereal, is recommended to meet approximately 80% of the iron requirements of the toddler.  

Foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar, like biscuits, crisps and cakes provide energy but little else so try to keep these to a minimum. If your toddler's hungry between meals, let them snack on fruit or bread. It's best to limit soft drinks to mealtimes.

The importance of vitamin D

Another common deficiency seen in toddlers, and especially those of ethnic minority origin, is of Vitamin D. Inadequate dietary vitamin D and/or calcium intake, darkly pigmented skin, inadequate exposure to sunlight due to excessive clothing, remaining indoors for seasonal, cultural or religious reasons and air pollution are the main causes for this deficiency.

The typical African diet is rich in grains that contain inhibitors of calcium absorption such as phytates, oxalate, tannates, and phosphates. This coupled with diminished exposure to sunlight in more northern climates and a reduced dietary intake of vitamin D may be contributory factors to the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency.

Darkly pigmented skin requires longer sunlight exposure than light skin to maximize vitamin D formation; therefore dark-skinned mothers are at increased risk of being vitamin D deficient. Their infants are more likely to have low vitamin D stores at birth, receive less vitamin D in breast milk and produce less vitamin D themselves from sunlight. 

Implications for health

Since growth velocity is greater during infancy than in toddlerhood, toddlers do experience rapid growth and development. During periods of rapid growth and development, a child may be particularly vulnerable to inappropriate dietary patterns and nutrition. Some micronutrient deficiencies during early life result in irreversible deficits in mental and physical development. 

Bone health

Key to the process of growth is the lengthening and strengthening of bones and to support this process, the nutrients calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D are essential. Calcium and phosphorus form the structure of bone and enable a healthy strong skeleton to be built during toddler years, childhood and adolescence, ensuring a strong bone structure throughout life. 

Calcium is found in dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurts) and in fish eaten with bones such as sardines and whitebait. Green leafy vegetables, beans and pulses supply some calcium although it is not as well absorbed.

Vital to the absorption of calcium in the body is vitamin D. Small amounts are found in oily fish, eggs, fortified cereals and margarine, but the body manufactures most of its vitamin D by the action of sunlight on the skin. Recommendations to use sun block and the traditions of many cultures to cover their bodies with clothing have caused limited vitamin D production in the skin. 

The classic sign of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, and an increase in the incidence of rickets has been reported in some African countries in the recent past. 

Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and teeth, so it's absolutely vital for fast-growing toddlers! The challenge is to ensure your toddler gets enough vitamin D, as it's only found in certain foods – and not all toddlers enjoy them!

•    Liver
•    Egg yolk
•    Oily fish
•    Fortified cereal, milk 
•    Butter or fortified margarine 
•    Exposure to the sun especially in the morning or in the evening for approximately 20 minutes-ensures you toddler is getting some sun every day

Getting enough iron

Iron is essential for your toddler's health and development. It is found in every living cell because it forms part of the hemoglobin in red blood cells, which has an important role in the transport of respiratory oxygen as well as carbon dioxide for elimination. It is a part of the brain proteins, making it a contributor to brain development and is also needed for proper immune function.

Iron in foods occurs in several forms, which differ in their absorption by the body. Iron that is part of the hemoglobin in animal meat, called haem iron, is absorbed better than non-haem iron which is present in vegetables, grains, and plant foods. 

Consequently, foods containing high amounts of haem iron are an important part of a toddler's diet.For those consuming more of the non-haem iron sources, there is no need to worry, if the meal is combined with a vitamin C rich food e.g. oranges, berries, peppers and tomatoes and dark green leafy vegetables, the iron will be made more available for the body to absorb by the vitamin C.

Including a range of iron-rich foods in your toddler's diet will help supply essential iron and prevent iron deficiency anemia, which can affect their development. Good sources include:

•    Growing up milk 
•    Meat and fish 
•    Iron-fortified infant cereal 
•    Dark green vegetables
•    Beans, and lentils together with a Vitamin C rich food source

 Foods you should limit

1.    Sweets and chocolates: high fat and sugar foods like biscuits, ice-cream, cakes, chocolate bars should be limited as they can reduce your toddler's appetite for healthy foods.

2.    Salty foods: It's important to not give your toddler too much salt. Never add it to their food and check ingredients on pre-made foods. Remember, toddlers should have a maximum of 2g salt per day – that's one third of the daily maximum salt intake an adult should have.

Your toddler's milk

After their first birthday, it's recommended that your toddler has a minimum of 300ml of milk per day, or has at least two servings of dairy products. For example, they could have 2 beakers of milk (2 x 150ml) and a yogurt. 

As toddlers need less milk than babies, it's best not to give them milk before meals because it could make them too full – and mean they miss out on important energy and other nutrients.

Between 1-3 years toddlers gain an average 40% in weight and height. It's no wonder they're growing out of their new clothes!

Feeding tips

Keep trying!

Now quite confident at feeding themselves, your toddler will probably have their own routine of regular meals and snacks. They know what they like, but do keep trying out new foods on them from time to time.

If you haven't introduced them already, try tasty ‘combination dishes' like yogurt and fruit or finger foods like poached fish with mashed potatoes with some carrots cut up in interesting shapes.


Your toddler will need about three regular meals a day and two or three healthy snacks. Make sure they get enough vegetables by experimenting with things like mashed carrots, green beans, broccoli, spinach, terere, pumpkins and pumpkin leaves, potatoes and peas. It's natural for toddlers to be fussy and refuse some foods, but don't give up. Keep offering the refused food, as this fussy stage generally disappears. Toddlers can learn to accept different foods, particularly by watching you or their brothers and sisters enjoying it!

Surprise them

Keep meals interesting and varied so that your toddler keeps eating a variety of nutrients. Give them a surprise new fruit for pudding occasionally, such as rice pudding with banana, a fruit salad with yoghurt, or a pancake with a variety of fruit slices.

Between 1-3 years toddlers' nutritional needs can be more than double those of an adult's for their size. Keep feeding them the good stuff!