Pregnancy and baby

What to feed young children

What's the right portion size for my toddler?

Media last reviewed: 28/02/2013

Next review due: 28/02/2015

Like the rest of the family, your toddler needs to eat a variety of food from the four food groups:

Fruit and vegetables for babies and toddlers

Fruit and vegetables contain lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre. It’s good to introduce lots of different types from an early age, whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Make sure that fruit and vegetables are included in every meal.

Different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so the more different types your toddler eats the better. But don’t worry if they’ll only eat one or two.

You can keep giving them small amounts of other fruits and vegetables every so often, so that they can learn to like the taste.

Some children don’t like cooked vegetables but will nibble on raw vegetables while you’re preparing a meal. Try putting them on the top of a pizza or puréeing them in a sauce.

Starchy foods in a child's diet

Starchy foods provide energy, nutrients and some fibre. Whether it's bread or breakfast cereals, potatoes or yams, rice or couscous, pasta or chapattis, most children don't need much encouragement to eat foods from this group.

You can also give your child wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice. However, it’s not a good idea to only give wholegrain foods because they can fill your child up before they’ve taken in the calories they need.

Milk and dairy products for kids

Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium, which helps your child to develop strong bones and teeth. They also contain vitamin A, which helps the body resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes.

From the age of one, you can replace breast or infant formula with whole cows' milk or carry on breastfeeding. Try to give your child about three servings of milk a day, either as a drink or in the form of foods made from milk such as cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais. 

Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of two, provided your child is a good eater and growing well for their age. 1% fat or skimmed milk doesn’t contain enough fat so isn’t recommended for children under five.

Meat, fish, eggs, beans, and other non-dairy sources of protein

Young children need protein and iron to grow and develop. Try to give your toddler one or two portions from this group each day.

Meat, fish, eggs, pulses (for example, beans, lentils and peas) and foods made from pulses (such as tofu, hummus and soya mince) are excellent sources of protein and iron. Nuts also contain protein but whole nuts, including peanuts, should not be given to children under five in case they choke.

Boys can have up to four portions of oily fish (such as mackerel, salmon and sardines) a week, but it's best not to give girls more than two portions a week.

This is because oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body. Remember, don't stop feeding your child oily fish because the health benefits are greater than the risks, as long as they don't eat more than the recommended amounts.

Helping your child get enough iron

Iron is essential for your child’s health. Lack of iron can lead to anaemia, which can hold back your child’s physical and mental development. Children who carry on drinking too much milk are most at risk from anaemia.

Iron comes in two forms. One is found in meat and fish is easily absorbed by the body. The other is found in plant foods and is not as easy for the body to absorb. Even a small amount of meat or fish is good because it helps the body to absorb iron from other food sources. If your child doesn’t eat meat or fish, they will get enough iron if you give them plenty of fortified breakfast cereals, dark green vegetables, broad beans and lentils, and dried fruit such as apricots, figs and prunes.

Foods containing fat, sugar and salt

Fat

Young children, especially those under the age of two, need the concentrated energy provided by fat. There are also some vitamins that are only found in fats. This is why foods such as whole milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish are so important.

Once your child is two, you can gradually introduce lower-fat dairy products and cut down on fat in other foods – providing your child is a good eater and is growing well – so that by the time your child is five they are eating a healthy low-fat diet like the one recommended for adults. 

Keep an eye on the amount of fat (particuarly trans-fats) in the food your family eats. Try to keep it to a minimum. The following tips will help you reduce the amount of fat in your family's meals:

  • Grill or bake foods instead of frying them.
  • During cooking, skim the fat off meat dishes such as mince or curry.
  • Buy leaner cuts of meat and lower-fat meat products, such as lower-fat sausages and burgers.
  • Take the skin off poultry.
  • Reduce the amount of meat you put in stews and casseroles. Make up the difference with lentils, split peas or soaked dried beans.
  • For children over two, use lower-fat dairy products, such as low-fat spreads and reduced-fat cheeses.
  • Use as little cooking oil as possible. Choose one that's high in mono- or polyunsaturates, such as rapeseed, soya or olive oil. In the UK, pure vegetable oil is often rapeseed oil.

Sugar

To help keep your child’s teeth healthy (in addition to brushing their teeth regularly and visiting the dentist), limit the amount of added sugar they have. Added sugars are found in fizzy drinks, juice drinks, sweets, cakes and jam. If you give children these kinds of foods and drinks, give them at mealtimes and not as snacks.

Don't let your child sip sugary drinks and suck sugary sweets too often. The longer and more often the sugar touches your child’s teeth, the more damage it causes.

Dried fruit and 100% fruit juice can also damage teeth, so it is best to give these to your child at mealtimes and not as snacks.

Salt

There’s no need to add salt (sodium chloride) to your child’s food. Most foods already contain enough salt. Too much salt can give your child a taste for salty foods and contribute towards high blood pressure in later life. Your whole family will benefit if you gradually reduce the amount of salt in your cooking. Try to limit the amount of salty foods your child has, and always check the label.

Babies up to one year old should have no more than 1g of salt a day. The maximum amount is 2g of salt a day for children aged one to three, and 3g a day for children aged four to six.

More on children's food


Page last reviewed: 22/01/2014

Next review due: 22/01/2016

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