What to feed young children
Like the rest of the family, your toddler needs to eat a variety of foods.
Here are some tips on the different sorts of food to offer your child, plus a few it's best to avoid.
Fruit and vegetables
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, so your baby can enjoy new textures and flavours. Try to make sure fruit and vegetables are included in every meal.
Dried fruit, such as raisins, should be given to your toddler with meals, rather than as a snack in between, as the sugar they contain can cause tooth decay.
Different fruit and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so the more different types your toddler eats, the better.
Don't worry if they'll only eat one or two types at first. Keep offering them small amounts of other fruit and vegetables so they can learn to like different tastes.
Some children don't like cooked vegetables, but will nibble on raw vegetables while you're preparing a meal.
Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
Starchy foods, such as bread, breakfast cereals, potatoes, yams, rice, couscous, pasta and chapattis provide energy, nutrients and some fibre.
You can give your child wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice. But it's not a good idea to only give wholegrain starchy foods to under-2s.
Wholegrain foods can be high in fibre and they may fill your child up before they have taken in the calories and nutrients they need. After age 2 you can gradually introduce more wholegrain foods.
Milk and dairy products
Breast milk is the only food or drink babies need in the first 6 months of their life. It's best to carry on breastfeeding alongside an increasingly varied diet once you introduce solid foods.
Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk in the first 12 months of your baby's life. Whole cows' milk can be given as a main drink from the age of 1.
Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium, which helps your child develop strong bones and teeth.
They also contain vitamin A, which helps the body resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes.
Try to give your child at least 350ml (12oz) of milk a day, or 2 servings of foods made from milk, such as cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais.
Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of 2, provided your child is a good eater and growing well for their age.
Skimmed or 1% fat milk doesn't contain enough fat, so isn't recommended for children under 5. You can use them in cooking from the age of 1, though.
You can give your child unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, almond and oat drinks, from the age of 1 as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Toddlers and young children under the age of 5 shouldn't have rice drinks because of the levels of arsenic they contain.
If your child has an allergy or intolerance to milk, talk to your health visitor or GP. They can advise you on suitable milk alternatives.
Cheese can form part of a healthy, balanced diet for babies and young children, and provides calcium, protein and vitamins like vitamin A.
Babies can eat pasteurised full-fat cheese from 6 months old. This includes hard cheeses – such as mild cheddar cheese – cottage cheese and cream cheese.
Full-fat cheeses and dairy products are recommended up to the age of 2, as young children need fat and energy to help them grow.
Babies and young children shouldn't eat mould-ripened soft cheeses, such as brie or camembert, ripened goats' milk cheese like chèvre, and soft blue veined cheese like roquefort.
These cheeses may be made from unpasteurised milk and may therefore carry bacteria called listeria.
You can check labels on cheeses to make sure they're made from pasteurised milk.
But these cheeses can be used as part of a cooked recipe as listeria is killed by cooking – baked camembert, for example, is a safer option.
Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins
Young children need protein and iron to grow and develop. Try to give your toddler 1 or 2 portions from this group each day.
Nuts also contain protein, but whole nuts, including peanuts, shouldn't be given to children under 5 in case they choke.
It's recommended that boys have no more than 4 portions of oily fish (such as mackerel, salmon and sardines) a week, and girls no more than 2 portions a week.
This is because oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body.
Read more about how much fish children should eat.
Remember, don't stop feeding your child oily fish – 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.
It comes in 2 forms:
- the iron found in meat and fish, which is easily absorbed by the body
- iron from plant foods, which isn't as easy for the body to absorb
If your child doesn't eat meat or fish, they'll get enough iron if you give them plenty of other iron-rich foods, such as fortified breakfast cereals, dark green vegetables, broad beans and lentils.
If young children fill up on milk, it makes it difficult for them to get the calories and nutrients they need from a varied diet.
These children are more likely to lack iron, which can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia. This can affect your child's physical and mental development.
Foods containing fat, sugar and salt
Young children, especially those under the age of 2, need the energy provided by fat. There are also some vitamins that are only found in fats.
This is why foods like whole milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish are so important.
Once your child is 2, you can gradually introduce lower-fat dairy products and cut down on fat in other foods – provided your child is a good eater and growing well.
By the time your child is 5 they can eat a healthy balanced diet like the one recommended for adults.
Keep an eye on the amount of fat (particularly saturated 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 2, 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, oil labelled vegetable oil is often actually rapeseed oil
Brushing your child's teeth regularly and visits to the dentist are essential to help keep your child's teeth healthy.
It's also important to keep the amount of added sugar they have to a minimum. Added sugar is found in fizzy drinks, juice drinks, sweets, cakes and jam.
It's best to offer your toddler water or whole milk to drink. Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced once they're 2 years old.
You can also offer diluted fruit juice (1 part juice to 10 parts water) served with meals. Serving it with a meal helps to reduce the risk of tooth decay.
From age 5, it's OK to give your child undiluted fruit juice or smoothies, but stick to no more than 1 glass (about 150ml) a day served with a meal.
The sugar in raisins and other dried fruits can cause tooth decay. It's best to give these to your toddler with meals rather than as a snack in between.
There's no need to add salt 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 to 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 food labels.
More on children's food
Page last reviewed: 21 May 2019
Next review due: 21 May 2022