The Most Nutritious Foods for Toddlers
Written by Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN
Toddlers are pretty amazing! The stuff that goes on in your toddler's brain and body between the ages of 1 and 3 is nothing short of miraculous. Their weight and height are rapidly increasing, cells are multiplying, bones are elongating, brains are growing! And every single one of those processes depends upon the right nutrition. Heck, research has shown that proper toddler nutrition can even buoy your child’s learning and school performance down the road. All great news…but what exactly is the 'right nutrition' for toddlers? AND how do you get your child to eat what is good for them? It is easier than you think! Here, your guide to the eight most important nutrients toddlers need to nourish their brains and bodies—and how to make each one delicious!
Toddler Nutrition Must: Calcium
Good job, toddlers! Since milk is a super-popular beverage at this age, many children do an excellent job of meeting their need for calcium. And that is important because calcium plays a significant role in supporting muscle function, plus building and strengthening bones and teeth. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 350 milligrams of calcium daily. Here is how to get there:
Cow’s Milk + Salmon + Broccoli
A 118 ml glass of milk (76.5 milligrams of calcium), 61 milligrams serving of canned salmon, plus 2 tablespoons of broccoli (5 milligrams), gives your toddler about 40% of their daily calcium needs. (While 2 tablespoons of veggies does not seem like enough, that is exactly the serving size the National Health Service recommend for toddlers.)
Soy Milk + Bean and Spinach Burrito
75 milligrams of fortified soy milk, 105 milligrams of spinach and 2 tablespoons of pinto beans (12 milligrams) adds up to another 192 milligrams toward your toddler’s goal.
Other Calcium-Rich Eats
148 milligrams of plain yogurt, 50 milligrams tofu, 102 milligrams of cheddar cheese.
Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is important for heart health, fighting infection…and improving your little one’s ability to absorb calcium, which further helps them grow long and strong. Since very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, it is often added to milk, yogurt, and other items. But there is another way to get this important vitamin: Take your toddler outside! When skin is exposed to sunlight, it manufactures vitamin D. Children aged 1 to 3 need 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily. How to do it:
Play Outside + Egg
Experts estimate that being in the sunshine for 10 to 15 minutes before applying sunscreen offers sufficient vitamin D exposure to meet their requirements. To cover your bases, also serve up an egg breakfast. One egg yolk equals about 1 microgram of D.
Other Vitamin D-Rich Eats
A 250 millilitre serving of cow’s milk (2.9 micrograms) or fortified soy milk (1.5 micrograms), 28 grams of canned light tuna (.35 micrograms).
Toddler Nutrition Must: Iron
Little ones need iron for brain development, optimal hormone function, healthy red blood cells, and to efficiently move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. But since toddlers no longer drink iron-fortified formula—and can struggle to get iron elsewhere—they are vulnerable to iron deficiency. To help them out, serve iron-packed foods with items that are a good source of vitamin C, since vitamin C increases absorption of iron. For 1- to 3-year-olds, 6.9 milligrams of iron daily is ideal. You can hit this goal with these foods:
Oatmeal + Freeze-dried Strawberries
Mix 2 tablespoons of vitamin C-rich crushed freeze-dried strawberries (0.7 milligrams of iron) with 4 tablespoons of old-fashioned oatmeal (3 milligrams). This shakes out to half of your toddler's daily iron needs!
White Bean Chili + Dried Peaches
Two tablespoons of white beans (0.6 milligrams of iron) and 1.6 milligrams of dried peaches serves up nearly a third of your toddler’s daily iron requirements.
Other Iron-Rich Eats
0.5 milligrams of tofu, a hard-boiled egg (1 milligram), 0.35 milligrams ground beef, 1 tablespoon peanut butter (0.28 milligrams), 2 tablespoons green peas (0.3 milligrams)
Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin C
Not only does vitamin C help promote the absorption of iron, it is excellent at aiding wound healing and staving off sickness—two things toddlers very much need! Vitamin C also works to make muscles, neurotransmitters, and healthy bones and teeth. Toddlers between age 1 and 3 require 30 milligrams of vitamin C each day. Here is how to meet that need:
Fruit + More Fruit
It is pretty darn easy for a fruit lover to get in all the vitamin C they need! A half an orange equals 25 milligrams of vitamin C and a half cup of strawberries is 98 milligrams. Plus, a half cup of grapefruit, kiwi, and cantaloup are 87, 67, and 29 milligrams of vitamin C, respectively.
Other Vitamin C-Rich Eats
59 milligrams Brussels sprouts, 43 milligrams yellow bell peppers, 51 milligrams cooked broccoli.
Toddler Nutrition Must: Omega-3
The most well-known polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) is the amazing omega-3 fatty acid. This healthy fat is critical for your toddler’s brain and eye development, their overall growth, and disease prevention. Omega-3s help the body absorb nutrients, too. Today, children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 0.7 grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily. Here, a few ways to get there:
Oatmeal + Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed is a powerhouse of healthy fats! Add just a half teaspoon to a bowl of oatmeal for 1.2 grams of omega-3 goodness. (Alternatively, adding 1 tablespoon of chia seeds will get your child .25 grams of omega-3s.)
Salmon + Mayo Sandwich
Combine 0.61 grams of canned salmon with 1 teaspoon mayo (0.2 grams) and place it between a folded slice of whole wheat bread (0.04 grams) and—voila!—a heart healthy sandwich that delivers 100% of your toddler’s daily omega-3 needs.
Other Omega-3-Rich Eats
An eighth cup refried beans (0.05 grams), an eighth cup of edamame (0.14 grams), one egg (0.03 grams)
Toddler Nutrition Must: Choline
While choline is not as popular as the other nutrients, it is still very important! This underappreciated brain-booster (usually grouped with B-vitamins), plays a vital role in memory, vision, and nervous system health. Unfortunately, research shows that over 70% of 1-year-olds and over 50% of 2-year-olds are not getting enough. But clocking the recommended 140 to 340 mg is totally doable. Here is how to do it:
Cow’s Milk + Quinoa Fried Rice
Create a toddler-friendly and choline-rich version of fried rice by scrambling one egg (147 milligrams of choline) into 4 tablespoons of cooked quinoa (11 milligrams), and 2 tablespoons of peas (5 milligrams). Serve with 19 milligrams of cow’s milk to meet a whopping 91% of your child’s daily choline needs.
Other Choline-Rich Eats
62 milligrams of salmon, 19 milligrams of chicken, 13 milligrams cottage cheese.
Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin A
This fat-soluble vitamin is very necessary for your little one’s eye health. In fact, vitamin A helps people see in the dark! It also keeps the immune system strong and works to ensure the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 400 micrograms of vitamin A daily and they can get it this way:
Orange Fruits + Orange Veg
Sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloup, and mango are all brimming with vitamin A. A half-cup serving of each garners 1,290, 665, 135, and 45 micrograms of vitamin A, respectively.
Other Vitamin A-Rich Eats
A large hard-boiled egg (75 micrograms), one tablespoon of cream cheese (45 micrograms), 64 grams winter squash (40 micrograms), 43 grams plain yogurt (73 micrograms).
Toddler Nutrition Must: Protein
Protein intake is an essential driver of toddler growth…and grow they do! (Just look at that stack of two-small jammies.) Specifically, protein supports the growth of bones and muscles and makes sure your child's cells, organs, hormones, and more are functioning well. One- and 2-year-olds need 14.5 grams of protein daily for good nutrition and older toddlers require 14.5 to 19.7 grams. Here is how to get there:
Cheese Stick + Chicken
It does not take much to fill up that all-important protein tank. A 28 grams cheese stick and a 28 grams of chicken can get the job done!
Egg + Toast with Almond Butter
A half an egg counts as a serving of protein. And so does a tablespoon of almond butter: Spread it on some whole wheat toast as part of a yummy, nutritious breakfast.
Other Protein-Rich Eats
32 grams of edamame is a serving of protein, as is 28 grams of meat, fish, poultry, or tofu.
Craving more toddler nutrition know-how? Check these out:
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.