Just like adults, young children need energy (calories) from food and nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals, to make sure their bodies work properly and can repair themselves.
If you want more information than is given here, contact your health visitor or GP.
What to giveAt this age, children grow very quickly and are usually very active, so they need plenty of calories and nutrients. A healthy and varied diet should provide all the nutrients your toddler needs.
Remember to include these sorts of foods every day:
- Milk and dairy foods – these provide protein, vitamins and minerals and are a good source of calories for growing children.
- Meat, fish, eggs, beans, peas and lentils – these are rich in nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. You can give boys up to four portions of oily fish a week, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, but it's best to give girls no more than two portions of oily fish a week.
- Bread, and other cereals such as rice, pasta and breakfast cereals, and potatoes, yams and sweet potatoes – these starchy foods provide calories, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
- Fruit and vegetables – these contain vitamin C, and other protective vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre.
How a toddler's diet is differentAlthough toddlers can eat the same food as adults, before they're two years old children can't eat large amounts of food at one sitting. So, until then, give your child meals and snacks packed with calories and nutrients (nutrient dense foods) such as:
- full-fat milk and dairy foods
But if you tend to eat high fibre foods, remember that young children's stomachs can't cope with foods such as wholemeal pasta and brown rice. Also, too much fibre can sometimes reduce the amount of minerals they can absorb, such as calcium and iron.
By the time they're five years old, young children should be eating family food, which is more bulky as it contains lots of starchy foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables. But make sure it doesn't contain too much saturated fat, which is found in butter, hard-fat spreads, cheese, fatty meat and meat products, biscuits, pastry and cakes.
What to avoidTake care to avoid the following foods:
- Raw eggs and food that contains raw or partially cooked eggs because of the risk of salmonella, which causes food poisoning. If you give eggs to your toddler, make sure the eggs are cooked until both the white and yolk are solid.
- Whole or chopped nuts for children under five years old because of the risk of choking. It's a good idea to crush or flake them.
- Shark, swordfish and marlin because these fish contain relatively high levels of mercury, which might affect a child's developing nervous system.
There's no need to add salt to your toddler's food. From the age of 1 to 3, children should be having no more than 2g a day. If you're buying processed foods, even those aimed at children, remember to check the information given on the labels to choose those with less salt.
There's no need to add sugar or honey to food for your toddler.
Don't give sweet drinks such as sugary fizzy drinks and fruit squash because they cause tooth decay. If you do give fruit squash or sugary drinks, make sure they're well diluted with water and drunk at mealtimes. Between meals, it's better to give water or milk to drink.
Is it OK to give peanuts to my toddler?
If your toddler has already been diagnosed with an allergy, such as a food allergy or eczema, or if there is a history of allergy in their immediate family (if their parents, brothers or sisters have an allergy such as a food allergy, asthma, eczema, hayfever, or other types of allergy) then they have a higher risk of developing peanut allergy. So you should talk to your GP, health visitor or medical allergy specialist before you give peanuts or foods containing peanuts to your child for the first time.
If your child hasn't been diagnosed with any allergies and there isn't a history of allergy in their immediate family, you can choose to give them peanuts or foods containing peanuts after they are six months old (but remember to crush them up). When you give your child peanuts for the first time, look out for any allergic reaction. If you think your child is having an allergic reaction, you should get urgent medical advice.
If you have any questions or concerns about whether your child should be eating peanuts, discuss these with your GP, health visitor or other health professional.
Full-fat or semi-skimmed milk?From two years old, you can start giving your toddler semi-skimmed milk, provided they're eating a varied and balanced diet and are growing well. Fully skimmed milk and 1% fat milk aren't suitable as main drinks until they're five years old, because they don't contain enough vitamin A and skimmed milk doesn't contain enough calories for a growing child.
Vegetarian dietIf you want to give your toddler a vegetarian diet, it's important to make sure their diet is balanced and includes all the necessary nutrients.
Make sure you give them foods rich in nutrients such as milk, cheese and eggs. This will mean their diet won't be too bulky and they'll get plenty of protein, vitamin A, calcium and zinc.
Iron is found in many vegetables and pulses (beans, lentils and chick peas), in dried fruit (such as apricots, raisins and sultanas) and in some breakfast cereals, but it's more difficult to absorb from vegetable sources than from meat, so:
- give your toddler foods containing iron each day
- try to give foods high in vitamin C – such as fruit and vegetables or diluted fruit juices at mealtimes – because these might make it easier to absorb the iron
- don't give young children tea or coffee, especially at meal times, because this might reduce the amount of iron they can absorb