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What and How Much to Feed Your Toddler

Experts explain how to provide toddlers with the nutritious food they need for their growing bodies.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD

Your child is walking, climbing, running, and "talking" nonstop now. Such developmental milestones mean his nutritional needs have changed, too.

Welcome to toddler territory. Armed with some basic know-how, you'll discover how best to nourish your child up to age 3.

Feeding Toddlers: How Much to Serve?

It's ironic: Because of a slowdown in growth, toddlers, who are far more active than infants, have lower calorie needs, pound for pound. That doesn't diminish the importance of good nutrition, but it does present some challenges. 

Toddlers need between 1,000 and 1,400 calories a day, depending on their age, size, and physical activity level (most are considered active). The amount of food a toddler requires from each of the food groups is based on daily calorie needs.

In addition to choices from each of the food groups, toddlers need the equivalent of 3 to 4 teaspoons of healthy oils, such as canola oil and tub margarine.

Toddler Feeding Chart

Food Group

Daily Servings,

12-24 months

Daily Servings,

24-36 months

Serving Size

Examples

Grains

3, at least half from whole-grain sources

5, at least half from whole-grain sources

1 slice of whole-grain bread; 1 mini bagel; 1/2 cup cooked pasta, rice, or cereal; 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

Fruits

1

1 1/2

1 small apple; 1 cup sliced or cubed fruit; 1 large banana

Vegetables

1

1 1/2

1 cup cooked mashed or finely chopped vegetables including legumes (chickpeas, black beans, etc.)

Protein

2

2-4

1 cooked egg; 1 ounce cooked meat, poultry, or seafood; 1 tablespoon nut butter; 1/4 cup cooked legumes

Milk

2

2

1 cup milk or yogurt; 2 ounces processed American cheese; 1 1/2 ounces natural cheese, such as cheddar (low-fat for ages 2 and older)

 

Feeding Toddlers: Signs Your Toddler Is Ready to Self-Feed

Every day, toddlers hone their motor skills, including at the table. Mastering the pincer grasp, which allows children to pick up small bits of food (and other objects) between their thumbs and the forefingers, is one of the first steps to self-feeding, says pediatrician Tanya Remer Altman, MD, author of Mommy Calls.

Children start to develop the pincer grasp around 9 months, the same time they're ready for a lidded sippy or straw cup filled with infant formula or breast milk.

Many toddlers can self-feed an entire meal at around a year old, while other toddlers may need help until 18 months or so, Altman tells WebMD.

"After age 2, most toddlers can use a regular cup without a lid without spilling, but if they enjoy a straw cup or a sippy cup, there's no harm in that," Altman says. 

Once a child discovers he can get food into his own mouth, he may not want you to help so much anymore. 

Toddler self-feeding gives a whole new meaning to the term mess hall, but it's worth it to let him try to get food into his mouth, says Elisa Zied, MS, RD, author of Feed Your Family Right! and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Self-feeding is an important developmental skill that parents should nurture," Zied says.

Allow children to self-feed as much as they can and want to, advises Altman, but if they aren't getting enough food, you can help, too.

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