Feeding your toddler 1-3 years

Healthy eating is important for your child to grow, develop and learn. As a parent, you may wonder if they are eating enough healthy food. These pages have tips on healthy eating for your family and your child.  

What should toddlers eat?  

Does Canada's Food Guide apply to toddlers?   
Yes! From one year of age, young children begin to have a regular schedule of meals and snacks, and generally follow the advice in Canada’s Food Guide. The foods offered in Canada’s Food Guide are healthy choices for people of all ages 

Butyoung children can have small appetites, so it is important to include foods with healthy fats at most meals and snacks. This will help them get enough energy and fats for growth and development. It is also important to offer small meals and snacks at regular times throughout the day. Young children have small stomachs so they may need to eat more often than adults. By 12 months, you can aim to offer three meals and two to three snacks per day. If you are breastfeeding, you are encouraged to continue breastfeeding on cue for two years and beyond. If you are not breastfeeding, or if you are weaning baby, you can offer 500 mL per day of homogenized (3.25% M.F.) cow milk* with meals and snacks.  

*Homogenized (3.25% M.F.) cow milk is the only milk routinely recommended for children under two.  

How much should toddlers eat?  

There is no “right” amount of food that a toddler should eat, and because their stomachs are small they may not eat a lot in one sitting. This is why it is important to offer small meals and snacks throughout the day at regular times. By 12 months, you can aim to offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day.  

Breastmilk, or homogenized (3.25% M.F.) cow milk continue to provide a significant amount of a young child’s calories at 12 months (about one third to be exact). It is important to continue breastfeeding on cue, and/or to offer cow milk at meals and snacks, along with other healthy foods from Canada’s Food Guide 

Your toddler’s appetite will vary day to day based on their growth spurts, fear of trying new foods and emotions. It can be stressful to see that your child it not eating a lot or if they are outright refusing the foods you offer them. When this happens, it can be helpful to remember to “the division of responsibility in feeding”. 

Remember that it is your job as the adult to decide what foods are offered and when, and the child is responsible for choosing how much they want to eat. That said, if you are concerned about your child’s growth and development, please consult with your doctor.  

For more information on how you can help your child develop a positive relationship with food, please see the picky eating section below  

Healthy lunch and snack ideas

Healthy lunch ideas:
• Nut butter and banana wrap, cucumber sticks and a glass of milk
• Cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, cubed tomatoes and a glass of water
• Pasta salad (whole wheat noodles, grilled chicken or chickpeas, green peppers, corn) and a glass of milk
• Tofu and vegetable stir-fry, brown rice and a glass of milk
• Whole grain crackers, sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, banana and a glass of water

Healthy snacks ideas (include 2 food groups):

• Plain full-fat yogurt and fruit
• A small muffin with an apple
• Whole grain crackers, hummus and grapes
• O-shaped cereal and mandarin slices
• Rice cakes with thinly spread nut butter and blueberries
• Smoothie with frozen berries, bananas and plain full-fat yogurt

For recipes and more ideas on how to involve your kids in the kitchen:

• Quick and easy lunch ideas (Unlock Food)
• Healthy snacks (Canada’s Food Guide)
• Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack recipes (Canada’s Food Guide)
• Healthy recipes (Ottawa Public Health)
• Cooking videos– seafood burgers, mac and cheese, veggie fried rice and veggie chili (Ottawa Public Health)
• Half Your Plate recipes (Half Your Plate)
• Healthy eating at school (Canada’s Food Guide)
• Involve kids in planning and preparing meals (Canada’s Food Guide)

Making the healthy choice the easy choice

Planning even just a few meals and snacks a week will help reduce a lot of the stress. It can also help ensure that your family eats a more balanced and healthy diet. Look at your weekly schedule and find those crazy nights and plan and prepare for them ahead of time. These little tips can save you a lot of time!

Meal prep shortcuts:
• Involve your children in the planning and preparation of the meals and snacks. They will be more likely to eat the food.
• When you have more time on the weekend, prepare a casserole. Precook some meats and freeze. You can also cook certain grains such as rice and quinoa and freeze them in proper quantities.
• Prepare your ingredients for a crockpot recipe the night before. Set it up the morning of and come back to a warm meal ready to go. When you are preparing meals, double up on the recipe for a meal the following week.
• Make your child's favourite muffins or homemade energy bars. Freeze them individually for quick snack in the lunch box, or after school or before and after the activity.
• Prepare and cut up your vegetables ahead of time. The same thing works for larger fruit such as cantaloupe or other melons. Place them in individual containers for snacks ready to go. You can add an individual yogurt or hummus to complete the snack.
• Slice some cheese and wrap individually. Add some crackers and you have another snack!
• Designate a drawer or area in the refrigerator for those cold snacks. Do the same for a drawer in the kitchen for your containers or for your non-refrigerated snacks.

For more information on meal planning:
• Everybody’s food budget (Ottawa Public Health)
• 7 steps for quick and easy menu planning (Unlock Food)
• Meal planning from start to finish in 4 steps (Canada’s Food Guide)

Children don't need drinks with added sugars 
Water and milk are the best drinks for children. Even 100% unsweetened fruit juice is still a sugary drink. Sugary drinks offer little nutrition for growing bodies, and they can cause dental decay and erosion. They can also fill children’s stomachs and bump out healthy drinks, meals, and snacks. If consumed often, this can lead to poor food habits, decreased nutrient intake and increased risk of obesity and other preventable chronic health conditions.   
What type of milk should a toddler drink?   

Homogenized (3.25% M.F.) cow milk is the only milk routinely recommended for children under two. Plant-based beverages should not be used as the main milk source for a child under 2 years old. If your child is following a plant-based diet, please consult with your child’s doctor, or with a Registered Dietitian to find an appropriate cow milk substitute.  Above age 2, healthy milk options include cow milk and unsweetened fortified plant-based beverages. Offer your child 500 mL of milk throughout the day, at meals and snacks. In between meals and snacks offer them water. Drinking milk between meals can fill their stomach and make them less hungry at mealtime.  

For more information on milk choices for young children:  

Picky eating and developing a healthy relationship with food 

Why picky eating happens 

Healthy eating is not just about what we eat. It is also about the relationship we have with food. As a parent, you play an important role in helping your child build a healthy relationship with food. Your actions and the way you talk about food can help set your child up with healthy eating habits for a lifetime.  

“Picky eating” is a normal part of toddlerhood. Your child may reject the foods you offer them for several reasons. Remember that you are in it for the long haul, and the way you react will make all the difference.  

Children are born with the ability to regulate their hunger and fullness. The way we talk about food with our children and the amount of food marketing we are exposed to, can decrease a child’s ability to self-regulate their hunger. The role of the parent is to be aware of their child’s hunger and fullness cues to avoid under- or overfeeding their child. Feeding your child in this way may help them self-regulate their appetite later in life, maintain a healthy weight and to have a healthy relationship with food.  

Children can be selective (picky) because of: 

  • Growth. Children’s appetites change as they grow. This can make them hungry at one meal time but full and refusing to eat at another.  

  • A fear of trying new things. Remember there are a lot of things that you have seen or tried before that your child hasn’t. Children may avoid certain foods because they are not familiar with them.  

  • Emotions. Children may not feel like eating because of their mood (e.g.: feeling angry or sad).   

There is no “right” amount of food that a toddler should eat. When you are faced with a “picky eater”, remember the division of responsibility (see accordion below). 

What is “normal” picky eating

First off, picky eating is very common among toddlers, preschoolers and children and it is also normal! Most parents who felt they had picky children actually had children with completely normal appetites and eating behaviours for their age. Read on for tips on what you can do to manage picky eating in your house. 

Picky eating is when:  

  • A child has a smaller appetite than usual; 

  • They show clear preferences for certain foods and dislikes for others.  

  • They want the same foods repeatedly.  

Ok, so it’s normal, but what can you do to help your child eat more variety?  

  • Parents can refer to the division of responsibility to feel empowered in making mealtime decisions. The adult decides what, when and where food is offered, and your child decides if and how much they will eat. The adult must offer meals and snacks at regular times each day so that the child can feel secure in their role to manage their hunger 

  • Check out the “tips to help your child try new foods” section  

  • Don’t underestimate the power of role modelling, Children are always watching what we do and say.  

  • Include your child in meal preparation with age appropriate tasks 

The division of responsibility  

The division of responsibility explains what roles the adult and the child have during meals and snacks. Children have the natural ability to know how much their body needs to grow. They are able to feel hunger and fullness. This means you can trust your child to eat the right amount.

If you let your child follow their natural ability of recognizing hunger cues, they will become mindful eaters as adults.

Adults decide: 

What 

Aim for healthy food options that include different foods, colours and textures.  

Offer a variety of vegetables and fruits, protein foods and whole grain products at each meal and snack. 

When  

At regular mealtimes (children need three meals and two to three snacks per day) 

While your child may not choose to eat at those times, it is your responsibility to stick to the schedule. One way to develop good eating habits is to distribute meals at fixed times, which will help to stimulate and regulate the child's appetite. 

Where 

At home and at the table as much as possible.  

Eating at the dinner table fosters healthy eating habits and signals the child that it is time to eat. 

Children decide: 

If they want to eat  

If they choose not to eat, try not to pressure them. Instead, you can remind them that the next meal/snack will be at the regular time (i.e. “You don’t need to eat your snack, but the next meal will be when we have lunch at noon.”) 

How much they want to eat  

Your child chooses how much they eat. Never pressure your child to eat more or less. Remember children are able to tell if they are hungry or full, so trust their instincts.  

Avoid using food as a reward or punishment  

Rewarding your child with treats can make them think those foods are exciting and other foods are boring. It can also teach them to want a treat each time they do something 'good'. This can get in the way of their natural ability to listen to their stomachs. Kids will eat the right amount of food their body needs.

Try using non-food rewards to celebrate with your child: 

  • Stickers 

  • Chalk

  • New book

  • Fun shaped straws

  • Colouring books

  • Doing a special activity together  

Restricting food when disciplining your child can make them worry about not getting enough. Because of this, your child may try to eat whenever they can. Cutting out ‘treats’ as a punishment for bad behavior can cause your child to want that food more.

Examples of punishing behavior with food:  

  • Not allowing your child to have dessert if they didn’t clean their plate or eat their vegetables.  

  • Not allowing your child their bedtime snack if they didn’t clean their room. 

When your child does something wrong, practice positive discipline and keep their meals the same. 

Keep mealtime free of pressure 

The more pressure you put on your child to eat, the more stress they will feel towards food. For example, a child forced to eat broccoli may not want broccoli again. This can cause them to not want certain healthy foods more and more as they get older. Remember it can take tasting a new food up to 15 times before a child will accept it, so it is important to try to be patient. 

Keep mealtimes free of pressure by:  

  • Giving children enough time to eat (usually about 15 minutes for snacks and 20 minutes for meals)  

  • Accepting whatever foods they do or do not want to try without pressure 

  • Providing regular meals and snacks so they have other opportunities to eat if they aren’t hungry  at one of the designated meal times. 

Tips to help your child try new foods

What to do and not to do in a "picky eating moment":

  • Avoid making something else that you know your child will like.
  • Do not pressure them into eating what is presented by bribing or putting conditions around it (i.e. “You can’t leave the table until you try one bite.”
  • Let your child know that this is what is available for the meal.
  • Tell them that it’s OK if they refuse to eat, but the next meal/snack will be at the regular time.  

Longer-term strategies that could help your child accept new foods: 

  • Get children involved in preparing meals and snacks. Children are more likely to try meals they’ve had a hand in making.

  • Prepare the same meal for everyone in the family and try to include at least one food that your child likes. 

  • Be patient. Children often need to taste a new food over 10 times before they will accept it, so don’t give up! Continue to offer a variety of foods, even if your child has refused them in the past. 

  • Be a good role model. If children see their parents and other adults eating a variety of healthy food, they will be more likely to do the same. 

  • Switch it up. Children tend to like some textures more than others. Get creative with the way food is prepared! 

  • Remove distractions. Television, books, games and toys at meal and snack time can cause children to become less focused on their food.

  • Introduce children to a few new foods every week. This will help them try new things and become familiar with different foods. As they get older, including them in menu planning can motivate them to try new foods.

  • Make family meals a priority. If a child chooses to not eat, they can still sit at the table during mealtime. This way, they can be involved in the quality family bonding that happens during meals.  

Be a positive role model  

You can be a positive role model by setting an example. Nourishing your body with nutritious foods and being physically active helps your child develop positive self-esteem and a preference for nutritious foods and active lifestyle.   

Children are more likely to eat colourful vegetables and fruit and other healthy foods and drinks when they see others eating and enjoying them. Children are always watching and listening. What you do and say can have a significant impact on what your child sees as “normal”.  

How to be a positive role model:  

  • Encourage healthy food choices by including a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits atmeals and snacks. 

  • Try not to talk about personal dislikes for foods. 

  • Let children choose what to eat from the healthy foods offered, show them how to politely say “no thank you”. 

  • Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”. 

  • Don’t comment on the size, shape of appearance of your body and others. Healthy bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and healthy bodies look different for everyone. 

  • Focus on positive attributes that are not related to appearance such as attitudes, efforts, skills, talents and abilities.

  • Eat regular meals and snacks, choosing a variety of foods from Canada’s Food Guide. 

Get kids cooking 

Little chefs in the kitchen 
You can start cooking with your kids at any age. Including them in the kitchen is a great way to pass on family recipes, to help them develop an important life skill and to develop a positive relationship with food. 

 

Two to three years old 

Very young children like to explore with their senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and tasting. They also like to do things on their own. Try letting your kids: 

  • Wash fruits and vegetables in the sink 

  • Add items to dishes (like chopped tofu to a casserole) 

  • Smell food, herbs and spices you are using 

  • Help find ingredients in the fridge or cupboard 

  • Put paper cups into muffin tins 

Keep in mind, some kids may be happy to watch you cook and talk about what you are doing. An empty pot on the floor with a spoon keeps their hands busy. Be sure to ask lots of questions about what they are making that smells so good! 

 

Three to four years old 

At this age, children may be more interested in talking than eating! Either way, cooking keeps them interested in food. Try letting your kids: 

  • Remove eggshells from hard-boiled eggs 

  • Pour from a small pitcher or measuring cup 

  • Make a simple sandwich or pizza with pre-assembled ingredients 

  • Describe the colour, taste and shape of food 

  • Mash sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots or bananas 

For more information on what your kids can do in the kitchen:  

Foods to avoid and choking hazards 

Foods to avoid, choking hazards and prevention tips  
Foods to avoid 

Children are advised to limit fish high in mercury. Fish is a part of a healthy diet, and there are many low mercury fish to choose from including cod, salmon and sardines.  

Children (and everyone) are also advised to limit highly processed foods because they are not part of a healthy eating pattern. These foods are high in sodium, sugars or saturated fats. Preparing foods with healthy ingredients or choosing healthier menu options are ways to limit highly processed foods.  

Examples of foods to avoid include: 

  • Processed meats like sausages and deli meats 

  • Sugary drinks 

  • Syrups and jams

  • Fast foods like fries and burgers 

Choking hazards for children under 4 

  • Hard foods, small and rounds foods, smooth and sticky solid foods 

Examples include: 

  • Hard candies or cough drops 

  • Gum 

  • Popcorn

  • Marshmallows 

  • Whole nuts

  • Seeds

  • Fish with bones

  • Hot dogs

  • Snacks using toothpicks or skewers 

Choking prevention tips 

  • Wait until your child is sitting before giving them food. Eating while playing or while you are driving is not safe. 

  • Do not give your child under 4 years old any of the choking hazards listed above.

  • For soft round foods, cut in half length-wise. Then cut into smaller pieces.

  • Cook or grate hard vegetables such as carrots. Peel and chop fruit into small pieces.

  • Make nut butters less sticky. Spread nut butters thinly or mix with applesauce or infant cereal.

Want to speak with a Registered Dietitian? 

Call Health Connect Ontario and ask to speak with a Registered Dietitian. Available Monday-Friday 9am-5pm by calling 811 (TTY: 1-866-797-0007) or starting a chat  

 

Healthy lunch ideas:  

  • Nut butter and banana wrap, cucumber sticks and a glass of milk 
  • Cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, cubed tomatoes and a glass of water   
  • Pasta salad (whole wheat noodles, grilled chicken or chickpeas, green peppers, corn) and a glass of milk
  • Tofu and vegetable stir-fry, brown rice and a glass of milk
  • Whole grain crackers, sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, banana and a glass of water

  

Healthy snacks ideas (include 2 food groups): 

  • Plain full-fat yogurt and fruit 
  • A small muffin with an apple 
  • Whole grain crackers, hummus and grapes
  • O-shaped cereal and mandarin slices
  • Rice cakes with thinly spread nut butter and blueberries
  • Smoothie with frozen berries, bananas and plain full-fat yogurt

 

For recipes and more ideas on how to involve your kids in the kitchen:  

Contact Us