Feeding your toddler/pre-school child

Toddlers/pre-school children are growing and developing quickly and it's an important time to make sure they are eating well to get all the energy (calories) and nutrients they need. This is also an important time for children to learn about food and eating, so that they get into the habit of consuming a healthy, varied diet, enjoyed with the rest of the family.

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Feeding your toddler/pre-school child

Toddlers/pre-school children are growing and developing quickly and it's an important time to make sure they are eating well to get all the energy (calories) and nutrients they need. This is also an important time for children to learn about food and eating, so that they get into the habit of consuming a healthy, varied diet, enjoyed with the rest of the family. However, for parents and carers it can be hard to know exactly what toddlers should be eating and in what amounts.
Portions – 5532-a-day - perfect portions for toddler tums 
 
Each day toddlers need three meals and some snacks made up of foods from the four main food groups, in the right balance and in portion sizes just right for them:
  • starchy foods x 5-a-day
  • fruit & vegetables x 5-a-day
  • dairy foods x 3-a-day
  • protein foods x 2-a-day*

*3 portions if child is vegetarian.

=5532-a-day!
The information below describes these food groups in more detail and gives examples of foods and portion sizes suitable for children aged 1 to 3 years.
It is important to remember that it is normal for a toddler’s appetite to fluctuate - they may eat lots of food one day and much less the next – and that some toddlers will need more foods than others, therefore a range of portion sizes for different ages and appetites are provided in the guidance below.
 
Starchy foods
 
Starchy foods such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals, potatoes and yams, provide your toddler with energy, B vitamins, calcium and fibre. Fortified starchy foods, such as fortified breakfast cereals, can also provide iron and, in some cases, vitamin D. High-fibre starchy foods, such as wholemeal pasta and brown rice, should be introduced gradually because toddlers can fill up very easily on these bulky foods and stop eating before they’ve eaten enough energy for their needs.
 
Try to give your toddler at least five portions of starchy foods per day. Here are some examples of starchy foods in toddler sized portions.
 
½-1 slice of bread
1-2 rice cakes or oat cakes
3-5tbsp breakfast cereal
1-3tbsp mashed potato
2-4tbsp cooked pasta/rice
2-4 potato wedges
½-1 scone
½-1 chapati
2-4tbsp canned spaghetti hoops
 
Fruits and vegetables
 
Fruits and vegetables are a really important part of the diet because they contain vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals as well as fibre. You should encourage your child to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day; it might be useful to think about the colours of fruits and vegetables and to offer ‘a rainbow’ of options, selecting those that are purple/blue, orange/yellow, green and brown/white. Some children may initially reject some fruit and vegetables, but do not give up offering these foods – sometimes you might need to offer them 5 -15 times before your child accepts them – keep persevering! Encouraging toddlers to eat lots of fruits and vegetables will not only give them the nutrients they need but will also train their palate to like these foods, which will mean that they will be more likely to eat lots of fruits and vegetables throughout childhood and into adulthood. 
 
Toddlers should eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day, here are some suggestions in toddler sized portions:
 
½-2tbsp raisins
¼-1 banana
3-8 grapes
½-2tbsp peas
½-2tbsp broccoli
¼-½ medium apple
1-3 cherry tomatoes
2-6 vegetable sticks
2-4tbsp canned fruit
 
Dairy foods
 
Dairy foods, such as cheese, yogurt, milk and fromage frais, are a particularly good source of calcium, protein, fat and vitamins B2 and B12. Full-fat varieties are best for toddlers, but from age 2 years onwards, semi-skimmed milk can be introduced if they are growing well and eating a healthy, varied diet. Skimmed and 1% milks are not suitable for children under 5 years. 
 
Toddlers need about three servings of dairy foods per day; here are some suggestions in toddler-sized portions:
 
1 beaker of milk (100ml)
1 pot of yogurt (125ml)
1 cheese triangle
2-4tbsp rice pudding
1-3tbsp cheese sauce
2 small yogurt tubes 
 
Protein foods
 
This food group includes meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses (such as beans, lentils and chick peas) and foods made from pulses (such as tofu, dahl and soya mince). These foods provide protein and iron, which are essential for a growing child. In addition, oily fish (such as salmon, trout and mackerel) is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and a dietary source of vitamin D. Try to serve these protein foods with another food or drink that is rich in vitamin C (such as fruit and vegetables) as this will help with iron absorption.
 
Your toddler needs two portions of proteins foods per day, three if they are vegetarian or vegan. Here are some example foods and portions:
 
2-3tbsp chickpeas, kidney beans, dhal, lentils or beans
2-4tbsp cooked minced meat
1-2 fish fingers
2-3tbsp baked beans
½-1 poached, boiled or fried egg
Peanut butter on bread or toast
 

Drinks

It is important to make sure your toddler is hydrated, because if not they may feel tired and not perform to the best of their abilities and in extreme cases may become seriously ill. Try to offer your toddler six to eight drinks per day (approximately 1 litre). It is best to give your child water as their main drink because it does not cause tooth decay, unlike drinks containing sugar, such as fruit squashes, fruit juices, sweetened milks and fizzy drinks. If you are to offer sugary drinks, they should be diluted and limited to mealtimes to protect your child’s teeth from decay, between meals water and milk are best. Also, to discourage your child from developing too strong a preference for sweetened drinks, it is best not to offer these too often. To protect teeth from decay, toddlers should be consuming drinks (including milk) from a cup or free flowing beaker and not from a bottle. For more information see our resource on healthy hydration for children aged 1-4 years below.

Foods to avoid

Avoid giving the following to toddlers:

  • Salt – children aged 1 to 3 years should have no more than 2g of salt (0.8g sodium) per day to reduce the risk of health problems in later life. Foods prepared at home can be flavoured with herbs, spices or lemon instead of salt. Some foods, such as cheese and meat products, are relatively high in salt so try to check food labels and avoid those which have more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium). 
  • Raw eggs – eggs should be cooked until the white and yolk are solid. Foods containing raw or partially cooked eggs should be avoided to reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning.
  • Shark, marlin and swordfish should not be given to toddlers because they contain more mercury than other types of fish.
  • Whole or chopped nuts should not be given to children under the age 5 years because of the risk of choking.
  • Low-calorie foods - for most toddlers there is no need to offer ‘low-calorie’ or ‘low-fat’ foods because children of this age need lots of energy for growing and for physical activity. However, once a varied diet is accepted and provided your child is growing well semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from 2 years.
  • Sugars – sweet foods and drinks can lead to tooth decay, so these foods should be limited and consumed only at mealtimes.

 

Encouraging your toddler to eat a healthy, varied diet
 
It is normal for young children to refuse to eat certain foods from time to time. Some children will be reluctant to eat new foods and others will reject foods that are familiar even if they have previously eaten them without any fuss! Typically, these types of behaviour tend to reach a peak between 2 and 6 years of age, after which most children will become more accepting of a variety of foods. Despite this stage being fairly normal, ‘fussy’ eating should not be ignored because it is important that young children get used to eating a healthy, varied diet that includes foods from the four main food groups.
 
It might sound obvious, but the key to overcoming fussy eating is to help your child learn to like the foods you offer, because children will eat more of foods they enjoy. It is important to remember that children are born with very few food likes and dislikes – they acquire these through experience – and nearly all children are capable of learning to like a variety of foods from the four main food groups. You can help them to do this in a number of ways:
 
  • Exposure, exposure, exposure! Repeatedly offering a food, so that it becomes familiar, is known to increase children’s willingness to try it and eventually to like it. You might need to offer some foods 5 - 15 times or more before your child learns to like them, but they should get there in the end so do not give up! You can increase the familiarity of foods in a number of ways, most obviously by offering them at meal and snack times, and also by teaching your child about food during playtime. Ideas include growing foods, cooking and handling foods, messy food-related play, reading stories and singing songs about healthy foods.
  • Relax and praise. Pressurising or coercing your child into eating certain foods can sometimes work in the short-term, but this tactic may backfire because your child is likely to develop negative associations with the food and be even less likely to eat it in the future. Pressure can take many forms including bribery ('Eat your broccoli and then you can have pudding'); coercing ('You will eat your broccoli'); emotional blackmail ('I’ll be cross if you don’t eat your broccoli') punishment ('You will not watch your favourite TV programme if you don’t eat your broccoli'); pressure ('You need to finish all the broccoli on your plate') and force feeding (physically trying to put food into your child’s mouth). The best approach is to offer foods in a relaxed way and to let your child decide how much they want to eat; when your child tries a new food or eats something they previously refused, even if it’s only a tiny piece, praise your child. Praise can help children to develop positive associations with food which will mean that they will be more likely to eat them again in the future.  
  • Create a healthy home. Aim to create a healthy home environment that is conducive to healthy eating. Stock up on healthy foods from the four main food groups and try to avoid having foods high in fat, salt and sugars on display or in your child’s reach. ‘Modelling’, that is, allowing your child to learn from watching how you behave, has been shown to be an effective way to encourage children to accept new foods so lead by example and eat the foods that you would like your child to eat. It is also a good idea to limit your child’s exposure to food advertising, for example by limiting their screen time, as this might negatively influence your child’s food preferences by encouraging liking of foods high in fat, salt and sugars.

 

Overweight and obesity, physical activity, supplements and dental health 

Overweight and obesity

The UK has one the highest rates of childhood obesity in Europe, with more than 1 in 5 children aged 2 to 4 years estimated to be overweight or obese. Overweight and obese children are more likely to suffer from emotional and psychological problems and tend to grow up to be overweight or obese adults, which can lead to serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

Sometimes it’s difficult for parents to recognise if their child is overweight. Find out more about how to see if your child is a healthy weight by using this BMI calculator from the NHS. If you are concerned, the best first step is to talk to your GP, who will be able to advise you about your child’s diet and activity levels and also signpost you to other support in your area.
 
Physical activity
 
It is recommended that physical activity should be encouraged from birth since being active on a daily basis improves children’s bone health, develops movement and coordination and contributes to a healthy weight. For infants who are not yet walking physical activity should be encouraged through floor-based play, such as ‘tummy-time’, and water-based activities such as swimming. Pre-school children who are capable of walking unaided should be physically active for at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day and not be sedentary for extended periods (except time spent sleeping). Physical activity will usually be in the form of active play and can also include more structured activities including energetic play (climbing frames, riding a bike), running, walking, swimming or skipping.
Dental health 
 
It is particularly important to look after your toddler’s teeth. As soon as their first teeth appear register them with a dentist and visit regularly, at least once a year. A healthy diet low in sugars will help to prevent your child from developing tooth decay. Acidic or sugary drinks and foods should be limited to mealtimes as the more often your toddler consumes these types of foods and drinks the more likely they are to get tooth decay. To prevent tooth decay it is best to give your toddler only water or milk to drink between meals and to encourage drinks to be consumed from a cup or free-flowing beaker and not from a bottle. You should make sure to supervise your toddler brushing their teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste for 2 minutes.
 
Supplements
 
It is recommended that children under the age of 5 years should take a daily supplement of vitamins A, C and D (in the form of liquid drops) – ask your GP, health visitor or pharmacist for more information. Vitamin drops including vitamins A, C and D are available free of charge for low income families through the Healthy Start scheme. Speak to your health visitor or find more information on this page from the NHS.
Last reviewed August 2015.

Useful resources

Some useful resources on feeding your toddler/pre-school child can be found below.

Healthy hydration for children aged 1-4 years

A resource showing healthy hydration options for children aged 1-4 years.

Quick facts
Quick facts
Consumer
Consumer
Health professional
Health professional
pdf
Establishing healthy eating behaviours in the early years

Dr Lucy Chambers, British Nutrition Foundation

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