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Nutrition for toddlers



Toddlers and pre-school children grow and develop quickly! It's an important time to make sure they are eating well to get all the energy and nutrients they need.


This is a great time for children to learn about food and eating, so they can get into the habit of having a healthy, varied diet. 


In this section, you can learn what your toddler or pre-school child should be eating, and in what amounts.


A healthy diet is about getting the right balance of foods and drinks in the right amounts. Developing healthy eating habits in the early years can set a child up for good health in later life.


Helena Gibson-Moore, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

The 5-5-3-2 portion guide

The 5-5-3-2 guide relates to amount of portions of each food group that children should be getting each day

Starchy foods

Five portions

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. 


Try to give your toddler about five portions of starchy foods as part of meals and snacks across the day.

Fruit and veg

Five portions

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.


Toddlers should eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day.

Dairy foods

Three portions

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 1 onwards, semi-skimmed milk can be introduced if they are growing well and eating a healthy, varied diet.


Toddlers need about three servings of dairy foods per day.

Protein foods

Two portions

This food group includes meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas) 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.


Your toddler needs two portions of protein foods per day, three if they are vegetarian or vegan.

Download the 5-5-3-2 portion guide

The 5-5-3-2 guide has portion size examples for a range of foods to give you an idea of what is appropriate to offer children. Children’s appetites can vary a lot so let them decide how much to eat.

What is a toddler sized portion?

Starchy foods

Practical examples of portion sizes for toddlers

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.

Bread ½-1 slice

Breakfast cereal 3-5 tablespoons

Cooked pasta or rice 2-4 tablespoons

Spaghetti Hoops 2-4 tablespoons

Mashed potato 1-3 tablespoons

Potato wedges 2-4

Rice cakes or oatcakes 1-2

Scone ½-1

Chapati ½-1

Fruits and vegetables

Practical examples of portion sizes for toddlers

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. This means they will be more likely to eat lots of fruits and vegetables throughout childhood and into adulthood. 

Grapes 3-8

Vegetable sticks 2-6

Cherry tomatoes 1-3

Banana ¼-1

Apple ¼-½ medium sized apple

Canned fruit 2-4 tablespoons

Peas ½-2 tablespoons

Broccoli ½-2 tablespoons

Raisins ½-2 tablespoons

Dairy foods

Practical examples of portion sizes for toddlers

Skimmed and 1% milks are not suitable for children under 5 years. 

Milk 100ml (about 1 beaker)

Yogurt 125ml

Cheese triangle 1

Rice pudding 2-4 tablespoons

Cheese sauce 1-3 tablespoons

Protein foods

Practical examples of portion sizes for toddlers

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. 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. 

Fish fingers 1-2

Poached, boiled or fried egg ½-1

Cooked minced meat 2-4 tablespoons

Chickpeas, kidney beans, dhal, lentils or beans 2-3 tablespoons

Baked beans 2-3 tablespoons

How much should my toddler be drinking?

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. Also, to discourage your child from developing a preference for sweetened drinks, it is best not to offer these too often.


Fruit juice provides some nutrients but is also high in sugar and is acidic,  so, if you give your child fruit juice should be diluted with water and kept to mealtimes.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.

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 the 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:

If at first you don’t succeed - keep trying!

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! 

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.


The best approach is to offer food 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. 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.

Frequently asked questions

Vegetables can be quite bitter; particularly some green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale or cabbage. Young children are very sensitive to bitter flavours and prefer sweeter foods. This means that they might be ok eating some sweet and tasty fruit but push their vegetables to one side, or even onto the floor!


Just eating fruit can mean that kids could miss out on some of the nutrients found in higher amounts in vegetables, as well as the opportunity to enjoy the varied dishes where vegetables are found – so it’s important that they have a variety of both in their diet.


Food ‘neophobia’ – the fear of new things - is also a problem between the ages of 2 and 6 years. Neophobia is common at this stage in life and simply means that a child will usually turn their nose up at a new food. This can be a key reason young children tend to say no the first time you try to introduce something they are not used to, but it does not mean they won’t learn to like it.


There are many ways that parents often use to try and get their kids to eat vegetables, but some are more effective than others. Coercion or force-feeding strategies, for example, can make both child and parent stressed and lead the child to like the vegetable even less! Similarly, using treat foods as a reward also seems to make children like the vegetable even less. Not only that, but they tend to like the less healthy reward food even more afterwards.


Hiding vegetables in foods can be a way to get children to eat vegetables with less fuss, as they do not notice them when eating. The problem is that because the child does not see the vegetables, they do not learn to like them on their own and may still reject them later.

Studies have shown that the best way to get young children to eat foods is through repetition. Becoming more familiar with a food can help children to accept it. The problem is that research has also found that it can take between 8 and 15 times being given a food before it is accepted. As many parents will be aware, between 8 and 15 rejections of a vegetable also means between 8 and 15 stressful mealtimes or snacks, as well as wasted food and hungry kids.


Is there a way that could reduce the number of times a food has to be introduced and help young children to understand and accept vegetables as part of their daily diet?


The See & Eat project was funded by EIT Food and led by the University of Reading, with partners including the British Nutrition Foundation. The goal of the project was to encourage children to eat more vegetables by familiarising them with images that show the veggies growing, being picked, sold in store, and then being cooked and eaten. The theory is that this approach can help children become more familiar with vegetables and therefore accept them more readily. 


The research team had already published a study using physical books, which showed promising results. They found that the children who were shown the books became more familiar with the vegetables and were also more likely to enjoy them! Books with fruit were also tested – but in these cases the researchers saw no difference between the groups with and without books. This might be because fruits tend to be sweeter, and kids are more likely to enjoy them than their less sweet vegetable counterparts.


The See & Eat project has now produced a range of eBooks that parents can use to introduce vegetables to their children. These books can be freely downloaded on phones or tablets. Each eBook has a set of images and accompanying text that show the journey of a vegetable ‘from farm to fork’. This allows children to not only see the vegetable in its raw form, but to have a basic understanding of how it is grown and what it looks like in meals and snacks.


The eBooks are also customisable – allowing parents to edit the text or add their own images. This can help parents to personalise the books in a way that suits them and their children’s learning and adds more flexibility than a physical book would have.


For more information on See & Eat, or to download the resources yourself, click here to be taken to the See & Eat website.

Young children need energy (from food) to grow and develop. As children get older, their body size increases, and they will typically eat more food as a consequence.


Generally it’s a good idea to offer larger portions to older children than younger children but you can be guided by the size of your child and their appetite that day.


The British Nutrition Foundation 5532 guide for 1-4 year olds provides portion size suggestions for a range of foods from each of the four main food groups. For many foods we give a range - taking pasta as an example, the suggested portion size is 2-5tbsp and it may be useful to think about the lower range (2tbsp) as being most suitable for a 1-year-old and the higher range for a 4-year-old (5tbsp). 

Young children’s appetites can vary hugely from meal to meal and from day to day. Appetite can depend on things like how active they are, mood, how much they like the food and time since their last meal.


Young children are usually fairly good at regulating their own appetite (they know when they are hungry and when they are full). Therefore, if a child eats more than usual at breakfast, they may well make up for this by eating less than usual later in the day. If you are concerned that your child is always eating larger than the recommended portions, you could try:

  • Serving smaller portions to start with and allowing them to ask for more if they are still hungry
  • Using child-sized plates or bowls (using adult-sized may encourage you to serve them too much)
  • Encouraging them to eat more slowly if they are a quick eater, as this can give their body more time to realise it is full.

It is important that young children eat a variety of foods from the main food groups.


The 5532 guide suggests how many portions from each of the food groups should be eaten per day. Pressuring children to eat, completely banning less healthy foods and using treat foods as a reward could actually decrease children’s liking of the foods you want them to eat.


However there are lots of positive things you can do to help your child eat well:

  • Eat a healthy meals yourself, and eat with your child when you can (children are more likely to eat foods that they see others eating and enjoying)
  • Make mealtimes fun and inclusive (allow children to touch and smell foods and involve them in food preparation where possible)
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for children to try new foods (it may take 10+ attempts until they accept a new food!).

If a child regularly leaves food on their plate from a particular food group (for example fruit or vegetables), maybe try offering this again as a snack later on (for example offer fruit for dessert or veggie sticks as a snack). This may also help to reduce waste!

In the UK, there are guidelines that nurseries, preschools and childminders should follow to make sure that portion sizes, as well as food quality and the way they feed children, are appropriate.


In England, Wales and Northern Ireland these guidelines are voluntary and in Scotland they are compulsory.


If your child goes to a nursery, childminder or preschool, it’s always a good idea to have a look at their menus and policies on food. It’s also a good idea to ask what your child has eaten during the day - knowing which foods they’ve already had will help you to decide what to feed them later, to ensure their diet is varied. You could encourage your child to talk about what they ate and what they enjoyed that day if they can.

Foods to avoid giving 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). 
  • Some raw eggs – toddlers can eat raw or lightly cooked hens’ eggs that have a red lion stamped on them (the British Lion Quality mark). Hens' eggs that don't have the red lion mark, as well as other eggs including duck or quail eggs, should be cooked until both the white and yolk are solid. Avoid foods containing raw or partially cooked eggs that you cannot confirm are red lion stamped 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 nuts - the NHS advises that whole nuts should not be given to children under the age 5 years because of the risk of choking but you can give your baby nuts and peanuts from around 6 months old, as long as they're crushed, ground or a smooth nut or peanut butter.
  • 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.

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. Being overweight or obese is bad for your child’s health both now and over the longer term. 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.


It can be difficult to tell if your toddler is overweight. If you are concerned about your child’s weight then you can contact your GP or health visitor. They can check their weight and height and advise you if their weight is in the healthy range.


If your child is overweight then encouraging them to do plenty of activity and offering a healthy diet will help their weight to get back into the healthy range.


Physical activity


Getting plenty of physical activity every day is really important for health and development in young children. 


It improves bone health, develops movement and coordination and contributes to a healthy weight. It’s recommended that children under 5 years are active for 3 hours across the day. Children who are not walking yet, can be active through floor-based play, such as tummy-time or playing with toys and swimming. Children who can walk can get active through playing inside or outside, with activities like dancing, skipping, playing in playgrounds, playing with balls, scooting, cycling or swimming. It’s also important to minimise the time children spend sitting down, for example, when in a buggy or watching screens.


Dental health 


It is important to look after your toddler’s teeth. As soon as their first teeth appear, register them with a dentist and visit regularly, as advised by your dentist. 


A healthy diet low in sugars will help to prevent your child from developing tooth decay. Sugary foods and drinks 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.




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.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.