Food and nutrients help to form strong teeth and bones, muscles and a healthy body; a good diet can also help to protect your child against illness now and in the future.
Young children’s need for energy and nutrients is high, but their appetites are small and they can be fussy, too, and it can be a challenge to get your child’s diet right.
Remember, pre-school children can normally eat the amounts they want, even if it seems they’re
not taking in very much. At this age, children are often good at regulating their appetite. If they’re not hungry, insisting on larger amounts of food can create a battle, which you’re likely to lose.
Key foods for a toddler
Base your child’s intake on the following food groups to help ensure he/she’s getting all the important nutrients. There’s no need to rely on pre-prepared toddler foods. If the family diet is healthy, children can just have family food.
Make sure your child has the following, every day:
Fruit and vegetables
Aim for at least five servings a day, where a serving is about a handful in size. Use fruit in puddings and as snacks. Frozen and canned fruit and vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh varieties. Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked (serve crunchy rather than very soft to preserve the vitamins and minerals).
If your child doesn’t like vegetables, try hiding them by pureeing in to soups, sauces, casseroles and pizza toppings.
Meat, fish and alternatives
Meat, fish and alternatives should be eaten once or twice a day. Cook minced beef, turkey, chicken and pork slowly to ensure it’s soft and tender.
Nutrition experts recommend at least two servings of fish a week, one of which should be oily. But don’t give your child more than four servings of oily fish a week for boys and two servings a week for girls.
Use eggs, either boiled, in sandwiches, as omelettes or scrambled. Try different beans and pulses, such as lentils, baked beans, peas and chickpeas.
Milk and dairy foods
Milk and dairy foods are an important source of calcium. Your child should be having the equivalent of about one pint (500 to 600ml) of milk a day.From the age of one, normal cows’ milk is fine, and you don’t need to use formula.
Use full-fat varieties for the under-twos; semi-skimmed may be given from the age of two if the overall diet contains enough energy and nutrients.
Milk can be used on cereals or in drinks, puddings and sauces, and cheese, fromage frais or yoghurt can be given instead of some milk. Grated cheese, cheese spread or cheese portions can be used on sandwiches or toast. Try yoghurts as a pudding or snack between meals, served alone or with fruit.
- Give your child regular meals and snacks, and try to time these for when your child isn’t too tired or hungry
- It’s helpful to sit down and eat together as a family, and to include your children in buying food and preparing meals
- Offer small portions on a small plate, and allow your child to have more if they’re still hungry
- Keep sweet foods out of sight until the main meal has been eaten
Healthy snacks include fresh fruit, vegetable sticks (such as carrots and peppers), dried fruit, cheese cubes and crackers, toast, small sandwiches, and yoghurt or fromage frais.
Faddy eating and refusing food
Many children go through phases of refusing to eat certain foods or anything at all. This is particularly common for children up to the age of five, and is a normal part of growing up and asserting independence. In fact, children won’t harm themselves if they don’t eat very much for a short while.
It’s quite normal for young children to refuse a new food without even trying it. If this happens, stay calm and don’t force your child to eat it. Take the food away and introduce it again in a few days’ time.
Research shows new foods often need to be offered several times before some children will try them. Offer regular meals and snacks to establish a structured eating pattern rather than allowing your child to pick at food throughout the day. Use brightly coloured plates, present the food in an attractive way, and try to remain calm and relaxed. If the problem shows no sign of improving, speak to your health visitor, GP or dietitian to get further advice.