Toddler Nutrition

A toddler gains an amazing 40% in height and weight from 1-3 years1. The brain is also continuing to grow at a rapid rate. Therefore, toddlers require adequate amounts of energy and nutrients to facilitate this important time of growth and development. The toddler food pyramid can be used as a guide on how much of which food groups to be included in the daily diet.

It is important to remember that toddlers are not ‘mini adults’ and have very specific nutritional requirements that differ to those of adults.

Toddlers need 3 meals a day with 2-3 healthy snacks in between meals. It is quite common in Ireland for toddlers to drink much more milk than they need. Drinking too much milk has been identified as one of the main risk factors for iron-deficiency anaemia in Ireland2. Toddlers only need about two beakers of milk per day (150mls/5oz per beaker). More than this and toddlers can fill up on milk and be less hungry for main meals.

Toddler Food Pyramid

toddler food_pyramid-600x421

It can often be quite difficult to think of suitable snacks for parents to offer toddlers. Below are some useful ideas you can suggest:

Examples of healthy snacks for toddlers:

  • Fresh fruit e.g. melon slices, banana, orange
  • Whole natural yoghurt
  • Vegetable sticks and dip/hummus
  • Pitta bread slices with hummus/avocado purée spread
  • Rice cakes with smooth peanut butter
  • Rice cakes topped with cottage cheese
  • Wholegrain scone/toast with chopped banana
  • Crackers and cheese

Fussy Eating

Toddlers are renowned for being ‘fussy eaters’, suddenly refusing foods they have liked previously or eating well one day but not the next. It’s important to reassure parents that toddlers don’t need to eat well at every meal or each day. It is more important to take into account their average intake over a week which in most cases is varied enough to support their nutritional needs.

Some useful tips to give to parents on how to deal with ‘fussy eaters’

  1. Toddlers love messy mealtimes when they are allowed to feed themselves. Don’t spoon-feed just to avoid a mess. Let him pick food up rather than trying to spoon it into his mouth. Toddlers like having control of feeding themselves.
  2. Refusing a food may not always mean that he/she doesn’t like it. You may have to offer the food over 10 times before they decide that they like it. Food refusal is a normal part of a toddler’s development.
  3. However, don’t force your toddler to eat. This can result in a permanent dislike for that food. When it becomes clear that the toddler is not going to eat it, take the plate away without commenting. Next time offer them a different food from the same food group.
  4. Make sure there are no distractions at mealtimes. Turn off the television, toddlers can only concentrate on one thing at a time, therefore having the TV on can make mealtimes difficult.
  5. Take a look at your own diet. If you are eating a healthy diet, your toddler is more likely to want to try these foods too. Don’t expect them to eat well if you don’t.


Toddler Diets – Key Nutrients of Interest

The latest research in Ireland has revealed some startling statistics regarding toddler nutrition in Ireland. The National Pre-School Nutrition Survey (2012) showed that 23% of Irish 1 year olds are not getting an adequate amount of iron in their diet and 90% of  Irish 1-3 year olds do not meet the recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamin D3.

Importance of Iron in the Toddler Diet

Iron is an important mineral for cognitive development. During the toddler years the brain is still undergoing rapid growth and development and is thought to be approx. 85% of its mature adult size by the time a toddler reaches 3 years4. Meeting toddlers’ iron requirements helps ensure optimum behavioural and intellectual development5. Iron deficiency anaemia in early childhood is associated with significantly poorer school performance at age 11-14 years6.

Therefore, the toddler years are critical for ensuring adequate levels of iron are obtained from the diet.

Toddlers require the same amounts of iron (8mg) as a 30 year old man7 ,however they have small stomachs relative to their high nutritional needs.Therefore meeting a toddler’s iron requirements can be difficult to achieve. Irish research suggests that over-reliance on cows’ milk is one of the main risk factors for iron deficiency anaemia in toddlers2. This is because too much milk in the diet inhibits a toddler’s appetite for their normal meals. 300mls (10oz) of milk is sufficient for toddlers to consume on a daily basis.

The most readily absorbed form of iron is called haem-iron. Haem-iron is found in animal sources only such as beef, pork, lamb, fish, chicken & turkey.

Non-haem iron is not as readily absorbed as haem-iron and requires vitamin C to aid its absorption.
Non-haem iron food sources includes eggs, dark green vegetables, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), dried apricots, raisins, and foods fortified with iron such as breakfast cereals and some milks. Serving these foods with a vitamin C containing foods is advisable when planning a meal.

Importance of Vitamin D in the Toddler Diet

Vitamin D is important for bone development in toddlers. Vitamin D is also an essential nutrient controlling the absorption of calcium and phosphorous from the gut. Calcium and phosphorous are vital for the healthy growth of the skeleton during childhood8.

Sunshine is the main source of Vitamin D. However, direct exposure of sunlight is not recommended for toddlers because of the risk of skin cancer. As well as this there are very few natural foods (oily fish and eggs are two) that contain significant amounts of Vitamin D. As a result it is difficult for Irish toddlers to achieve the recommended daily allowance of 10 µg.

The National Pre-School Nutrition Survey showed that toddlers’ intakes of Vitamin D were quite low: 70 – 84% of those aged between one and four year consume less than 5 µg, and 17–25% of these had intakes of less than 1 µg3. This is unsurprising given that there are limited natural dietary sources of Vitamin D. However there is no guidance available regarding Vitamin D supplementation in this age group.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has highlighted the need for recommendations to improve the Vitamin D status of toddlers living in Ireland. If parents are concerned about their toddlers’ Vitamin D intake it is perfectly safe for toddlers to continue with the 5ug/day supplement as recommended from birth-12 months, and to include foods rich in vitamin D (including oily fish, eggs, Vitamin D fortified cereals and milks) in their toddler’s diet.

The Contribution of Growing Up Milk to Irish Toddler Diets:

Once a child reaches 1 year, milk plays only a minor role in their diet. The nutrients toddlers need on a daily basis should be coming mainly from their meals and snacks throughout the day.

The National Pre-School Nutrition Survey (2012) has highlighted that Irish toddlers have inadequate intakes of key nutrients including iron and vitamin D3.

Parental education on nutrition for their toddler is undoubtedly of utmost importance to correct these nutritional deficiencies. In addition, in relation to toddler diets, Irish research by Walton J & Flynn A (2013)9 states that:

Consumption of Growing-up milks reduced the risk of inadequacies of iron and vitamin D, two nutrients frequently lacking in the diets of young children consuming unfortified cow’s milk only”

To learn more about Cow & Gate’s Growing Up Milk range, please click here


  1. WHO Child Growth Standards based on length/height, weight and age. Acta Paediatr Suppl 2006; 450:76-85
  2. Freeman VE et al. Public Health Nutr. 1998; 1(2): 93-100.
  3. Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA) 2012. National Pre-School Nutrition Survey. Summary Report: Food and nutrient intakes, physical measurements and barriers to healthy eating.
  4. UNICEF document: Early childhood development: the key to a full and productive
  5. Martins S et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2001, Issue 2.
  6. Lozoff B et al. Pediatrics 2000; 105 (4): E51.
  7. Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Recommended Dietary Allowances for Ireland 1999.
  8. Winzenberg T, Powell S et al, Shaw KA, Jones G. Effects of vitamin D supplementation on bone density in healthy children: systematic review and meta analysis. BMJ 2011; 342:c7254
  9. Walton J & Flynn A. Nutritional adequacy of diets containing growing up milks or unfortified cow’s milk in Irish children (aged 12-24months). Food & Nutrition Research 2013; 57: 21836