What goes into a child’s mouth can greatly impact what will come out—in terms of how they grow and develop. (We don’t need to get into potty training here!)
To get expert toddler nutrition tips, we talked with Jennifer Hanson, a registered dietitian and assistant professor at Kansas State University, and Caitlin Jindrich, a registered dietitian working on her masters of public health. Jindrich also happens to have a 2-year-old at home for that most-expert of test kitchens.
Here’s what they had to say:
The Daily Dive
Hanson and Jindrich recommend that 2 to 3 year-olds eat the following each day:
• 3 to 5 ounces of grains (at least half should be whole grains)
• 1 to 1.5 cups raw or cooked vegetables
• 1.5 cups of fruit (go for whole fruits and minimize juice)
• 2 to 2.5 cups fat-free or low-fat milk
• 2 to 4 ounces of protein
About that protein—Hanson says it’s good to provide a variety and suggests including lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, soy products, cooked beans (black, pinto, and kidney), nuts, and nut butters. You can find more guidance on serving the perfect plate here.
The “I don’t want that!” Conundrum
New foods and textures can be a challenge. Jindrich recommends repeated exposure to help a child try and (hopefully) learn to like a new type of food. She suggests involving children in menu planning and says to consider having them help in preparation and cooking as well. It may just spark their interest and avoid fear of the unknown. You can read more about this in our article on feeding a picky toddler.
Let’s Make it a Meal, Quickly!
One quick meal idea from Hanson—a vegetable frittata with whole grains, low-fat milk, and fruit. Jindrich agrees that vegetarian meals can be a quick go-to when needed. One of her favorites—baby burritos. Crumble and sauté tofu with taco seasoning and add beans, onions, peppers, etc. Add even more flavor and variety by topping the frittata with cheese, salsa, avocado, and olives.
Before we jump into some tips for quick snacks, note that we all tend to eat on the fly. But Hanson says to avoid creating this habit in your children by making snack time a sit-down affair, just like a meal. A few ideas for quick snacks: fresh fruit or leftovers—get out last night’s chicken and cooked vegetables or whole-grain pasta and have a small serving.
A favorite snack in the Jindrich household: Whole wheat toast with almond butter and fresh strawberries slices on top or peanut butter with sliced bananas.
Avoiding Overeating from the Start
Obesity is increasingly common in children (and adults), so it’s critical to help your child create healthy eating habits from the start. As Hanson says, you are the gatekeeper at this moment in your child’s life. “Focus on bringing home foods that are rich in nutrients and limiting foods that are highly processed or that contain a lot of added sugar,” she says. “Surrounding your child with healthy foods makes the right food choices easy.”
Most importantly, set a good example. Let your child participate in menu planning, shopping, and preparation in age-appropriate ways. Sit down as a family for meals and snacks (even if it’s just a child and a parent or caregiver, that counts). Turn off screens and interact with each other while you eat.
For more information on feeding your 2 year-old, Hanson recommends Ellen Satter’s website.