Feeding Your Toddler and Preschooler
All parents and caregivers want the best for their children when it comes to healthy eating. Understanding your child’s nutrition needs and what to expect at different stages is the first step to feeding children in a healthy and happy way.
Breastmilk can continue to be an important source of nutrients for your toddler or preschooler. Continue breastfeeding for up to 2 years and beyond, or for as long as you and your child want. If your child is still breastfeeding and less than 2 years old, they will need a vitamin D supplement each day.
Your child will eat best when they learn to eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are feeling full. You can help your child learn healthy eating habits by knowing what your role is at meals and snacks, and letting your child do their job.
- When to eat – meals and snacks should be offered around the same time each day
- Where to eat – at a table with an adult
- What to eat – offer a variety of healthy food choices
- Whether to eat
- How much to eat, stopping when they are full
Read more on the Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
What to Offer
By 12 months of age, your child should be eating many of the same foods as the rest of the family, with some changes to make the food safe to chew and swallow.
- Serve a variety of foods from the 4 food groups everyday
- Colourful vegetables and fruit – offer at least 1 dark green and 1 orange vegetable each day
- Whole grains
- Milk and alternatives
*remember children younger than 2 years old need full-fat homogenized milk, if breastmilk is no longer their main source of milk. After 2 years of age, you can switch to lower fat (1% or 2%) milk or fortified soy beverage
- Lean meat and alternatives
- Serve small portions of food and offer more if your child is still hungry. Large amounts of food can be overwhelming for young children. Offer finger foods to encourage children to feed themselves.
- Plan for 3 meals and 2-3 snacks at regular times each day.
- For meals include at least 3 of the 4 food groups.
- For snacks include at least 2 of the 4 food groups. Snacks should include foods that might be missed at meals. Serve meals and snacks 2 ½ - 3 hours apart so your child is hungry at the next scheduled eating time.
- Each meal should have at least 1 nutritious food your child likes, but don’t offer only your child’s favourite foods.
- Offer only water in between meals and snacks. Children do not need juice. If you do offer juice, offer 100% fruit juice and limit to 125 – 175 mL (½ – ¾ cup) per day.
- Offer drinks in an open cup. Starting at around 6 months you can help your child learn to drink from a cup. This will make the transition from bottle feeding easier later on.
- Avoid other beverages like pop, sports drinks and energy drinks
- Offer a variety of foods with different tastes, textures and colours. You may need to offer a new food 10-15 times before your child will taste it. Be patient and don’t pressure your child to eat.
- Iron-rich foods are important for growing children. Offer meat (e.g., beef, chicken, turkey, fish) or meat alternatives (e.g., beans, chickpeas, eggs, lentils, tofu) 2-3 times a day to help meet your child’s iron needs.
- Do not restrict fat. Nutritious higher-fat foods like peanut butter and cheese can help younger children meet their energy and nutrient needs. Foods that are high in fat, sugar and/or salt, and also low in vitamins and minerals (e.g., cookies, chips, sugary drinks) should be limited as they have few nutrients and may make children less hungry for more nutritious foods.
*Remember: the amount of food is not important. Focus on the variety of foods offered, not the serving size.
Visit these resources for more information:
How Much to Offer
Children may be hungrier at some meals than at others. They may also eat a lot one day and only eat a little another day. They may be less open to trying new foods. Be patient and keep mealtimes positive. Never use food as a reward or punishment, or force children to eat. Trust that your child knows how much food they need and respect your child’s appetite.
Continue to offer a variety of healthy foods and let your child decide whether to eat and how much to eat. Eat with your child as often as possible and set a good example by eating a variety of foods.
Always watch your child closely during meals and snacks and make sure there are no distractions. Follow these rules to help your child stay safe during mealtime:
- Remind your child to eat while sitting down
- Discourage them from talking with food in their mouth
- Encourage your child to chew their food well
- Cut food into a size than can be safely eaten
- Chop or quarter grapes and remove seeds
- Grate or cook hard vegetables and fruit (e.g., carrots, apples)
- Peel fruit, and remove pits and seeds
- Spread peanut butter thinly – never serve it from a spoon
- Cut sausages and wieners lengthwise and into bite-sized pieces
- Finely chop fibrous or stringy foods (e.g., celery)
- Children under 4 should avoid foods that are hard, round and small, and smooth and sticky like: raw vegetables, popcorn, nuts, thick peanut butter, seeds, marshmallows, fish with bones, snacks with toothpicks/skewers, raisins, hard candies, cough drops or chewing gum.
Common Feeding Challenges
Situation: Your child wants the same food everyday.
What You Can Do: If your child’s favourite food is nutritious, offer it with other healthy choices. If a fuss is not made and mealtimes are pleasant, your child will soon move to another favourite food.
Situation: Your child takes too long to eat.
What You Can Do: Be patient and give your child time to explore, touch and taste their food. Young children need time to experience food, eat and learn how to use utensils. After a reasonable amount of time (20-30 minutes) remove your child’s plate without a fuss.
Situation: Your child refuses to eat.
What You Can Do: Respect your child’s appetite; it can vary from day to day and meal to meal. Avoid becoming a short-order cook – children should get used to sharing the family meal. A skipped meal once in a while is not a concern as long as your child is growing normally.
Situation: Your child refuses to try to new foods.
What You Can Do: Continue to offer small amounts of new foods. It can take 10-15 tries before your child will eat it. Avoid forcing your child to eat a new food as this may prevent them from accepting it. Your child will be more likely to eat new foods if they see you eating them.
Situation: Your child does not eat vegetables.
What You Can Do: Offer a variety of brightly coloured vegetables so your child can choose what they like. Role model healthy eating by enjoying a variety of vegetables; children pick up on how you view food. Let children help choose their own vegetables at the grocery store or grow their own garden.
Situation: Your child does not drink milk*
What You Can Do: Preschoolers need at least 500 mL (2 cups) of milk each day to get enough vitamin D. Offer small amounts of milk using a neutral approach. Serve milk at a temperature your child likes, and use it in cream soups, with pureed vegetables, and in puddings or hot cereals.
Situation: Your child drinks too much milk.
What You Can Do: Milk can be filling and leave less room for other healthy foods. Children need at least 500 mL (2 cups) of milk and not more than 750 mL (3 cups). Limit milk intake if your child is drinking too much. Do not give milk in a bottle; serve it in a cup with meals and snacks.
Situation: Your child refuses to eat meat*
What You Can Do: Try cutting meat into smaller pieces and serve it in different ways, like in soups, stews, tomato sauce or meatloaf. Offer other protein rich foods like eggs, fish, cheese, smooth peanut butter, soy foods, cooked dried beans or lentils. Offer iron-fortified breads and cereals, dark leafy vegetables, eggs, cooked dried beans and lentils.
*Talk to your family doctor or Registered Dietitian if your child does not eat any dairy or meat products, and before deciding if your child needs a supplement.
Fun with Kids in the Kitchen
Cooking is a learning experience and fun at the same time! Letting younger children help in the kitchen has many benefits, it:
- Helps children build healthy eating habits,
- gets children interested in new foods, and
- children are more likely to eat the foods they helped prepare.
Visit Family Kitchen for ways to get children in the kitchen!
Curious about your child’s eating habits? Find our more with NutriSTEP®
NutriSTEP® is a simple questionnaire that will tell you how your toddler (18-35 months) or preschooler (3-5 years) is doing. It looks at your child’s eating, physical activity, screen time habits and more.
Where can I find NutriSTEP® screening for my child?
Visit www.nutritionscreen.ca to fill out the questionnaire. It takes about 5 minutes, and you'll get feedback on how your child is doing and helpful information right away!
You can also complete the screen by calling 1-800-510-5102 and talking with a Registered Dietitian, at no cost.
Or, call 1-800-660-5853 to have the questionnaire mailed to you, free of charge.
If you're a service provider and looking for more information on using NutriSTEP® with the families you work with, you can call 1-800-660-5853 or visit www.nutristep.ca
Resources on Feeding Your Toddler or Preschooler