The changes children experience when they are small are dramatic—from infancy to adolescence, children grow at a surprising rate! That means that the meals your child eats count and should support their optimal growth and development.
Three simple words to remember for good toddler nutrition: Color, Balance, and Real.
Color: just like adults, children need foods in a variety of colors. Try to include all the colors of the rainbow, including white (onions and cauliflower), brown (whole grains), and black (black beans).
Balance: Ensure that your child gets a balanced portion of grains, protein, vegetables, fruit, protein, and dairy. This will maximize their nutritional intake and ensure that essential nutrients aren’t missing from their diet. Plus new research shows disease prevention starts early in childhood.
Real: Be sure to choose food options that are closer to the original source. For example, whole-grain teething biscuits or an alternative teething toy is better than refined flour. Choose real foods, 100% applesauce in place of those with added sugar, or cut up (or mashed) soft banana instead of fruit juice. These choices are important for your baby’s future brain and body powers. They are rich in nutrients and antioxidants that shape your baby’s gene expression and overall are much more wholesome than their processed counterparts! Just think, “Why eat food that is artificially colored or flavored when you can eat a real source of the flavor?”
Between breast or bottle feeding and eating, it feels like you’re always feeding your baby! And remember to balance your child’s meal intake with their energy level: two and three-year-olds who run around are going to need healthy snacks in-between meals to help them grow and also to compensate for all the calories they burn from their adventurous activities.
Here are some one-day sample menus that will help you get an idea of what a child of the early years would need:
1 Year Old
Make sure to always pay attention to choking hazards and engage with your child at mealtime.
1-2 tablespoons of oatmeal (use quick oats/finely-chopped oats to make it easier for your little one to digest).
1-2 tablespoons of plain whole milk Greek or regular yogurt with diced blackberries or 1-2 tablespoon of egg and 1 tablespoon of mashed avocado
¼ to ½ small banana (mash or chopped if needed)
¼ cup hummus with 4-6 whole-grain crackers
1-2 tablespoons of applesauce or mashed or blended fresh or frozen fruit like mango, blueberry or raspberry. Any mashed or blended fruit should be the consistency of applesauce with no large chunks.
1-2 tablespoons of baked beans (low-sodium if canned–or try rinsing canned beans to lower the sodium by 40%) with diced tomatoes, semi-mashed
1-2 tablespoons of steamed spinach or broccoli (add some fresh lemon juice, olive oil and a little bit of garlic for flavor exposure), semi-mashed.
1-2 tablespoons of brown rice (pre-soak before cooking for softer texture)
½ cup breast milk or whole milk
1-2 tablespoons of butternut squash puree
1-2 oz chicken, minced
1-2 tablespoons whole grain couscous or quinoa
¼ cup of whole-grain puffed cereal, ¼ cup of plain yogurt
Check out these 7 meals for baby the whole family can enjoy.
2 Year Old
You don’t need to be preparing entirely different meals for your infant or toddler! They can eat what you’re eating, in the right size without added salt. For more ideas see this sample day of meals for a two year old.
1 scrambled egg
1 slice of toast with ¼ avocado
½ cup of strawberries
½ cup plain low-fat yogurt with ½ cup blueberries
1 cup of steamed broccoli
½ cup whole-wheat pasta seasoned with olive oil, lemon, a pinch of an herb blend (Try Mrs. Dash or Trader Joe’s 21 salute) and pepper, with ¼ cup of salmon
½ apple, sliced
1 cup of low-fat milk (after the age of 2 unless otherwise indicated by your physician or dietitian choose 1% or non-fat milk)
1 small banana
3 Year Old
Need more insights and meal samples for your child? Check out food ideas for a three-year-old.
1 slice of whole-wheat toast with 2 teaspoons peanut butter (choose a natural peanut butter without added fillers or sugar) and 2 teaspoons of 100% fruit jelly
½ cup of low-fat milk
¾ cup of low-fat or skim milk
Quinoa salad: ½ cup cooked quinoa, 1 tbsp slivered almonds and 1 tbsp cranberries. Season with lemon and olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
1 oz of shredded turkey cooked in olive oil
½ cup of raspberries with ¼ cup plain yogurt
¼ cup of trail mix
½ cup quinoa bow-tie pasta with red and white sauce (mixed)
1-2 oz of shredded chicken breast cooked in olive oil
½ cup steamed broccoli
½ cup grapes
2 Clementine oranges
Not sure how much to feed your child? The portion sizes in the meal plans are based on ChooseMyPlate, a great resource supported by our tax dollars! In addition to offering your children healthy foods in the right portion, you can create a food environment that encourages young kids to try more foods. Check out 7 Mom Tested Healthy Eating Tips for Toddlers and Preschoolers. And if you find mealtime gets a little crazy at your house, you’re not alone! Learn how to keep things simple and balanced with these parenting tips at meal time.