Make Every Bite Count: Toddlers

The new Dietary Guidelines provide two healthy eating patterns for toddlers between the ages of 12 and 23 months who are no longer taking breastmilk or formula. Both patterns include a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages.

Healthy U.S.-Style Dietary Pattern:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Grains
  • Dairy: whole milk, yogurt, and cheese
    • Fortified soy milk (unsweetened) counts as a dairy food
  • Protein foods: lean meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, and seeds
    • Seafood (see Seafood Safety below)
  • Oils

Healthy Dietary Vegetarian Pattern for Toddlers (Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian):

  • Vegetables: including beans/peas/lentils for protein.
  • Fruits
  • Grains
  • Dairy: fortified soy milk (unsweetened), other soy dairy products.
  • Protein foods: eggs, soy products, nuts, and seeds.
  • Oils

Nutrients of Concern for Toddlers Following the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern:

  • Iron: non-heme iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as heme iron from animal foods.
  • Vitamin B12: found only in animal foods.

Generally the recommendation is to check with a healthcare provider to see if a supplement is needed.

Nutrients of Public Health Concern for All Toddlers:

  • Underconsumption: vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber, and potassium.
  • Overconsumption: added sugars and sodium. 
  • Saturated fat: Not limited for children under age 2.

How are Toddlers Doing?

  • Not enough vegetables: About 90% don’t meet recommendations. Especially low intake of dark green veggies and beans/peas/lentils.
  • Not enough whole grains: 95% don’t meet recommendations.
  • Here's where they exceed recommendations:
    • Fruit: 60% meet or exceed recommendations.
    • Dairy (mostly cow’s milk)
    • Refined grains
  • And toddlers are generally on target for protein foods. Their overall intake is adequate, but higher for meats and poultry and lower for seafood.

Toddlers & Added Sugars: 

  • Recommendation: Avoid.
  • Average intake: 104 calories/day from added sugars
  • Where is added sugar coming from? More than 25% from sugar-sweetened beverages (mostly fruit drinks); 15% from sweet bakery products.
  • Other sources of added sugars: yogurt, ready-to-eat cereal, candy, fruit, flavored milk, milk substitutes, baby food products, and breads.

Toddlers & Sodium: 

  • Recommendation: limit to 1,200 mg/day.
  • Average intake: 1,586 mg/day.
  • Where is sodium coming from? Processed meats (hot dogs, deli meats, sausages) and refined grains (bakery products, crackers, savory snacks).

Foods for Toddlers to Avoid:

  • Foods with added sugars 
  • Foods with low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners
  • Higher sodium foods (salty snacks, commercial toddler foods, processed meats)
  • Unpasteurized juice, milk, yogurt, or cheese

Healthy Beverages for Toddlers:

  • Water (plain, fluoridated)
  • Whole cow’s milk (unflavored) or unsweetened fortified soy beverages
  • 100% fruit juice (up to 4 ounces/day) 

Toddler Drinks to Avoid:

  • Toddler milks and drinks
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Caffeinated drinks

Healthy Shifts for Toddlers:

Here are some examples of shifts in common choices to healthier, more nutrient-dense food options:

  • Shift from cereal with added sugars to cereal with minimal added sugars
  • Replace fruit products with added sugars with plain fruit
  • Skip fried vegetables (like potatoes) for roasted veggies
  • Transition from high-sodium snacks to vegetables
  • Shift from high-sodium meats to ground lean meats
  • Replace beverages with added sugars to unsweetened beverages

A Note About Seafood Safety:

Methylmercury in seafood is a concern for young children. They can have up to 2-3 ounces of seafood per week; it should be cooked and on the Best Choices list in the FDA/EPA joint Advice About Eating Fish, available at FDA.gov/fishadvice and EPA.gov/fishadvice. 

Lower methylmercury choices from the Best Choices list include:

  • Flatfish (e.g., flounder)
  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Shrimp
  • Catfish
  • Crab
  • Trout
  • Haddock
  • Oysters
  • Sardines
  • Squid
  • Pollock
  • Anchovies
  • Crawfish
  • Mullet
  • Scallops
  • Whiting
  • Clams
  • Shad
  • Atlantic mackerel. 

Avoid: Canned light tuna or white (albacore) tuna, cod, perch, and black sea bass.

By Hollis Bass, MEd, RD, LD

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.

And here are the previous installments of the series, in case you'd like a refresher:

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