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:
- 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)
Healthy Dietary Vegetarian Pattern for Toddlers (Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian):
- Vegetables: including beans/peas/lentils for protein.
- Dairy: fortified soy milk (unsweetened), other soy dairy products.
- Protein foods: eggs, soy products, nuts, and seeds.
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 to 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 bread.
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 milk 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 with 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)
- 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:
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.