Make Every Bite Count: Toddlers

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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 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 and 

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

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

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