Healthy Eating Habits

The toddler months provide an opportunity to encourage healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. Continuing to breastfeed through the toddler years is fine if this suits mum and child.

Toddlers can usually eat the same food as the rest of the family (with the exception of very strong spices) as long as it’s cut up into toddler-sized pieces. Toddlers still have small stomachs so they may need to eat little and often. Don’t be frustrated if your toddler eats hardly any of the meal you’ve prepared and then announces they need a snack an hour later. Letting them eat as much or as little as they like at mealtimes is a good strategy, as long as the snacks you offer in between are nourishing. If your toddler fills up on sweet foods and fizzy drinks, they won’t have room for the nutritious food they need. You’ll also be encouraging your child to develop a sweet tooth, which can lead to tooth decay and weight problems.

One year olds need high amounts of energy as they are growing fast. Surprisingly, toddlers can be more at risk of going short of important nutrients, such as iron, than babies. This is due to several factors:

  • still growing rapidly so need plenty of nutritious foods
  • moving onto cow’s milk as a main drink, which is low in iron
  • some toddlers becoming picky about food, not eating as much

It’s sometimes hard to tell if a toddler is not getting enough iron until the shortage is severe, so it is particularly important to make sure you are offering your toddler plenty of iron-rich foods such as lean meat.

For a healthy, balanced diet containing all the necessary building blocks, make sure your toddler eats foods from these four groups:

Starchy foods – including bread, pasta, rice, porridge oats, kumara, yams and potatoes.

Fruit and vegetables – of any sort, including frozen, canned and well diluted juice, five times a day. (Frozen vegetables may contain even more vitamins than fresh ones which have been sitting on a shelf).

Protein foods – red meat, chicken, fish and eggs, as well as vegetarian alternatives such as tofu, dhal (lentils), pulses and nut pastes (like peanut butter).

Dairy products  – like cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais and regular blue top milk. Low-fat alternatives just don’t provide enough energy.  Use only full-fat varieties like creamy yoghurt and blue top milk.

You don’t have to offer all four food groups at every meal but if you aim to include foods from all four each day, you will go a long way towards making sure your child’s getting the nutrition they need for healthy growth and development.

As your toddler gradually develops more control over their body they will enjoy trying to feed themselves. They will learn to:

  • make very fine movements, like picking up a pea from their plate
  • use a spoon and fork while eating (it may get messy, but that’s what splash mats are for!)
  • stir with a wooden spoon.

Cups and spoons

Most toddlers learn to use spoons and forks, though not all of the food will go in the mouth every time!  Don’t be surprised if some experimenting goes on.  You may not have thought of squishing porridge through your fingers to see how it feels, but your toddler might!

No bottles

Your toddler should be drinking from a cup, not a drink bottle.  Some toddlers enjoy the comfort of sucking from a bottle but it’s not good for their teeth and can delay speech development.  So it’s really important to offer them a cup. If your toddler wants a bottle, try offering only water in the bottle and milk or will diluted juice in the cup.

Salt warning

Children between 1 – 3 years old should have no more than 2 grams of salt (0.8g sodium) a day. Limit salty snacks like potato chips and foods such as cheese, bacon and sausages. Processed foods can be high in salt too.  Check the salt or sodium content on the label and choose ones that are lowest. Never add salt to your child’s food.

Foods to avoid

Raw and undercooked egg, whole nuts, fizzy drinks, cordial, coffee and tea should be avoided and there is no need to add sugar or honey to children’s food.  Young children should not be given shark, marlin or swordfish either. These fish are too high in mercury, which may affect a child’s developing nervous system. Tuna fish, however, is safe.

Warning: Peanuts and peanut butter are banned from pre-school establishments to protect the children allergic to the nuts.


Most toddlers do not need supplements. A healthy, balanced diet is the best way to provide the nourishment your child requires. Some children, however, might need extra vitamins and minerals, such as toddlers following a vegan diet, who might need vitamin B12. If you are concerned your child might need supplements ask your health professional.