Toddler Food Guidelines

  • Medical Author:
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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How do I get my toddler to eat in general and eat vegetables in particular?

Parents must realize that toddlers love to control their environment and enjoy predictability. They will often binge on one particular food at the expense of all others. Then suddenly they will become bored with food "A," refuse that food, and randomly switch to food "B." Trying to predict when this change will occur and what food "B" will be is a waste of parental time. Another reality is that toddlers don't know or appreciate the time and effort parents will muster to provide a meal. Food to toddlers is a given. It was always there and it always will be. Parents have a great emotional investment in meal preparation; however, don't take it personally when your toddler rejects a meal outright. Try to view yourself as a waitress in a restaurant. If your child is hungry, the food will be consumed; if not, you can nibble on it yourself! Many parents observe that breakfast is often consumed with gusto, lunch is accepted, and dinner deteriorates into a battleground (and possibly a war zone with food flying everywhere). The following general suggestions may lessen the stress of meals:

  1. Have a reasonable expectation of food amounts necessary for good health. A general guideline for children less than 5 years of age is one tablespoon/year of age. There are not a lot of green beans in a tablespoon.
  2. Avoid foods which need molars for consumption -- it's just too much effort for many children. Instead of steak consider ground round (for example, meat loaf, tacos).
  3. Don't be afraid of spices - children get bored of bland food just like you do. However, do not add extra salt.
  4. Consider bright colored and play foods - red/yellow bell pepper; let them put olives on their fingers (you probably did it too).
  5. Let children participate in food preparation (stirring or washing fruit).
  6. Let children serve out their portion size. Even if it's minuscule, they can always get more.
  7. Let them dip vegetables (such as melted cheese for hand dipping cooked broccoli = "broccoli trees").
  8. Eat you meal with your child. Remember you want to lead by example.
  9. Don't pick up the mess (either on the child or on the floor) until the meal is done. The mess will recur and you'll just get frustrated.
  10. Make sure that the child's chair has a foot rest. Try sitting still in a chair where your feet don't touch the ground!
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/5/2015
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