Food basics

Children need safe and nutritious foods to promote healthy growth and development. 

These early experiences with food affect not only their daily wellbeing but also their long term growth and development, and the formation of healthy food habits for later in childhood and into adulthood too.

It’s not necessary to follow all of the healthy eating advice aimed at adults yet, but starting to make healthier choices will make it much easier for them later on to enjoy a good balance of foods.

A healthy diet for young children has:

  1. Regular healthy meals & snacks.
  2. Plenty of choice & balance.
  3. Lots of tastes in a range of different fruit & vegetables.
  4. Different colours, tastes & textures.
  5. Me-sized’ portions.

A time of change

As your baby grows into a toddler, it is a time of rapid change and extraordinary development and your little one will be really excited by their new abilities in thinking, speech, movement and emotions.

Everything is a big new adventure which can make things tricky for parents when it comes to food and mealtimes.

Just when you thought you knew what your toddler likes to eat, and you are confident that they are eating a healthy, balanced diet, your toddler might take matters into their own hands. They can suddenly refuse their favourite meal, or be too busy running about to want to sit at the table for lunch.

Some days your toddler will eat lots and other days they might not be hungry - this reflects fluctuations in growth and physical activity.

Often toddlers can’t tell you they are hungry but the signs are there. Do they get cross and throw toys just before snack time? Or do they start to fall and trip just before tea?

Good nutrients

By giving your child a varied diet containing a selection of foods from the different food groups every day, you will provide all the essential nutrients they need.

For those on a limited diet there can be a risk of having too little of some key nutrients so check our guide below to find out what these are, why they’re needed, and how to include them.

More on vitamin D

Children under 5 need a suitable supplement as vitamin D requirements can’t be met by food alone.

Healthy Start vitamins, or similar vitamin drops are ideal as they contain the right amounts of vitamins A, C and D. They don’t need any other supplements unless advised by your GP.

Top tip

Sunshine is a great source of vitamin D and it’s important for little ones to build up stores.

Between April and September let them spend a few minutes in the sunshine in the middle of the day, but not so much time that their skin starts to redden, before slapping on the sunscreen.

Allergies & food intolerance

Fortunately food allergies are extremely rare and even those children who do have a food allergy often grow out of it by the time they start school.

Food intolerances, which are not as severe as allergic reactions, can often be temporary, for example, after a tummy bug.

Cutting out a food if you suspect an allergy or intolerance can lead to nutritional deficiencies, so if you are concerned you can keep a diary of foods and symptoms for a couple of weeks and then have a chat to your health visitor or GP who might recommend some simple tests and refer you to a dietitian.

Watch out - Salt

Too much salt is not good for toddler's kidneys. Some foods, like ham and cheese, are naturally high in salt but have useful nutrients, so include them just sometimes. Did you know? The maximum daily salt intake for 1 to 3 year olds is just 2g per day.

Watch out - Sugar

Sugar encourages a sweet tooth, can cause tooth decay, and should never be added to your toddler's food. Milk, fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars, but also essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Sugar & teeth

If little ones do have sweet foods, try to have a small portion in one go to limit the amount of time that teeth are in contact with sugar.

Eating them slowly over a longer period is more harmful to teeth than eating them quickly, and if your little one enjoys eating fruit don’t stop them, but do ensure you brush their teeth carefully.