What is a balanced diet for toddlers?
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Editorial written for ETC Magazine, Sussex
Lucy Francis (mBANT, NT Dip, IFM)
The first 5 years of a child’s life is a critical period for setting the foundations for optimum growth and development – many changes are happening on a physiological level; organs are developing, hormones are changing and from an immunological perspective, the gut in particular is an organ which requires nourishment through the variety of foods we feed it, helping to build a diverse microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms within the GI tract that is) which functions to help protect our physical and also emotional health throughout our lives.
Research has shown that good nutrition in early childhood is linked to better long-term health and providing your toddler with a balanced diet incorporating plenty of variety and colourful foods is key.
What is a balanced diet for my toddler?
Here’s a simple number pattern you can keep in your mind to ensure your little one is on the right path to balanced nutrition, set out by the British Nutrition Foundation – 5532
Let’s break it down:
5 portions of starchy foods per day
5 portions of vegetables and fruits per day
3 portions of dairy (or DF alternatives)
2* portions of protein per day (3* if vegetarian). Ensure 2 portions per week are sustainably sourced fish – 1 of which ideally being an oily variety, such as salmon.
Nutrient spotlight: pay special attention to Iron, Zinc and Vitamin D…
During times of rapid growth, toddlers have a high requirement for iron (6.9mg); iron is important for brain function, blood cell production and helping to carry oxygen around the body. It’s estimated that around 1 out of 8 children experience iron-deficiency anaemia. Food sources of iron include red meat, fish/seafood and egg yolks, plus vegan sources such as spinach, beans, lentils and tofu. The absorption of these plant ‘non-haem’ forms of iron can be further enhanced by foods rich in vitamin C such as berries, broccoli and tomatoes, so pair these alongside where appropriate.
Zinc is a mineral involved in hundreds of enzyme reactions within the body, it’s estimated that up to 70% of toddlers in the UK have insufficient amounts of zinc in their diet. Zinc is important for immune development, insulin and growth hormone regulation and wound healing. The best zinc food sources include meat, fish, eggs, chickpeas and lentils, whole-grains such as oats, dairy and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin D is a vitamin-like hormone, our body produces it when sunlight hits the skin. It’s important to protect toddlers’ skin in the sun, so the NHS advise that children from the ages of 1 to 4 years old should be given a daily supplement containing 10µg of vitamin D, as food sources alone are unlikely to provide adequate amounts. Vitamin D is important for bone health and the absorption of calcium, as well as nerve and neuromuscular function. Food sources include oily fish, eggs, dairy and sun-exposed mushrooms, as well as fortified foods like certain plant-based milks/yoghurts.
What may a balanced diet for my toddler look like on a plate?
Lucy Francis, registered nutritionist in the UK has developed an example day of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in line with the 5532 guidelines. Why not enjoy some of these meals together as a family?
Breakfast: Porridge made with whole milk (or fortified DF alt), berries, nut butter and milled seeds
Lunch: Salmon & potato fish cake with broccoli trees and sliced cherry tomatoes
Dinner: Mild chicken, chickpea and butternut squash curry served with white rice
Snacks: x2 oat cakes with ¼ mashed avocado on top, x1 125ml pot of whole yoghurt and ½ a kiwi
Top tips for fussy eaters:
Lead by example – eat the same foods as your toddler and make a fuss of how delicious they taste (even if broccoli isn’t your favourite!) Chances are they will observe what the ‘grown ups’ are eating and want the same.
Positive affirmations – encourage and celebrate trying new foods and being experimental. Try not to feel disheartened if the food is rejected, keep offering the ‘trickier’ foods in small amounts regularly, or they will never learn to like them.
If a meal is refused, simply put it in the fridge and try again later. There can be many reasons a child doesn’t want to eat. Don’t force a child to eat a meal or it may instil a negative relationship with food or mealtimes.
Involve your child in the kitchen and make food fun! Cook together, giving them suitable jobs such as sprinkling cheese, helping to measure, setting the table, and give them the choice to pick from 2 healthy, colourful foods to include in their meal.