The Most Nutritious Foods for Toddlers

By Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN

Toddlers are pretty amazing! The stuff that goes on in your tot’s brain and body between the ages of 1 and 3 is nothing short of miraculous. Their weight and height are rapidly increasing, cells are multiplying, bones are elongating, brains are growing! And every single one of those processes depends upon the right nutrition. Heck, research has shown that proper toddler nutrition can even buoy your child’s learning and school performance down the road. All great news…but what exactly is the “right nutrition” for toddlers? AND how do you get your kiddo to eat what’s good for them? It's easier than you think! Here, your guide to the eight most important nutrients toddlers need to nourish their brains and bodies—and how to make each one delicious!  

Toddler Nutrition Must: Calcium

Good job, toddlers! Since milk is a super-popular beverage at this age, many tykes do an excellent job of meeting their need for calcium. And that’s important because calcium plays a significant role in supporting muscle function, plus building and strengthening bones and teeth. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 700 milligrams of calcium daily. Here’s how to get there:

Cow’s Milk + Salmon + Broccoli

A 4-ounce glass of milk (76.5 milligrams of calcium), a 1-ounce serving of canned salmon (61 milligrams), plus 2 tablespoons of broccoli (5 milligrams), gives your toddler about 20% of their daily calcium needs. (While 2 tablespoons of veg doesn’t seem like enough, that’s exactly the serving size the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for toddlers.)

Soy Milk + Bean and Spinach Burrito

A 4-ounce serving of fortified soy milk (75 milligrams), a half cup of spinach (105 milligrams) and 2 tablespoons of pinto beans (12 milligrams) adds up to another 192 milligrams toward your tot’s goal.

Other Calcium-Rich Eats 

One-third cup plain yogurt (148 milligrams), 1 ounce tofu (50 milligrams), half ounce of cheddar cheese (102 milligrams) 

Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for heart health, fighting infection…and improving your little one’s ability to absorb calcium, which further helps them grow long and strong. Since very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, it’s often added to milk, yogurt, and other items. But there's another way to get this important vitamin: Take your tyke outside! When skin is exposed to sunlight, it manufactures vitamin D. Kiddos aged 1 to 3 need 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily. How to do it:

Play Outside + Egg

Experts estimate that being in the sunshine for 10 to 15 minutes before applying sunscreen offers sufficient vitamin D exposure to meet their requirements. To cover your bases, also serve up an egg breakfast. One egg yolk equals about 37 IU of D.

Other Vitamin D-Rich Eats

A 4-ounce serving of cow’s milk (58.5 IU) or fortified soy milk (60 IU), 1 ounce of canned light tuna (14 IU)

Toddler Nutrition Must: Iron

Little ones need iron for brain development, optimal hormone function, healthy red blood cells, and to efficiently move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. But since toddlers no longer drink iron-fortified formula—and can struggle to get iron elsewhere—they’re vulnerable to iron deficiency. To help them out, serve iron-packed foods with items that are a good source of vitamin C, since vitamin C increases absorption of iron. For 1- to 3-year-olds, 7 milligrams of iron daily is ideal. You can hit this goal with these foods:

Oatmeal + Freeze-dried Strawberries

Mix 2 tablespoons of vitamin C-rich crushed freeze-dried strawberries (0.7 milligrams of iron) with 4 tablespoons of old-fashioned oatmeal (3 milligrams). This shakes out to half of your toddler's daily iron needs!

White Bean Chili + Dried Peaches

Two tablespoons of white beans (0.6 milligrams of iron) and a fourth cup of dried peaches (1.6 milligrams) serves up nearly a third of your tot’s daily iron requirements.

Other Iron-Rich Eats

One ounce of tofu (0.5 milligrams), a hard-boiled egg (1 milligram), 1 ounce ground beef (.35 milligrams), 1 tablespoon peanut butter (.28 milligrams), 2 tablespoons green peas (0.3 milligrams)

Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin C

Not only does vitamin C help promote the absorption of iron, it’s excellent at aiding wound healing and staving off sickness—two things toddlers very much need! Vitamin C also works to make muscles, neurotransmitters, and healthy bones and teeth. Toddlers between age 1 and 3 require 15 milligrams of vitamin C each day. Here’s how to meet that need:

Fruit + More Fruit

It’s pretty darn easy for a fruit lover to get in all the vitamin C they need! A half an orange equals 25 milligrams of vitamin C and a half cup of strawberries is 98 milligrams. Plus, a half cup of grapefruit, kiwi, and cantaloup are 87, 67, and 29 milligrams of vitamin C, respectively.

Other Vitamin C-Rich Eats

Half cup Brussels sprouts (59 milligrams), one-fourth cup yellow bell peppers (43 milligrams), half cup cooked broccoli (51 milligrams)   

Toddler Nutrition Must: Omega-3 

The most well-known polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) is the amazing omega-3 fatty acid. This healthy fat is critical for your toddler’s brain and eye development, their overall growth, and disease prevention. Omega-3s help the body absorb nutrients, too. Today, children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 0.7 grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily. Here, a few ways to get there:

Oatmeal + Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed is a powerhouse of healthy fats! Add just a half teaspoon to a bowl of oatmeal for 1.2 grams of omega-3 goodness. (Alternatively, adding 1 tablespoon of chia seeds will get your kiddo .25 grams of omega-3s.)

Salmon + Mayo Sandwich

Combine 1 ounce of canned salmon (0.61 grams) with 1 teaspoon mayo (0.2 grams) and place it between a folded slice of whole wheat bread (0.04 grams) and—voila!—a heart healthy sandwich that delivers 100% of your toddler’s daily omega-3 needs.

Other Omega-3-Rich Eats

An eighth cup refried beans (0.05 grams), an eighth cup of edamame (0.14 grams), one egg (0.03 grams)

Toddler Nutrition Must: Choline

While choline isn’t as popular as the other nutrients, it’s still very important! This underappreciated brain-booster (usually grouped with B-vitamins), plays a vital role in memory, vision, and nervous system health. Unfortunately, research shows that over 70% of 1-year-olds and over 50% of 2-year-olds aren’t getting enough. But clocking the recommended 200 micrograms daily is totally doable. Here’s how to do it:

Cow’s Milk + Quinoa Fried Rice

Create a toddler-friendly and choline-rich version of fried rice by scrambling one egg (147 milligrams of choline) into 4 tablespoons of cooked quinoa (11 milligrams), and 2 tablespoons of peas (5 milligrams). Serve with 4 ounces of cow’s milk (19 milligrams) to meet a whopping 91% of your child’s daily choline needs.

Other Choline-Rich Eats

A 1-ounce serving of salmon (62 milligrams), 1 ounce of chicken (19 milligrams), one-third cup cottage cheese (13 milligrams)

Toddler Nutrition Must: Vitamin A

This fat-soluble vitamin is very necessary for your little one’s eye health. In fact, vitamin A helps people see in the dark! It also keeps the immune system strong and works to ensure the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need 300 micrograms of vitamin A daily and they can get it this way:

Orange Fruits + Orange Veg

Sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloup, and mango are all brimming with vitamin A. A half-cup serving of each garners 1,290, 665, 135, and 45 micrograms of vitamin A, respectively.

Other Vitamin A-Rich Eats

A large hard-boiled egg (75 micrograms), one tablespoon of cream cheese (45 micrograms), half cup winter squash (40 micrograms), one-third cup plain yogurt (73 micrograms)

Toddler Nutrition Must: Protein

Protein intake is an essential driver of toddler growth…and grow they do! (Just look at that stack of two-small jammies.) Specifically, protein supports the growth of bones and muscles and makes sure your kiddo’s cells, organs, hormones, and more are functioning well. One- and 2-year-olds need 2 ounces of protein daily for good nutrition and older toddlers require 2 to 4 ounces. Here’s how to get there:

Cheese Stick + Chicken

It doesn’t take much to fill up that all-important protein tank. A 1-ounce cheese stick and a 1-ounce serving of chicken can get the job done!

Egg + Toast with Almond Butter

A half an egg counts as a serving of protein. And so does a tablespoon of almond butter: Spread it on some whole wheat toast as part of a yummy, nutritious breakfast.

Other Protein-Rich Eats 

A quarter cup of edamame is a serving of protein, as is a 1-ounce serving of meat, fish, poultry, or tofu. (PS: A 1-ounce serving equals about two 1-inch cubes.)

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