How Many Calories Should A Toddler Eat Per Day?

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When it comes to nutrition and toddlers, balance is not exactly the first thing that comes to my mind. While I would like to say I'm the kind of parent that successfully gets my toddler to eat a well-balanced nutritious diet every day, the truth is that some days my toddler eats a good variety of foods and other days, well, thank goodness for crackers is all I'll say.

But in all seriousness, some days it feels like it's feast or famine for my toddler. So I can't help but wonder—how many calories does my toddler actually need to eat every day? Are food "strikes" normal? And when does nutrition become a concern for toddlers?

The Basics of Toddler Nutrition

First of all, you may be relieved to hear that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it is completely normal for toddlers to be "picky" eaters. The AAP defines picky eating as refusing certain foods or showing a preference for only two or three foods. So the fact that your toddler only wants to eat string cheese and crackers? Yup, totally normal.

The AAP also explains that toddlers tend to eat a variety of different calories at every meal. One meal may be more calorie-heavy than another and that is part of a very normal feeding pattern for young children.

Daily Calories for Toddlers

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the amount of calories that a toddler needs every day will range based on the child, any medical needs, and of course, physical activity. The AHA estimates that the calories your toddler will need every day will be between 900 and 1,200. One-year-olds need about 1,000 calories per day and those calories can be divided between three meals and two snacks spread out throughout the day.

However, it's also totally normal for toddlers to practice weird feeding patterns. For example, they may eat a ton of calories at breakfast, graze the rest of the day, and then not be hungry at dinner. The next day, they may do the total opposite. It can be frustrating as a parent, but it's also a normal pattern for toddlers to do "cluster" feeding or have days when they are just more hungry.

In general, toddlers without any food allergies should also eat the following food servings every day: 2 ounces of meat, 3 ounces of grains, 2 servings of dairy, 1 cup of vegetables, 1 cup of fruit, and 3 tablespoons of fat or oil.

More importantly than counting calories for your toddler, however, is the quality of food that your little one is eating. The AAP released a statement in 2015 that reminded parents and caregivers that calories are less important than ensuring that toddlers eat a balanced, wide range of nutritious foods. They pointed out that if a toddler needs some ranch dressing to chow down on some carrots or is more likely to eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast if it's sprinkled with brown sugar, then that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Tips for Toddler Nutrition

Overall, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers some helpful tips on toddler nutrition, such as:

  • Only offer water or milk for toddler beverages. No juice, as juice is usually just empty calories and excessive sugar.
  • Snacks are OK. When I complained to our child's pediatrician that I was having trouble getting my toddler to eat, he recommended that I cut out snacking completely so he would be hungry for meals. This is great in theory, but not so great in practicality. I do want my toddler to get nutrition throughout the day, after all. The AAP recommends offering 2 to 3 healthy snacks a day to your toddler.
  • Consistency is key. The AAP recommends that parents have "minimal deviation from these practices in response to children’s behaviors" when offering new foods. This basically means: don't make food a big deal. If your toddler refuses to try a new food, say "OK," remove the food, and then offer it again another time. The key is to not make food a power struggle or attach negative emotion to it. You don't need to punish your child for not trying a new food, but continue to offer healthy snacks at regular intervals.
    View Article Sources
    • American Academy of Pediatrics. Toddler food and feeding. Retrieved from 2017.
    • American Academy of Pediatrics. Feeding and nutrition tips: Your 1-year-old. Healthy Retrieved from Jan. 11, 2016.
    • American Heart Association. Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children. July 11, 2016.