Serving Sizes and Nutrition Recommendations for Toddlers

Toddler girl eating noodles from bowl

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The amount of information about toddler nutrition and the number of nutrition-related products marketed to parents of toddlers can be overwhelming. In addition, parents and their toddlers are not exempt from the effects of diet culture. It's easy to worry about the amounts of vitamins and other nutrients that your toddler is getting in their diet each day.

Though previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) didn't include nutritional guidance for toddlers, the 2020–2025 edition introduced recommendations for children under 2.

While there is a lot to know about feeding toddlers, the DGA is a great place to start as it now provides some basic guidelines of overall toddler nutrient needs and how to meet these needs with food.

Toddler Nutrition Basics

While recommendations are typically provided in the form of daily requirements, in practice, a toddler's nutrient intake should be evaluated over the course of a week or two rather than a single day. Just like adults, it's normal for toddlers to have preferences and opinions about food as well as preference and appetite changes depending on the day. The idea is to aim to meet recommendations on average.

Additionally, guidelines around "serving sizes" offer a glimpse into what the nutrient content of a food is using a reference amount that is familiar (like tablespoons or cups), but a serving size is only that—a reference. Serving sizes are not intended to be a blueprint for how much a toddler "must" eat of a food.

Regular checkups with your child's pediatrician will likely flag any growth or developmental issues, so while it's important to consider your toddler's nutrition, there is generally no need to diligently track their intake. In fact, in the majority of kids, it's unnecessary and even detrimental to the parent and child's relationship with food to track exactly what they eat and count nutrients.

The foundation of healthy eating for toddlers is a healthy relationship with food and building a strong connection with and trust in their bodies.

The Dietary Guidelines in Practice

If we look at American toddlers between 12 and 23 months, most are consuming fewer veggies and protein-rich foods than the guidelines recommend. Toddlers from 2 to 3 years old are consuming less than the recommended amounts of vegetables and dairy, while sugar and sodium appear to be consumed in higher amounts than recommended.

What does this mean for feeding your toddler? Continue to offer veggies and dairy, in addition to a variety of other foods at meals. When you can, opt for foods with less added sugar and sodium. Exposing kids to a variety of foods in a non-judgmental environment is important for your child's current and future health.

Studies show that establishing eating habits that include a variety of foods eaten in safe, positive environments when children are very young—precisely when food preferences are being formed—can set a pattern of nutrient-rich food choices as they grow into adults, lowering their risk of a host of chronic illnesses.

In general, the categories of foods below offer a sense of the variety kids should be exposed to on a regular basis in order to get the nutrients needed for growth and development.

Dairy

It is recommended that toddlers between the ages of 12 and 23 months get 14 to 16 ounces of milk (up to 2 cups) each day and up to 20 ounces (2 1/2 cups) per day between 2 and 3 years old. Meeting this recommendation can also look like offering two to three servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt (and foods made with them) each day or regular inclusion of non-dairy foods that are rich in the major nutrients that dairy offers (such as calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fat).

Until your child is 2 years old, stick with full-fat options when offering milk and dairy products. After the age of 2, the DGA recommends transitioning to low-fat or non-fat milk, but it's important to consider what your child enjoys most since that is what they will actually eat and drink.

Because flavored milks contribute a larger amount of added sugars, it's ideal to offer only plain milk, yogurt, and cheese. If using a dairy alternative, make sure that it's fortified with both calcium and vitamin D. You'll also want to check protein content. Non-dairy options like soy milk naturally contain protein but others need to have it added.

Protein Foods

The dietary reference intake (DRI) for protein for kids ages 1–3 is 13 grams per day. That amount can be found in roughly 2 ounces of high-protein foods each day. This requirement can be met with a few servings of higher protein foods or several servings of lower protein foods throughout the day.

Foods that can help your toddler meet their protein requirement include:

  • Beans and lentils, 8 to 9g per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Meat, poultry, and seafood, 7g per ounce
  • Eggs, 6g per large egg
  • Yogurt, 5g per 6 ounces
  • Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats), 3 to 4g per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Tofu, 3g per ounce
  • Nuts and seeds (chopped), 2 to 3g per 2 tablespoons

To reduce sodium intake, offer baked or grilled meats more often than cured or high-fat meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats.

Grains

Toddlers should get 1 3/4 to 3 ounces of grains each day. While ounces don't mean too much to most of us with regard to grains, this recommendation boils down to including a grain-based food at most meals.

The DGA states that at least half of grain intake should be in the form of whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, whole oats, and other minimally processed foods. These foods provide more fiber and nutrients than their refined counterparts.

While whole grains and foods made from them do deliver more nutrients, keep in mind that the texture and flavors of whole-grain options may not be in line with a toddler's preferences right away. Continue to expose your toddler to whole-grain foods to build familiarity and offer variety.

1-Ounce Servings of Grain Foods
Food Serving Size
Bagel 1 mini
Bread 1 slice
Cereal, ready-to-eat 1 cup
Crackers, club-style 7
Pancake 1 (4 1/2 inch)
Pasta, cooked 1/2 cup
Rice, cooked 1/2 cup
Tortilla, corn or flour 1 small (6 inches)

Vegetables

The guidelines suggest aiming for 2/3 to 1 cup of vegetables each day. How many veggies a toddler is able to eat will vary depending on age as well as preferences.

Try to offer a variety of vegetables over the course of the week and remember that even if a child doesn't eat a certain vegetable, having it on the table still counts towards exposure. It can take more than 15–20 exposures before a child feels safe and familiar enough with a food to try it.

Choosing by color makes it easy to offer variety. Think orange veggies (carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes) one day, green veggies (spinach, broccoli, greens) the next, veggies with white flesh (cucumbers, squashes, potatoes) the day after that, and so on.

The new DGA includes the following foods in the vegetable group:

  • Dark green vegetables
  • Orange and red vegetables
  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes

Fruits

The guidelines recommend that toddlers also get 1/2 to 1 cup of fruit each day. Most of this should come from whole fruit (either fresh or frozen), not from fruit juice, so that your child doesn't miss out on the necessary fiber. The DGA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both recommend limiting juice consumption to 4 ounces a day.

Fats and Oils

According to the American Heart Association, toddlers should aim for roughly 30% of their energy intake to come from fats. This recommendation ends up being around 25–35 grams of fats and oils per day. Most of this fat will be provided in other foods you're feeding your child, such as peanut butter on their sandwich, oil used to roast veggies, fat in salmon, butter on a roll, and so forth.

Include sources of fats in your child's diet, such as nuts, avocado, and fatty fish (salmon and tuna are a couple to try). When cooking, use fats like olive oil and avocado oil. Opt for grass-fed butter to boost the nutrition of everyone in the family.

Extras

What about foods that don't fit perfectly into one of these categories, like sweets? The reality is that even if guidelines suggest avoiding sweets for younger kids, they'll likely run into them in everyday life. By not assigning moral value to any foods, and by keeping our talk about foods neutral, we can help our kids listen to their bodies about what they want, what they choose, and what makes them feel best.

The new guidelines recommend that toddlers under 2 years old should not be fed any added sugars, which rules out foods such as cake, candy, ice cream, and sweetened beverages. In general, not offering these foods to kids under 2 can help minimize added sugar in their diets. But having a plan for how to introduce these foods as options after the age of 2 is important for preserving your child's healthy relationship with food.

The DGA suggest limiting added sugar to less than 10% of total calories. Other health experts, however, suggest that this limit should be even lower. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6% of calories from added sugars.

About Nutrient Density

Nutrient density is the term used to describe how much nutrition a food provides in a given amount. Some foods pack more nutrients in a smaller package than others. This can be helpful for toddlers who might eat smaller quantities throughout the day.

For example, just 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese counts as a full cup of milk. That fulfills half of your toddler's milk requirement for the day. Add to that one slice of hard cheese, and your toddler's dairy requirement has been met with foods that are denser than the recommended 2 cups of milk.

If you have a light eater, picking foods that are more nutritionally dense and take up less room in the tummy can be helpful in supporting their nutritional needs.

It's important to remember that children naturally stop eating when they are full. Being pressured to eat more than they want can cause them to not listen to their body's internal cues. It's also important to keep in mind that a typical toddler's attention span can be measured in just minutes, so expecting them to sit at a table for a meal for 30 minutes may not be realistic.

The best advice is to offer your toddler a variety of choices at every meal and snack, including at least one thing you know they enjoy, and allow your toddler to choose from those options what and how much they eat.

The DGA notes that fortified products marketed for infants and toddlers are not necessary to meet toddlers' nutrition requirements, as long as nutrient-dense food choices are made.

A Word From Verywell

For the majority of toddlers, offering a variety of nutritious foods will be enough to meet their requirements for growth and development. In addition to nutrient intake, a vital aspect of encouraging "healthy eating" with toddlers and young kids is supporting a healthy relationship with food.

Do your best to avoid categorizing foods as "good" or "bad," "healthy" or "unhealthy," and "clean" or "junk." Instead, talk about the way foods taste, the colors your child sees on the table, and the textures they feel.

Now that you know how much of each food group your toddler should be getting on average each day, try to relax and have fun with foods. Keep mealtime positive and about exploring new foods. After all, this stage lasts such a short time.

So, don't worry if your child doesn't eat the full recommended amount of grains today; they probably will tomorrow, so just keep offering. Their intake over the course of several days or a week is more important than what they eat in any given day.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition.

  2. Mennella JA, Trabulsi JC. Complementary foods and flavor experiences: Setting the foundation. Ann Nutr Metab. 2012;60 Suppl 2:40-50. doi:10.1159/000335337

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Where we stand: Fruit juice.

  4. American Heart Association. Federal dietary guidelines emphasize healthy eating habits but fall short on added sugars.