Serving Sizes and Nutrition for Toddlers

Toddler girl eating noodles from bowl

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It's easy to worry about the amounts of vitamins and other nutrients that your toddler is getting in their diet each day. We now have guidance on toddlers' diets for the first time ever, thanks to the New Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) published in 2020 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Data from the DGA show that most American toddlers between 12 and 23 months are consuming too few vegetables and high-protein foods, while toddlers from 2 to 3 years old are not eating enough vegetables and dairy. Both groups are consuming adequate amounts of fruits and grains, but too much sugar and sodium.

A well-balanced diet is important for your child's current and future health. Studies show that establishing good eating habits when children are very young—precisely when food preferences are being formed—can set a pattern of smart food choices as they grow into adults, lowering their risk of a host of chronic illnesses

To get your toddler off to a healthy start, they should be getting between 800 and 1,000 calories from the food categories below.

Milk

Toddlers between the ages of 12 and 23 months need 14 to 16 ounces of milk (up to 2 cups) each day, and up to 20 ounces, or 2 1/2 cups, per day between 2 and 3 years old. Until your child is 2 years old, stick with whole milk, but after that age, the DGA recommends transitioning to lowfat or nonfat milk.

Avoid serving your child flavored or sweetened milk and choose only cow's milk or fortified soy milk. Other plant-based milk beverages may not provide adequate nutrition to meet your toddler's growth requirements.

Protein Foods

Your toddler needs 2 ounces of high-protein foods each day. This requirement is remarkably small: Just 1/3 of a can of tuna or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter will do it for the whole day.

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

  • Eggs
  • Meat and poultry
  • Seafood
  • Nuts, seeds, and soy foods

Make sure your toddler is eating mostly fresh, unprocessed meats instead of cured or high-fat meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats.

Grains

Toddlers need 1 3/4 to 3 ounces of grains each day. Unfortunately, most toddlers eat grains in the form of white bread, white rice, and processed baked goods, which are refined and have lost much of their nutritional value.

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.

One 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

Your toddler needs 2/3 to 1 cup of vegetables each day. Try to offer a variety of vegetables over the course of a week. Choosing by color makes it easy.

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

Fruits

Toddlers need 1/2 to 1 cup of fruit each day. Most of this should come from whole fruit, 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

Your toddler needs 9–13 grams of fats and oils per day, which is equal to just 2–3 teaspoons. Most of this will be found in other foods you're feeding your child, such as peanut butter on their sandwich, butter on a roll, and so forth.

Include healthy 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 healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil, and grass-fed butter to boost the nutrition of everyone in the family.

Discretionary Calories or Extras

By making wise, nutrient-dense food choices for your toddler, your child's diet will have room for a few extra calories, which should come in the form of additional foods from the above groups.

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.

While toddlers over the age of 2 can consume a small amount of sugar, the DGA limits it to less than 10% of total calories. Other health experts, however, state that this limit should be even lower. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6% of calories from added sugars.

With an average toddler needing 900 calories a day, they should have no more than 3 1/2 teaspoons, or 13.5 grams, of added sugars in their diet per the AHA recommendations. It's important to check food labels for added sugars, because they can add up quickly.

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.

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 milk requirement has been met with foods that are denser than 2 cups of milk (which would also fulfill the requirement.)

If you have a light eater, picking foods that are more nutritionally dense and take up less room in the tummy can be a key to meeting their nutritional goals.

It's important to remember that children naturally stop eating when they are full. Being pressured to eat more than they want can set them up for obesity problems later in life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a helpful list of signs to watch for to know if your toddler is hungry or full.

The best advice is to offer a variety of healthy choices at every meal and snack, and allow your toddler to choose from those options what and how much they eat.

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

A Word From Verywell

If you were to take all the food your toddler needs ​in a day, it could very easily all fit on one normal-sized plate, especially if nutrient-dense foods are chosen for most meals and snacks. For the majority of toddlers, offering a variety of nutritious foods will be enough to meet their requirements for growth and development.

Now that you know how much of each food group your toddler should be getting each day, try to relax and have fun with their meals. After all, this stage lasts such a short time.

Don't worry if your child doesn't eat the full 3 ounces 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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Article 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. 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.

  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. Updated May 19, 2017.

  4. American Heart Association. Federal dietary guidelines emphasize healthy eating habits but fall short on added sugars. Published December 29, 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs your child is hungry or full. December 11, 2020.

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