Size-Wise Nutrition for Toddlers

by Dayle Hayes, MS RD

Size-Wise Nutrition for Toddlers

Very young children need the same variety of nutrient-rich foods as older kids and adults, just in much smaller quantities. As portions have gotten bigger, some parents and caregivers have developed a distorted view of the amount of food toddlers and preschoolers need. Feeding children becomes less frustrating and less complicated when adults know what kids need to grow well and be healthy.

Defining a Toddler’s Serving Size

An appropriate toddler serving size is about one-quarter to one-half an adult serving. Note: This rule of thumb is based on serving sizes recommended by MyPlate, not portions served in many restaurants. So a serving of bread for a 1-year-old would be one-quarter slice, and for a 3-year-old it would be ½ slice.

Another way to quickly estimate serving sizes for children is 1 tablespoon per year. For example, a 2-year-old would be served 2 tablespoons of fruits or vegetables, and a 4-year-old would get 4 tablespoons or ¼ cup.

Foods Toddlers Need

Most 2- to 3-year-old children need to consume about 1,000 calories per day. Here’s how to distribute those calories in a healthy eating plan:

  • Grain Group: About 3 ounces of grains per day, preferably half of them whole grains. That is about three regular slices of bread or one slice of bread plus 1/3 cup cold cereal and ¼ cup cooked rice or pasta.
  • Vegetable Group: 1 cup raw and/or cooked vegetables per day. Like adults, young kids need variety: mashed sweet potatoes, broccoli with low-fat dip or tomato sauce for pasta.
  • Fruit Group: 1 cup fresh, frozen, canned, dried and/or 100% percent juice per day. Emphasize whole fruits rather than juice. Kids love melon balls, Mandarin oranges (fresh or canned in juice) and frozen berries.
  • Milk Group: 2 cups per day. Whole milk is recommended for children younger than 2. Older children can have lower-fat, calcium-rich choices such as fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Meat and Beans Group: 2 ounces total per day. Options include one ounce of lean meat or chicken plus one egg or 1 ounce of fish plus ¼ cup of cooked beans (black, pinto, etc.).
  • Oils: 3 teaspoons or less per day of liquid oil or margarine.

For more information about eating plans and serving sizes for preschoolers, visit

What to Do About Sweet Drinks, Snack Foods and Desserts

Minimize consumption of snacks for younger children; they fill small stomachs and take up room kids need for nutrient-rich foods.

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About the author:

Dayle M Hayes MS RD

Dayle Hayes, MS RD




  • Cook healthy

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