Food Safety Tips for Young Children

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RD, CD
toddler eating

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Safety is a major concern when it comes to feeding infants and toddlers. Both food poisoning and choking can have serious consequences. Staying informed and following a few guidelines can help to make meal time safer.

Foods Young Children Should Avoid

Infants and young children tend to have weaker immune systems than adults, which makes food poisoning very dangerous for this age group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report those under 5 years of age as being at high risk, with increased rates of infection and serious complications, such as kidney failure.

By making use of safe food handling and preparation guidelines, you can help reduce the risk of spreading food poisoning.

When feeding young children, avoid:

  • All unpasteurized foods and beverages, including raw milk and unpasteurized juice and ciders
  • Raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs
  • Raw or undercooked meat and poultry
  • Raw and undercooked fish or shellfish
  • Raw sprouts
  • Honey – avoid until after the baby's first birthday because it can harbor spores of toxic bacterium that can cause botulism, a severe foodborne illness caused by a bacterium which occurs in soil.

Avoid feeding young children straight from a container that is going to be stored again for later use – such as a baby food jar. The "double dipping" from spoon-to-mouth and back to container, introduces bacteria from your child's mouth into the rest of the food. This bacteria can continue to grow in the leftovers and may cause food poisoning. A safer method is to spoon baby food from the jar into a separate dish and then feed from the new dish instead. Throw away all uneaten food from the dish. Food that has not been in contact with the child’s mouth can be stored in the refrigerator according to the guidelines below.

For safe food storage, reseal the container of food that has not been used to feed the child and store it in the refrigerator (at 40°F or below).

  • Opened containers of strained fruits can be saved for up to three days
  • Strained meats can be stored for one day
  • Vegetable and meat combinations can be kept for two days
  • Unopened jars of baby food have the same shelf life as other canned foods. Check out the Is My Food Safe? app for a complete guide to the shelf life of foods.

Risks of Choking

Young children also are at a high risk of choking. Just because they have teeth does not mean they can handle all types of foods.

In order to avoid choking, don't offer these foods to children younger than four:

  • Small, firm foods: including nuts, seeds, popcorn, dry flake cereal, chips, pretzels, chunks of raw vegetables, whole cherry tomatoes, whole kernels of corn, and whole olives.

      Note: Vegetables, such as carrots and corn, can be cooked and cut up.

  • Slippery foods: including whole small fruits, such as grapes, berries and cherries, large pieces of meat and poultry, and hard candy such as lollipops and cough drops.

      Note: Meat, poultry, hot dogs and other protein foods should be well-cooked and can be cut lengthwise or chopped up into smaller pieces (less than ¼-inch in size). Grapes should be cut into quarters.

  • Sticky foods: chunky peanut butter, gum, taffy, gummy candies, caramels, marshmallows, jelly beans, dried fruits and fruit leathers.

      Note: smooth nut butters should be spread in a thin layer on a food, such as bread; they should not be given straight from a spoon or a finger.

Practice food safety when feeding young children by following these strategies:

  • Offer finger foods such as small pieces of banana and foods that have been well-cooked and finely cut up.
  • Always watch young children while they are eating.
  • Encourage children to take their time while eating and to chew well. Make meal and snack periods a time for sitting down – don’t allow children to lay or run and play while eating and drinking.
  • Read labeling on packages. Foods with high choking risks often have warning labels.
  • First aid and CPR may be required if your child is choking. Be prepared to act quickly.

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