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Understanding the Nutritional Needs of Toddlers

Jul 31, 2014

Children begin life completely dependent upon their parents. They eat what’s presented to them, milk or formula, day in and day out for months. Then as they learn how to interact more with their environment, they begin to assert their autonomy.  The first place that children learn to exert control is with food because it is one of the very few things they can control.  While it may be difficult for you to let go and allow your child to make decisions about food, you must realize that children are hardwired to eat for growth. That means they’re going to reach for high calorie foods instinctually.

Your child needs between 1,000 and 1,400 calories per day during toddlerhood, depending upon his size and activity level. That’s just over half of what an adult eats. If you sit down and count that out, it can seem like a LOT of food for a child of that size! But realize that toddlers are growing rapidly, and that they do need to eat nearly constantly in order to maintain that rate of growth in a healthy way. Snacking is a part of life with a toddler, and you’ll quickly find that mood is almost as much affected by hunger for your toddler as it was for your infant.

Just like adults, toddlers need to eat a variety of foods. Your toddler is developing his palate - the flavors that he loves or hates - during this pivotal stage in nutritional development. Your child should be eating fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and milk every day. Pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon encourages parents to expose toddlers to healthy foods and to avoid relying on calorie dense but nutrient deficient foods. If unhealthy foods are not an option, then your child won’t be able to choose them. Toddlers like to feel control in their lives. They like to feel as though they have a say in their world. Fighting against that will isn’t productive because that autonomy is something that we want to foster in order to help them grow into independent adults. To that end, one way to allow them autonomy is to offer them choices of healthy foods and to praise them for making good choices.

Children have a wonderful way of getting what they need out of life. Child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow encourages parents to keep having well-child checks with the pediatrician. As long as the child is following their growth curve chart to the satisfaction of their doctor, parents really don’t have anything to worry about.

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It's important to start habits early. So if you feed them healthy foods they should carry that with them the rest of their lives.