The toddler years are critical for the future growth and development of your toddler. So between the ages of one and four years, it can seem challenging at times to know just how to feed your baby every day. Are they going to choose the right foods? Will they eat the lovely meals you’ve prepared for them or in fact, are they going to just turn their nose up at the lovely meals you’ve prepared?

To help you try and get the balance right and see what a good toddler diet should contain, I’ve outlined the toddler food pyramid. It’s important to remember that during the toddler years, you’ve a window of opportunity to provide optimum nutrition that’s going to help protect your toddler as they grow into childhood and in later life.

It’s often easier to group foods together when we’re talking about a balanced diet for toddlers, rather than looking at individual foods, because there are so many foods available in shops and supermarkets today. The national toddler survey gives us lots of information about exactly what Irish toddlers are eating today. We know that one in four Irish toddlers are not getting enough iron. We know that vitamin D intakes are low, and that almost twenty-five per cent of two to three year olds are obese and overweight.

The food pyramid groups foods together according to the nutrients they contain. So at the very bottom shelf, you can see we have starchy foods which give your toddler energy to get through their busy day. They’ve got bread, potatoes, pasta, breakfast cereals and rice. We also have fruit and vegetables. These are full of vitamins and fibre which are important for your growing toddler. In the centre we have the dairy foods which consist of milk, cheese, yogurt and rice pudding. Foods which are really good sources of calcium for bone growth and development.

We then have the protein rich foods and they also tend to be the ones that are best for Iron. These are meat and fish, chicken, eggs, peas and beans. At the very top of the food pyramid we have sweets and treats, crisps, biscuits, and butters and oils. These are foods that really should be included in the diet sparingly and as occasional treats and not everyday foods.

Portion size is very important when it comes to toddler nutrition because very often parents aren’t quite sure just how much food their toddler should be eating. The food pyramid gives us a good guideline to see exactly how much of each food we should be aiming to include in our toddler’s diet every day.

The very bottom shelf of the food pyramid is the largest, and therefore you should be giving your toddler more of these foods for energy every day. Four servings a day of bread, potatoes, rice, pasta or breakfast cereals is the recommended daily allowance. An average portion from the bottom shelf of the food pyramid would be one small slice of wholemeal bread, half a bagel or two cream crackers. Then if you’re going for pasta or rice, about three dessert spoons of cooked pasta or rice, a medium sized potato, a small bowl of breakfast cereal, maybe a small bowl of porridge, or one Weetabix. These would all be average portions for your one year old.

As your toddler reaches two to three years of age, of course their appetite will increase and you can increase the size of their meals and snacks. Your toddler needs between two to four portions of fruit and vegetables every day, so choose the ones your toddler likes best. Try and go for a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and in that way they will be less likely to miss out on any important vitamins. So an idea would be to go for a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, some red, orange, yellow and green, and in that way you’d really cover the whole spectrum of nutrients which they contain.

A portion from this group would be a piece of fruit, for example an apple or a small banana. Or two smaller fruits, so maybe two small plums or a handful of grapes or a handful of strawberries. When it comes to vegetables then, maybe a few cherry tomatoes at lunch time or some sliced cucumber, or a portion of vegetables with dinner. An average portion is two to three dessert spoons of vegetables with your main meal. If your toddler is not keen on fruits and vegetables, there are ways that you can incorporate them into their foods without them seeing them and realising that they’re there. You could make some homemade vegetable soup and liquidisers or add vegetables into casseroles or even make smoothies with fruit inside and that’s a good way of incorporating fruits and vegetables into your toddler’s daily diet.

The dairy shelf on the food pyramid is the main source of calcium for toddlers. It is recommended that toddlers take three portions from this group every day. A portion is a glass of milk, a carton of yogurt, an ounce of cheddar-type cheese (which is about a matchbox size of cheese), or a bowl of rice pudding. All of these foods will provide calcium to ensure that your toddlers will meet their bone requirements as they grow and develop every day. If you cook with milk, it doesn’t destroy the calcium. You can make a white sauce or make custard; these are both good ways of including calcium in your toddler’s diet every day. It’s important that toddlers don’t drink more than one pint of milk a day, which is equivalent to three servings, as it can interfere with their appetite and you may find that they don’t feel hungry at dinner time. This can result in your toddler missing out on other nutrients.

The next shelf is the protein shelf and this is where most of the protein for growth and also iron is found in the diet. It is very important that toddlers are including two servings of these foods in their diets every day. A serving from the protein group would be one small pork chop, three mincemeat balls or a small portion of minced bolognaise, two eggs, two small slices of roast chicken, a small fillet of fish or about five or six tablespoons of baked beans. All of these foods are really good sources of protein. Also, meat and fish are good sources of iron in the diet.

Vitamin D is also a nutrient we need to be particularly aware of for toddlers. The main sources of vitamin D are oily fish, eggs, and some fortified cereals and margarines. However, in Ireland we don’t get enough vitamin D, so it may be important that you look closely at your toddler’s diet. The main source of vitamin D outside of the foods in our diet is the actual sunlight on our skin. However, it’s not recommended that toddlers are exposed to sunlight without sunblock, and of course in Ireland we don’t get enough sunshine. So it’s important that we have a closer look at the vitamin D intakes of toddlers. It might be worthwhile talking to your doctor or public health professional about a supplement of vitamin D.

The very top shelf of the food pyramid then includes sweets, cakes, biscuits, butters and oils. And these foods, while they are in the food pyramid, really should be reserved for occasional treats. Portion size is very important here too. If you are giving your child a treat; go for a fun size chocolate bar, a few small jellies in a little colourful bowl, or maybe divide out a packet of crisps between a few children, as children do not need very large portions of these foods. They tend to be too high in fat, too high in salt, and not something which is recommended for a toddler’s diet.

While there’s no shelf on the food pyramid specifically for drinks, what your toddler drinks is really very important. Water is a great drink for toddlers. It can quench their thirst and should be available throughout the day. If a toddler is feeling thirsty, a glass of fresh water should do the trick. However, orange juice can also be a good drink for toddlers, but perhaps limited to once a day, at breakfast time is a good idea. The vitamin C in orange juice for example can help your toddler to absorb more iron from their breakfast cereal. Having a glass of freshly squeezed diluted orange juice in the morning is a great start to the day.

Milk then, of course, is a really key drink in your toddler’s diet. Up to a pint of milk a day is recommended as a drink for your toddler. So your toddler may be drinking breast milk, whole cow’s milk or growing-up milk. All of these will provide adequate calcium for your baby’s bone growth and development. Growing-up milk is high in iron and is a good option for your toddler at this critical stage of growth and development. If your toddler is drinking growing-up milk, we recommend about three hundred millilitres per day, as part of a healthy balanced diet.

When it comes to choosing snacks throughout the day, it’s a good idea to choose from the food pyramid. Perhaps the fruit and vegetable shelf or the starchy foods at the very bottom of the food pyramid are going to give you lots of ideas and lots of options. What about a piece of fruit and some raw chopped vegetables, your toddler can take with them as they go? Perhaps some crackers and cheese or some whole meal bread, a toasted bagel or even a yogurt? All of these foods will give nutrition as well as tying your toddler over until dinner time.

Remember, portion size and variety is important and toddlers tend to eat with their eyes. So why not make their meals look attractive, use colourful plates, use nice place mats that will encourage them to sit down at meal times with you. Also, it’s a good idea to have all of the family vegetables and meals in bowls in the centre of the table where people can reach in and help themselves. This encourages toddlers to see what everyone else is doing and learn by example.

If you have any further questions about toddler nutrition, why not check out the toddler nutrient calculator on our website. Or call the care line, where one of our nutritionists will be delighted to have a chat with you and answer any questions that you may have.