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Nutrition and physical activity are important for a child’s health and well-being. A balanced family diet can generally cover a toddler’s particular nutritional needs.

However, recent surveys indicate that toddlers throughout Europe are often not receiving a sufficient amounts of nutrients, in particular with respect to vitamin D, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and, in some countries, iodine. It is therefore important that parents keep the following guidelines to hand when planning their child’s diet:

  • Generous amounts of fluids, preferably water or other unsweetened/sugar-free drinks
  • Generous amounts of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and potatoes
  • Moderate amounts of animal-based foods such as milk, meat, fish and eggs
  • Limited amounts only of sugar, sweets, salt, saturated fats, and processed snack foods

Some children may benefit from taking specific supplements and/or fortified foods. Parents are encouraged to consult their child’s paediatrician, as each child’s needs vary.

Vegetarian and vegan diets for toddlers

A balanced vegetarian diet with milk, milk products and eggs (known as a ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet) is possible for toddlers, but parents need to pay particular attention to providing enough iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, as these may be limited in such a diet. A vegan diet (a purely plant-based diet with no animal-based foods such as milk or eggs) is inadequate for children and cannot meet nutritional needs without regular supplementation of nutrients, e.g. vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (good sources are e.g. salmon, herring and mackerel). Therefore, the use of vegan diets in young children without using supplements is strongly discouraged.

More practical advice for parents of toddlers

  • Avoid giving toddlers nuts and hard pieces of food similar to a peanut in size, such as raw carrots, due to risk of choking.
  • Make meals regular (for example, three main meals per day, plus two snacks, e.g. pieces of fruit)
  • Encourage toddlers to eat with the family in a tranquil settling that encourages conversation, with the radio or TV switched off.
  • Get toddlers used to periods without eating. These intervals between meals should be free of snacks or sugary drinks, although toddlers can and should be free to drink water or unsweetened beverages.
  • As food and taste preferences develop with repeated exposure, offer a variety of foods and encourage children to try new foods.

Berthold Koletzko, Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. is Professor of Paediatrics at Ludwig-Maximilians-University and is head of Metabolic and Nutritional Medicine at Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital, both in Munich, Germany.