For toddlers, nutritional intake and amount is measured over weeks rather than days, quite different to the more predictable adult eating patterns with which we are familiar. The following recommended range and quantity of foods will not necessarily be achievable every day.

Recommended food intake for toddlers

Carbohydrates and starches: 3 to 5 serves

For example: bread, pasta, rice, potato, noodles, oats, cereal, pikelets  

Fruit and vegetables: 2 to 4 serves  

For example: Raw, steamed, dried, stewed, pureed, mashed 

Protein: 2 to 4 serves

For example: red meat, white meat (chicken, turkey), fish, beans, lentils, eggs, nuts 

Dairy: 2 to 3 serves

For example: cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter (cow, sheep or goat) 


Water, milk

Additional foods (small quantities)

For example: sauces, mayonnaise, oils

Toddler growth  

A toddler‘s growth at this stage is characterized by a lengthening of limbs, torso and increase in head circumference. Body weight is effectively ‘re-distributed‘.

This dramatically changes their body shape from compact and ‘chubby‘ to a more defined shape for arms, legs and tummy which can be alarming to some to see ribs clearly for the first time! 

This is a normal alteration in the rate of growth from the first year in which weight triples, contrasting with the next two years where weight may only increase by about four kilos. 

Developmental factors

The following factors influence a toddler’s relationship with food at this time:  

  • Curiosity about their environment – they are discovering and exercising independence and control over their environment.  
  • Attention span is brief  
  • Experimenting with saying ‘NO!‘  
  • Repetition and experimentation is a strong drive which translates as periodic ‘obsession‘ or preference with certain foods, colours, shapes and particular bowl or cup.  
  • Childhood illnesses can affect appetite and memory of foods they associate with the incident (e.g.: gastro episode tied to the last thing they ate – milk) and can influence future rejection.  
  • Novel situations and new people are treated with suspicion or cautiousness – this goes for new, unfamiliar food too.  
  • Moods and tiredness can strongly affect desire for food, either for more or for less, and can precipitate tantrums.  

Five reasons to choose nutritious foods  

1. Brain growth 

The brain is growing intensively at this time. It will triple in size between birth and three years of age.  

2. Additives and behaviour 

Certain processed and poor quality foods loaded with additives have the potential to cause negative behavioural effects in your child.

3. Development of taste preferences 

Tastes and preferences for certain foods are laid down in early childhood. If we cultivate a taste for high sugar, salt and artificial flavours, it is very likely to become a habit retained in adulthood.  

4. Role modelling healthy food choices 

By providing and eating these foods yourself, parents demonstrate strong role modelling with good food choices. Your child learns 90% from deeds and doing, not verbal instruction – “do as I do, not as I say”.  

5. Building strong health foundations 

Health effects from nutrient poor food or highly processed foods are not necessarily immediate but have longer term effects. By making good food choices at least 80% of the time, you build strong health foundations for the future. It is not just about the number of calories, it‘s about the quality of the food you eat.  

Nutrient dense food

The foods in the table below have high levels of nutrients compared to the number of calories they contain. For example, an egg has protein, fats, Vitamin A, B Vitamins, iron, phosphorous and selenium, all for 70 calories.  

apples asparagus eggs oats butter
bananas broccoli yoghurt (plain) seeds coconut milk
blueberries cauliflower milk brown rice ghee
cranberries cabbage cheeses chickpeas olive oil
figs capsicums beef chia fish oil
kiwifruit onions chicken cocoa cream
lemons fennel liver potatoes flaxseed oil
garlic shellfish egg pasta nut oils
mushrooms fish nut flours cocoa butter
herbs lamb    
sweet potato lentils/legumes

Nutrient poor food

The foods in the table below offer a lot of calories for poor return on nutrients—or even a negative effect from consuming it. For example, a snack of a donut and a can of cola is full of refined flours, sugars and trans fats, which provide a lot of calories (450) but contain no minerals or vitamins. The body feels full but is still craving nutrients that have been refined out.  

Processed snacks
white flour   white sugar   frozen pizza   cordials  
packet biscuits   corn syrup   most sausages   energy drinks  
instant noodles   lollies   processed meats   sodas  
pasta   icecream   processed cheeses   colas  
donuts   jams   packet soups fruit drinks  
processed cereals  glucose   sauces   syrups  
chips and crackers flavoured milks  
cakes ‘diet‘ drinks


Quick guide

Want to know more? 

The Raising Children Network – Toddler nutrition: mealtime 

Healthy Kids Association – Food & nutrition

If you still have questions, contact our Parenting Line