Why Picky Eating in Toddlers Leads to a Poor Diet

How to solve this problem

Toddler girl having meal in a restaurant
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Getting your toddler to eat a well-balanced diet may be a power struggle if he's a picky eater. Even when you don't give him any snacks, he may only eat a few bites of his lunch and dinner. This can lead you to dread meal times and your toddler not eating three "square" meals a day.

In fact, many toddlers simply eat one good meal each day and then just pick at their other meals. 

Can that be healthy?

Sure. As long as they are gaining weight and growing and developing normally and aren't overdoing it on milk and juice.

How Many Calories Do Toddlers Need?

Surprisingly, toddlers only need about 1,300 calories each day. If you add up what they normally eat and drink each day, you can see where those calories can quickly come from, including:

  • 16 oz. of milk or nursing two or three times a day equals about 250 to 300 calories
  • 4 to 6 oz. of 100 percent fruit juice equals 100 calories
  • two snacks equals 200 to 300 calories
  • two to three meals equals 700 to 900 calories

However, 1,300 calories is just an estimate, with some toddlers needing a little more and some needing a little less. Your child's height, weight and level of activity can influence how many calories he requires, but the exact number of calories isn't usually that important to know.

Toddler Portion Sizes

One reason that parents often think that their toddlers don't eat enough is that they overestimate how much they should be eating at each meal.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a good guideline is that a toddler portion size should equal about a quarter of an adult portion size. If that doesn't seem like enough, remember that you can always give your toddler seconds, especially when it comes to veggies and other healthy foods.

Examples of toddler size portions include:

  • 1/4 to 1/2 slice of bread
  • 1/4 cup of dry cereal
  • one to two tablespoons of cooked vegetables
  • 1/2 piece of fresh fruit
  • 1/3 cup of yogurt
  • 1/2 egg
  • 1 tablespoon of smooth peanut butter (if no risk of food allergies) spread thinly on bread or a cracker
  • 1 ounce of meat

Again, if your toddler wants to eat more, you can always give seconds, like another tablespoon of vegetables or the other half of a piece of fruit. The only important nutritional limits are not to overdo it on milk and juice. Any more than 16 to 24 oz. of milk and 4 to 6 oz. of fruit juice will likely fill up your child so that he isn't hungry for real food.

Picky Eaters

Parents often describe their toddlers as being picky eaters, but it is often hard to know if that it is because they eat small amounts at a time or because they like to eat the same things every day.

Fortunately, both can be normal. Your toddler may want the same foods every day and it is OK to give him those foods, but that doesn't mean that you can't be adventurous at times.

What You Need to Know

Although your child may not eat three well balanced meals each day, as long as it balances out over a one or two week period, with foods from all of the food groups, then he likely has a healthy diet.

Don't rely on "fast" foods and typical toddler meals at home just to get your toddler to eat, such as hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. Serve a variety of foods, including vegetables and fruits, even if it is just a tablespoon on your child's plate that he doesn't touch, to get him used to healthful foods.

Don't be quick to give your child nutritional supplements such as Pediasure or other high-calorie snacks when he isn't eating well. Instead of boosting calories, this often backfires and fills your child up with liquids, so that he will continue to not want to eat solid food. Talk to your pediatrician if you really think that your child needs a nutritional supplement.

Most toddlers don't need to take a vitamin. Again, talk to your pediatrician if you think your child needs nutritional supplements. And don't make your child "clean his plate." Instead, start with appropriate serving sizes. Don't overdo it with milk and juice, and don't give snacks too close to meal times.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Guide to Your Child's Nutrition.

American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners. PEDIATRICS Vol. 117 No. 2 February 2006, pp. 544-559

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