Toddler Basics: Growth & Nutrition

Toddler Basics: Growth & Nutrition

by Dr. Michael B. Finkelstein, M.D., F.A.C.P., A.B.H.M.
posted on December 03rd 2010

Why is my toddler not growing as rapidly as he or she was the first year of life? How much should my toddler be eating? And here’s the first answer, and the first rule: All children are different. There is no “one size fits all” set of rules that you absolutely need to adhere to. So, worry less and rely more on your own judgment and common sense. That being said, there are some common sense principles to understand and, of course, it is important to have your child periodically evaluated by a trained professional who can help you to assess his or her growth and development. 

Along these lines, rather than adjusting your child’s eating habits, you may need to adjust your own thinking and learn to trust your instincts. A serving size for a child between 12 and 36 months of age is only one−fourth to one−half of an adult serving size. That means, “one serving” of tuna, for example, is only ¼ to ½ of the average can! Just like adults, children need a variety of grains; vegetables, fruits and proteins, but they don’t need grown−up portions. 

More importantly, children benefit from a variety of foods which will expose them to the full spectrum of nutrients. Their body, e.g. their intestinal tract, will do the rest. Thus, it is ideal to mix and match foods and avoid rigid menus. But do not get complacent. The foods that are most nutritious include fresh whole fruits and vegetables. Indeed, you should not expect your child to reach his/her full health potential if the majority of food they consume is not fresh and whole. For instance, juices are not nearly as healthy as the fruit itself and bread and cereals are not as healthy as whole grains like rice and quinoa. 

This is a good foundation on which to begin. If you achieve that, the rate that your child grows, which steadily declines from birth to age 5, is not likely to become a concern. Don’t be alarmed if your toddler’s eating patterns are erratic. He or she may eat a lot one day or during one meal and very little during the next or they may go through eating jags where only one particular food will do for several days or weeks. Left to their own devices, (and when supplied with healthy choices) kids will typically choose those foods that their body requires. Since over time they make up for what appears to be an imbalance in their diet, try not to fret over each meal. 

Very active children may eat less at mealtimes because they prefer to graze throughout the day. Their constant activity level may demand a steady stream of caloric intake, which can provide ample nutrition even if it looks a little different from the traditional three square meals. Snacks are a critical source of nutrition for these kids. But here again, be selective as to what you offer. Children can very quickly develop a “sweet tooth” and after that can be quite difficult to influence and their behavior and demands can become erratic. So the time to begin all of this is at the very beginning. To avoid the most common caveat, it would be wise to learn a little about the “macro−nutrients” in common foods, e.g. the types of carbohydrates, protein and fat that they contain. In particular, the more rapidly blood sugar rises after a food, the more “cravings” will develop. And you know what trouble this can cause. Getting back to the example of juice, a glass of juice probably contains the sugar of 4−5 pieces of fruit and most children can consume that quickly. On the other hand, one whole piece of fruit, e.g. an apple, would be more than enough. If you stick to whole foods you will find you don’t have to become an expert to manage the menu. 

Look out for more on this subject in future articles. In the interim, following some of these basic guidelines should help you relax a little.

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