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5 min read

Toddlers are finicky little creatures. One day cheese and crackers are their favorite food and the very next they won’t even touch them. Toddlers, more often than not, seem to be pretty picky eaters. To the dismay of parents everywhere, these little ones seem to have no trouble refusing to eat the meal that you have carefully prepared for them.


How can you make sure that your growing child is getting appropriate nutrition when they won’t touch the food on their plate? Start with an understanding of how many calories your child needs during the toddler years and offer healthy choices built around that calorie target.


Meal Plans are More About Structure than Restricting Foods

As an adult, you are likely aware of the importance of watching what you eat. Some of us have to count calories or track food in order to keep the extra weight off. For most toddlers, weight gain is not a big problem. Toddlers are pretty active and seem to burn off the calories they consume with little effort.


But, healthy habits start young. Using a meal plan with your toddler encourages the development of healthy food relationships. It also gives you some reassurance that they are being offered a nutritious and balanced diet.


How Many Meals Should a Toddler Eat?

For most toddlers, smaller portions of the same meal plan structure that the rest of the family uses are appropriate. The time that meals are offered depends on typical waking times and nap times, but should always be spaced out.


Try to pick a set time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner based on your daily routines and other commitments. In addition to three meal times, offer two snacks spaced in between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner that can be eaten at their leisure.


Snacks should be limited to two or three healthy snack options per day so that your toddler is not continuously snacking all day long.


How to Build Healthy Meals and Snacks for Toddlers

Terms like ‘balanced’ and ‘healthy’ usually predicate any discussion about feeding children. Good nutrition and healthy eating habits are established young. Encourage them to eat a variety of healthy foods at each meal and snack period.


How Many Calories Should My Toddler Eat?

Most nutritional experts recommend that toddlers between the age of 1-3 years old should get 1,000 calories per day. Very active toddlers who seem to have trouble keeping weight on can go up to as much as 1,400 calories per day.


Regular Meal Guidelines

At each regular meal period: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offer a variety of three to five food groups. Do not get hung up on calorie count, just focus on offering a variety of healthy choices.


  • Whole Grains (i.e. toast, crackers)
  • Dairy (i.e. milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Fruits (i.e. applies, grapes, raisins)
  • Vegetables (i.e. sweet potato, peas, green beans)
  • Proteins (chicken, beans, peanut butter)


Whole Grains

Whole grains provide fiber and energy. Whole grains are preferred over refined grains (i.e. white bread, white pasta, white rice) because they are more nutrient-dense. Eating refined grains is like eating all of the bulky carbohydrates without getting any of the beneficial nutrients.


Toddlers need 3 oz of whole grains per day. To get an idea of how much that is, one slice of whole-grain bread or 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of prepared rice is 1 oz. Offer one serving of whole grains with each meal to meet the daily recommendation.



Toddlers need 1 cup of vegetables per day.This is one cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice per day. Or, two cups of green, leafy vegetables like baby spinach.


It can be pretty difficult to get toddlers to chow down on vegetables. The good news is that they need less than you might think to hit their daily recommendation. If three baby carrots are all they can get down in one meal, continue to offer vegetable options with each meal and snack.



Toddlers need 1 cup of fruits per day.This means one cup of fruit or 100% fruit juice, or ½ cup of dried fruit per day.


Avoid relying on fruit juices or juice cocktails to quench thirst. It might be easier to get your little one to drink these instead of water, but they are full of sugar and calories. Watch out for marketing gimmicks, many juice manufacturers will put 100% Juice in big letters and then ‘from concentrate’ in much smaller letters.


You might avoid fruit juices altogether, providing your daily recommended servings from real fruit.



Toddlers aged 2-3 years old need two cups of dairy per day. This includes breast milk if you are still breastfeeding.


1 cup of milk or yogurt or 2 ounces of processed cheese are equal to one cup of dairy.



Toddlers need 2 oz of protein from meat or beans daily. The body uses protein to build and repair tissues so it is essential for healthy development and healing.


1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish. ¼ cup cooked dry beans, 1 egg or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter is equal to one ounce of protein.


Meal and Snack Ideas

Do not worry too much if you offer an extra serving of protein or an extra half-serving of dairy. Remember that toddlers are picky eaters and will eat when they are hungry and leave it when they are full. These suggestions are only guidelines to keep from grossly overserving.


Breakfast: 1 piece whole-grain toast + 1 tbsp peanut butter + ½ banana

  • offers 3 of 5 food groups: whole grains, protein, and fruit
  • Protein-based peanut butter to help them feel full.


AM Snack: 1 cup yogurt or breastmilk + ½ cup mixed berries

  • Offers at least 2 food groups
  • 50% of milk/dairy


Lunch: 1 oz cubed chicken breast + 6 baby carrots + Chickpea Hummus + 1 oz Cheese

  • 3 to 5 food groups
  • Lean meat protein to feel full


PM Snack: ½ cup apple slices + whole grain crackers + Cucumber Slices

  • Sweet fruit and watery cucumber feels refreshing
  • Whole grains provide fiber
  • Includes at least 2 to 3 food groups


Dinner: 1 small whole-grain tortilla + ½ cup sweet potato + 1 cup milk

  • Whole grains and sweet potato provide fiber
  • Milk provides calcium
  • Includes 3 to 5 food groups