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What does a “how to keep a toddler happy” checklist look like? Mine read something like this: A packet of all-purpose wipes and several entire changes of outfit. Perhaps a Spiderman or (delete as appropriate) princess costume to be worn 24/7. Toys that are trailed around and discarded according whims of the moment and, of course, multiple-on-the-go snacks.
They are truly the see it-do-it-done-it age-group. Pure instinct into action, without any intervening moment of reflection. What this means for us grown ups is that we have to do the future thinking for them.
Dirty clothing, messy hands and lost toys are all temporary frustrations but the impact of your toddler’s dietary habits are much longer-lasting.
Before I offer a toddler’s dietary checklist with the aim of keeping both parent and child happy, one of the key pieces of advice I give any parent, especially first-timers, is not to get obsessive about tracking progress or milestones. The rapid pace and momentum of your toddler’s growth and development is rather staggering but with the nourishment of good nutrition and plenty of love, toddlers thrive.
The first important point to understand is that a healthy diet for an adult looks very different from a healthy diet for a toddler. It’s no wonder parents can be confused!
Small stomachs and short attention spans sum up the typical toddler so you’ll need a strategy that gives them what they need with minimal fuss. What is more, along with a healthy balanced diet, toddlers have specific nutritional needs to support their growth and development.
Your toddler needs more fat and less fibre than at other life stages so don’t worry about using butter, oil or whole milk products. Indeed, for the average toddler, a lack of the essential fats - the omega 3 fats in particular - is far more of a concern.
Helping your toddler consume the recommended levels of these omega fats can be tricky if your child doesn't like concentrated sources such as oily fish or nuts or nut butters.
Growing-up milk can be of great help here. Growing-up milk is simply normal cows milk which is enriched with the key nutrients that toddlers need, such as vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and the all important omega 3. Numerous studies link omega 3 fatty acids with brain development, behaviour and learning.
Growing-up milk is also enriched with vitamin D which you may have noticed has been the subject of much press.
Vitamin D is different from other vitamins as our bodies can manufacture it through the exposure of your skin to sunlight but in climates such as in the UK, where sunshine is something of a rare guest, or in places where children’s pale skin is protected with sunblock, there is a very real risk of vitamin D deficiency. Other vitamin D fortified foods include some cereals but be you must be careful of hidden sugars.
The NHS recommends that all babies and young children aged six months to five years should take a daily supplement containing vitamin D in the form of vitamin drops to help them meet the requirement set for this age group of 7-8.5 micrograms (0.007-0.0085mg) of vitamin D a day.
Other adult dietary advice that may result in your toddler reaching for the nearest throwing implement is for them to “eat their greens”.
Green vegetables are bitter in taste and vegetables like broccoli may be simply too much to handle, at least on its own. Cunning ploys deployed by parents usually involve hiding said broccoli in a mashed up gloop of cheese and potato. In my experience what worked for toddler number one may not work for toddler number two. Each to their own.
The sweeter vegetables such as carrots or butternut squash often go down better with the typical toddler palate.
On the subject of sweet, excessive sugar consumption has multiple downsides including being implicated in hyperactivity, learning difficulties, weight related problems and behavioural problems.
Saying that, I personally don’t believe in banning sweet ‘treats’ altogether. My daughter memorably face-planted into her chocolate birthday cake on her first birthday after tasting the icing - and sugar - for the first time. I figured a less extreme reaction might be worth aiming for and started letting her have occasional treats!
When it comes to hydration, aim to give your toddler between six and eight drinks per day to ensure adequate hydration, more may be needed in very hot weather or if they are particularly active.
As many parents are now aware, staying clear of sugary drinks and fruit juices on a day to day basis is strongly recommended. Instead, think of using milk, growing up milk or water as a healthy alternative between meals. If your child eats very little you may want to reduce the overall quantity of milk, without cutting it out entirely, as sometimes they can get full very quickly and can begin to miss out meals in preference of drinks.
Lastly, keep very salty foods to a minimum or cut out entirely, avoid raw fish or uncooked eggs and if allergies run in the family, it’s often suggested to avoid peanuts or nut containing foods until three years old at which point monitor their reaction closely.