Something parents seem to always be wondering is how much babies and young children “should” be eating each day.
I’ve written before about portion sizes for babies when weaning. I also have a free factsheet all about portion sizes for young children which should help to give some context and information about HOW MUCH children should eat at different stages.
In this blog I want to cover a little more about why toddler appetites are so variable, and help to answer the question “what should a toddler eat in a day?”
Ups and downs are normal
First things first, I want to stress that when it comes to toddler appetites – it’s very, very normal to for them to change day to day, and even meal to meal. It can make it particularly hard to prepare food for them and know what to expect, but it is so common.
It can also be quite common for toddlers who previously ate a lot as babies to start eating less as they grow into toddlerhood. Their rate of growth slows compared to their first year, whilst their desire for independence and autonomy grows. This can make food refusal much more common in toddlers.
Illness and teething can be a big reason for dips in appetite, both of which are common throughout toddlerhood. My blog, how to feed a sick child, covers lots of different illnesses and tips for managing appetites. Growth spurts can also mean that sometimes appetites shoot up and toddlers suddenly start eating much more than might be their “norm.”
All in all, feeding kids and keeping up with their appetites is a bit of a rollercoaster! That’s why it’s so important to follow YOUR child’s lead and respond to their appetite and cues, rather than focussing on how much you think they “should” be eating.
If your toddler is full, they might:
- Tell you they don’t want any more
- Push the plate away
- Lose interest in the food / play with it
- Avoid looking at the food
- Become fed up of the high chair
- Getting agitated
- Start throwing food / cutlery
If your toddler is hungry, they may:
- Ask for more food
- Watch your plate
- Grab food from your plate
- Look expectantly waiting for more food
How much SHOULD a toddler eat in a day?
When it comes to feeding kids, there are very few things that they “should” ALL be doing as a general rule. Toddlers are all different, they grow and develop at different paces, and their appetites reflect this.
I often get parents asking “what should my 2 year old eat in a day” or “how much should my 18 month old be eating.” It really is impossible to give a straight answer as it depends on lots of different factors. For example:
- Their own size/growth trajectory
- How they’re feeling
- How much they had at their last meal
- Whether they like / fancy the meal on offer
- How tired they are
- What development milestone they may be going through
- How much milk they’re having
- When their last meal was
- What their experience of mealtimes is (are they stressed/overwhelmed/overstimulated?)
- What others around them at the table are doing
There are SO many factors that impact a toddler’s appetite for each meal, which is why it’s also important to look at a child’s eating pattern over a few days/weeks, rather than one meal or day. Many parents find that their little one has a big appetite for a certain meal, for example breakfast, and then less so for lunch and dinner – which can be absolutely fine. I’m a big fan of “making the most of meals” and adding extras into meals where you can. This can help to ensure that even when they may have smaller portions, they’re getting as much nutrition into each bite as they can! I have a series with plenty of tips for adding extra nutrients to your kid’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
How many times should a toddler eat in a day?
Again, it’s important to note that there is no “should” when it comes to toddler portions and appetites. The general recommendation is that young children can be offered 3 meals and 2 snacks per day. This is very GENERAL advice, and the aim is to give them plenty of opportunities to eat and get their nutrients in throughout the day. However, this doesn’t mean that you HAVE to offer snacks.
I often share my experience with my two children, as it perfectly shows how every child is different. With Raffy, he always had a big appetite for his meals and had quite large portions, which meant he never really needed much in the way of snacks. Ada on the other hand, has always had a much smaller appetite and has needed those snacks to top up her on energy and nutrients in-between mealtimes.
It’s really important to follow your child’s lead and if you feel that they’re satisfied from their main meals and eating a fair amount, you don’t need to offer them snacks. If you’re finding that, more often than not, they’re having small amounts at meals and seem hungry in between mealtimes, a balanced snack or two each day might be helpful.
When parents come to me worried about their child’s food refusal or fussy eating, I often suggest looking at their routine and seeing if there’s anything there that may be impacting their appetite when it comes to meals. This may mean that snacks are offered too close to a meal, or they be having milk in between meals, which can also impact appetite. Sometimes a little tweak of their routine can make a big difference to their appetite when it comes to mealtimes. I do also have a great blog written by a Health Visitor all about milk intakes after one year old, which may help.
So for many toddlers a routine such as:
- Morning – Breakfast
- Afternoon – Lunch
- Evening – Dinner
With some milk in between or as part of snacks might be very normal. Variations on this routine may also be normal too, but it’s helpful to see a very “typical” structure.
You can read much more about snacks for toddlers in my blog “All About Snacks”.
What Should my Toddler’s Meals Consist of?
When thinking about WHAT to offer a toddler, it’s a good idea to really think about and be aware of HOW to balance a toddler’s plate out. I talk about Balancing Toddler’s Meals in detail in my blog, but, ultimately, it’s about offering foods from each of the main food groups at most meals. For example:
- Starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes, pasta
- Fruit and vegetables in variety and for meals and snacks
- Iron and protein rich foods such as fish, meat, eggs, lentils, beans and pulses
- And some dairy such as milk (perhaps in between meals with snacks), cheese or plain yogurts or alternatives.
Ideally, offering small portions of each of these food groups at most meals and snacks is what’s ideal. See above on HOW MUCH you’d expect them to eat and my factsheet on Portion Sizes for more on how much to serve.
Hopefully this blog has helped to show you that kid’s appetites are really variable, and that’s NORMAL and it’s ok!
For more support on navigating the tricky toddler years when it comes to feeding kids and food refusal, check out my Fussy Eating Crash Course.