Feeding young children: what are the choices?

Published on April 27, 2020

Article written by:
Ms. M. Gatt,

Young children between the ages of 12 months and 3-4 years are growing and developing quickly. It is a very crucial time to make sure that children at this age are eating well and that they are getting all the energy and nutrients that they need.

This phase of the young child’s life is also an important time for him/her to learn about food and eating so that good habits are fostered and children learn to consume a healthy varied diet that can be enjoyed with the rest of the family. However at times it can be hard for parents to know exactly what toddlers should be eating and in what amounts.

One of the most common complaints of parents of toddlers is that they refuse to eat certain foods. Some children will be reluctant to try out new tastes and others will not accept foods with which they were previously familiar. This ongoing ‘battle’ between parent and child lasts till the child is about the child turns 6 after which most children will be more accepting of a variety of foods. Although fairly normal this period cannot however be ignored because it is very important that young children get used to eating a healthy, varied diet that includes food from the four main food groups. These include:

  1. Fruits and vegetables – 5 times/day
  2. Starchy foods – 5 times/day
  3. Protein foods – 2 times/day
  4. Dairy foods – 3 times/day

Fruits and vegetables

These are very useful in a child’s diet because they contain several vitamins and minerals so much needed for healthy development. Try to include as many coloured fruits and vegetables as possible. Vegetables are often initially rejected but do not give up on offering them over and over again.

Toddler sized portions of fruits and vegetables per day include:

  • 1/2 to 1 small banana
    fruit and vegetables

    Image by Anelka from Pixabay

  • 4-8 grapes
  • 1/4-1/2 medium apple
  • 1-3 cherry tomatoes
  • 2-6 carrot sticks
  • 1-2 tablespoons broccoli/ pumpkin
  • 1-2 tablespoons peas

Starchy foods

Foods such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes provide your toddler with energy, B vitamins and calcium. Several fortified breakfast cereals intended for young children can also provide iron, folic acid and, in some cases, vitamin D. In using these latter products be wary of the nutritional information on the pack and stay away from choosing cereals with a high sugar content. It is recommended that a young child’s portion (20-30g) of breakfast cereal does not contain more than 5g of sugar. Other suitable portions of starchy foods are the following:

  •      1-3 tablespoons mashed potato/ sweet potato
    pasta rice and potato

    Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

  •      2-4 tablespoons cooked rice/ pasta
  •      2-4 potato wedges
  •      1-2 oat/ rice cakes
  •      1/2 – 1 slice of bread

At this young age whole meal cereals are not highly recommended and if used they should be offered gradually. Young childrens’ stomachs are still small and they can fill up very easily on such products with high levels of fiber. This could make them to stop eating before they have eaten enough energy to satisfy their needs.

Protein foods

These foods include meat, fish, eggs and pulses (.beans, lentils, chick peas). They provide protein and iron, both very essential for a growing child. Oily fish like salmon and fresh tuna is a very rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which are so important for proper brain maturation. Offering these foods with vitamin C-rich fo

ods/drinks will also help enhance their iron absorption.

At 2 portions of protein per day some suggestions for suitable choices include:

  •    2-4 tablespoons chicken/ veal/ beef
  •    2-4 tablespoons fish
  •    2-3 tablespoons baked beans
  •    1 poached/ hard boiled egg
  •    Peanut butter on bread/ toast



It is imperative to ensure that a young child is well hydrated with at least 800ml of fluid daily. Water should be the main drink and milk is the next preference. If fruit juices or sweetened drinks/milks are given these should only be offered at the main mealtimes. This reduces the chances of tooth decay and helps to discourage developing a preference for sweet drinks. For the same reason, after the age of 12months milk should be offered from a cup/beaker and not from a bottle.

Overweight and obesity

Malta has the highest rate of childhood obesity in children with more than 1 in 4 of all 2-4year olds estimated to be overweight or obese. Such children are more likely to suffer from emotional and psychological problems and tend to grow up to become overweight or obese adults which can lead to very serious health problems like type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

It is recommended that physical activity should be encouraged at an early age since being active on a daily basis improves children’s bone health, develops movement and coordination and contributes to a healthy weight. Screen time ( TV, iPads, smart phones) should be limited and physical activity encouraged to take up as much as 3 hours per day.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize that a child is overweight so it is very important to consult regularly with your doctor who will able to assist you with your concerns about your child’s diet and activity levels.

Regular annual visits to a dentist are also very highly recommended from this young age and it is a must to supervise brushing of teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste.

It is also recommended that children under the age of 5 should take a daily supplement of Vitamins A, C and D in the form of drops/syrup – ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

It might sound obvious but, the key to overcoming fussy eating is to help your child learn to like the foods you offer because children will eat more of the foods they enjoy. Children are born with very few likes and dislikes – they acquire these through experience.

Aim to create a healthy home environment that is conducive to healthy eating. Stock up on a wide variety of healthy foods and try to avoid having foods high in fats and sugars on display or within easy reach.

‘Model’ behaviour from parents has been shown to be an effective way to encourage children to accept new foods so lead by example and eat the foods that you would like your child to eat 😊

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