Transitioning to Toddlerhood: Nutrient Needs of Toddlers 12 to 24 months

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Did you know that toddlerhood technically starts when your little one turns a year old? While they’re still your little baby, you may notice toddler-like behaviors begin to emerge – especially when it comes to food! This may be solely behavioral, but it may also be due to some important nutritional changes happening in your little one’s body.

Feeding a Toddler

After 12 months of age, nutrition moves from a “milk-first” (breastmilk or formula) approach to a “food-first” approach. While your child may continue to breastfeed or transition to milk, food will meet the majority of their needs now. By a year of age, your child will be eating three meals per day consisting of a range of food groups and nutrients. Snacks may begin to be introduced regularly as well. Rather than having milk as a “meal” like in infancy, milk moves towards being a beverage of choice at mealtimes. This ensures food is the focus and milk does not take up important room in their tummy.

By the time your child reaches 18 months of age, they will be eating 3 meals and 2 snacks regularly. Some children will even need a bedtime snack to sleep comfortably. Providing balanced snacks that include carbohydrates as well as protein and/or fat fills their tummy and keeps them satisfied for longer.

Toddlerhood is an interesting time. Foods that were once loved may now be rejected. Preference for starchy, sweet, carbohydrate-rich foods is common (not to worry, keep reading!). Strange food combinations and resistance to try new foods may even occur. Some children can even develop a very strong preference for white foods only.

Nutrient Needs of Toddlers

Between 12 months and 24 months, children will grow rapidly. This includes around five pounds of weight gain along with four to five inches of height gain. Not surprisingly, nutrient needs increase a ton during this time frame!

Carbohydrates provide the majority of nutrient needs and help to fuel their activity while providing energy to support growth. Fiber also comes into play to prevent constipation and support a healthy gut. Before a year of age, there is no guideline for fiber amounts.

Children 12 to 24 months old should eat about 19 grams of fiber daily according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines of America. Fat provides the next most calories and is key for the developing brain. In fact, the brain will grow to 80% of adult size by the age of 3! Not to mention, the requirements for choline – an essential nutrient for brain development – increase by over 150% after a year of age.

Bone growth is rapid during toddlerhood. Important nutrients that support bone growth include vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. Many families have heard of the importance of vitamin D for their baby, and these needs increase in toddlerhood! Calcium needs nearly triple with phosphorus needs nearly doubling after 12 months of age.

Foods Rich in Key Nutrients

Carbohydrates & Fiber: sweet potatoes, whole grains, fruits

Healthy fats: nut butters, seeds, avocado, olives, whole-fat dairy

Choline: eggs (yolk), soy, broccoli, dairy, beef, chicken

Vitamin D: vitamin-D fortified milk, egg yolks, fatty fish (salmon, sardines)

Calcium: dairy, tofu, chia seeds, almond butter

Phosphorus: legumes, cheese, poultry, red meat

Salt & Sugar

Before a year of age you may have been told to limit salt and sugar intake – so what now?

Salt (or sodium) can get a bad rep, but it is an essential nutrient in the body that’s involved in nerve and muscle function as well as hydration. Sodium requirements increase after 12 months of age from ~400 mg daily to ~1000 mg. This can allow you a bit more flexibility in what you are feeding your little one.

Many foods naturally contain sodium such as animal proteins, dairy products, and shellfish. Processed foods are often made with sodium as well such as breads, breakfast cereal, canned vegetables and soups, and more. Many families do not need to intentionally add salt to food as most individuals, including children, easily meet the minimum. 

It’s advised to avoid added sugar entirely before 12 months. After 12 months, recommendations vary depending on the organization and reference. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise no more than 10% of calories (or 25 grams per day) for children between 1-3 years of age according to their 2023 guidelines. On the other hand, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines of America advise avoiding added sugars entirely before the age of two.

Wrap Up

Feeding your new toddler can be a challenging time of finding the balance between food preferences and nutrition. Focusing on which nutrient-rich foods you can incorporate on a daily or weekly basis can ensure your little one meets their changing nutritional needs.

For more insights and tips on what to feed your toddler, read our guide to Baby Food & Snacks by Age & Stage and Toddler Food & Snack Guide for 12+ Months.

Author: Nicole Lattanzio, RDN, CSP, IBCLC @infant.nutritionist
Owner, The Baby Dietitian PLLC

Photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash