Toddlers are hard, says dietitian Stephanie Middleberg, author of The Big Book of Organic Toddler Food. Unlike babies—who will happily try most anything that lands on their highchair trays--they have lots of opinions. And they're not afraid to use them at the dinner table!
But food is important during these (sometimes-challenging) toddler years. Though they may prefer to exist on a steady diet of mac ‘n’ cheese and crackers, toddlers need a lot of different foods and nutrients to keep them healthy, active, and growing well. Middleberg says you should keep these six nutrients top of mind when feeding your toddler:
Iron: After about six months of age, your child's stores of iron are depleted and they must start getting the mineral from food. Iron is especially important for brain development in young kids. The most absorbable form is found in meat, poultry, and fish, but your child can also get iron from beans, tofu, and leafy greens.
Tip: Vitamin C boosts absorption of iron, so include C-rich fruits and veggies like spinach, broccoli, and strawberries in your toddler's meals.
Probiotics: Gut health not only impacts overall health but also how your toddler feels day-to-day, says Middleberg. A good balance of bacteria can help strengthen the immune system and may even help prevent constipation, a common problem for toddlers. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, and fermented veggies like beets and sauerkraut are naturally rich in probiotics, so start serving these foods now so they become familiar staples.
Tip: If your family doesn't eat many fermented foods, a probiotic supplement can help. Middleberg suggests looking for a supplement geared towards infants or children that contains multiple strains including B. Bifidum, B. Infantis and L.Rhueteri and comes in a powder or liquid form that can be added to a smoothie, oatmeal, or milk.
Vitamin D: This vitamin helps your toddler build strong bones, and it may also be involved in regulating mood and helping to prevent illness like colds and flu (hello, daycare germs!). Though vitamin D isn't naturally found in many foods, egg yolks contain some, as does fortified dairy and non-dairy products. A little bit of sun exposure each day (about 20 minutes) is also enough for your toddler's body to produce the D she needs.
Tip: If you live in a cloudy climate, Middleberg says to consider a vitamin D supplement. Kids over one year of age need 600 IU of D a day.
Fats: Your toddler needs fat to absorb vitamins like A and D and for brain and nerve development. You can find healthy fats in foods like avocado, nut butter, and oils like olive and coconut.
Tip: Omega-3s are special fatty acids that impact brain development and may have a positive effect on disorders such as autism and ADHD. Salmon is a rich source, but you can find lower amounts in fish like cod and halibut too. Middleberg suggests serving fish regularly and early so your child becomes accustomed to eating it.
Zinc: This mineral will help boost your toddler's immune system and keep his skin healthy. Animal products like red meat and poultry have the most zinc, but your toddler will also get it from beans, nuts, eggs, and whole grains.
Tip: Sprouted grains may make the zinc even easier to absorb, so look for sprouted grain products like bread and flour.
Calcium: It's essential for building healthy bones. Dairy is a prime source, and non-dairy sources like beans, leafy greens, and some brands of tofu (check labels) can offer some too.
Tip: If you're opting for non-dairy milks as a source of calcium, keep in mind that (unlike dairy milk) plant-based milks aren't always good sources of protein. Middleberg recommends serving them with protein-rich foods.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the new book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.