Many toddlers have strong likes and dislikes. How can you help your child eat enough of the right foods?

One predictable battleground during the toddler years is the dinner table (or highchair). As the rapid growth rate of the first year to 18 months begins to slow, your child's appetite will also decrease. This fact, combined with the natural contrariness of the toddler, means that you are likely to be concerned at times over how little your child is eating. But if you force him to eat, you'll both lose the battle. He'll lose his pleasure in eating, and his appetite will decrease even further. Once you have presented your youngster with the right foods in the right quantities, your job is done. Now it's up to him to decide what, and how much, to consume.

Thankfully, by a year of age, she should be able to eat most of the foods you eat. Always be careful to dice your baby's foods into half-inch chunks, and don't give her anything smaller that she might inhale or choke on, such as grapes and popcorn. For the same reason, you should also steer clear of stringy foods such as celery and citrus fruits. A piece of food that gets lodged in a lung can cause wheezing or coughing that's easily mistaken for a cold or asthma.

Don't make the mistake of overwhelming your child with adult portions. Start small so he can get a feeling of accomplishment by finishing what's been served. You can always give your baby more if he's still hungry. Here are your toddler's basic daily nutritional requirements:

  • Milk: two to three cups per day.
  • Fruits: two to three tablespoons per day.
  • Vegetables: two to three tablespoons per day.
  • Breads, cereals, and pasta: four servings per day. A serving equals one-quarter to one-half slice of bread, a tablespoon of cereal, a few pieces of pasta.
  • Protein: one ounce of meat per day, or a protein-packed substitute such as an egg or a portion of fish, or cooked dried beans.

Your growing baby will get all the fat she needs if she's drinking whole milk. (Check with your pediatrician about when to switch from breast milk or formula to whole milk; most now recommend it at around 1 year.) There's no harm in adding a little butter to her vegetables if your little one seems to like it, but she doesn't need it.

Sugar adds nothing of value to the diet nutritionally. And since it may prevent your child from learning to enjoy the natural flavors of food, it's better to avoid it altogether. Sugary foods also promote tooth decay. And don't give your child honey until after his first birthday: It may contain botulism spores that can be poisonous.

The serving sizes above are minimum requirements. Chances are your baby will eat more-and you should, of course, let her. You can also expect some variation from day to day-more bread one day, more fruit the next. But always offer the five food groups daily; it's an easy way to ensure that your little one is getting everything her growing body needs.

Self-Feeding and Fun

By now your baby will certainly want to feed herself, and you should encourage this declaration of independence, no matter how messy it continues to be. Offer your youngster finger foods at every meal, and let her initiate feedings by picking up the spoon or a bit of food. Once she can spoon-feed herself competently (this usually happens at around 15 months), stop feeding her yourself. Let her set the pace-if she's taking a break or seems to be finished, respect her wishes. When offering a new food, give her a small taste and allow her time to respond before offering another spoonful. If she seems to dislike a particular food, don't force the issue. Doing so is a recipe for disaster. Remember, preferences change quickly at this age: Offer the same rejected item to your child next week and you may have better luck.

Making mealtimes pleasant is an important way to encourage a healthy attitude toward food. To minimize battles, pay no attention if your child refuses certain foods or won't eat at all. What really matters is the balance of food he consumes over a week or two, not just what he eats in one day. Indeed, many psychologists believe that the harm that results from tension over food is potentially longer lasting than any brief nutritional deficit due to finicky behavior or a less- than-ideal craving.

You also should avoid scurrying around preparing alternatives. (Of course, this doesn't mean you should serve your baby foods that he has a serious aversion to, or that you shouldn't serve foods he likes.) Because young children tend to have bland palates, you may need to eliminate spices from your little one's portions and avoid serving him strong-flavored foods like broccoli or fish. But you needn't work your menus around him, and you should help him get used to variety. The sooner he becomes flexible in his eating, the better for everyone.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.