Toddler Nutrition Needs Age 1-3

One of the most innate drives a parent has is to feed our babies. After all, food is one of the most basic of all needs, it's no wonder we worry if our little one is getting enough! Getting optimal nutrition is very important for a growing mind and body. This article will inform you of the basic toddler nutrition elements you should know about. 

toddler nutrition

Photo by donnieray via Flickr Image altered

Nutrition Needs for Toddlers Age 1-3 Years

Calories: 1,000-1,200 Kcal/day (increasing with age and activity level)
Protein: 13 grams/day
Carbohydrate: 130 grams/day
Fiber: 19 grams/day
Sodium: 1 gram/day (This equates to a ½ teaspoon of salt per day.)
Iron: 7 mg/day
Water: 45 U.S. fluid ounces


Starting at age 1, toddlers need around 1,000 calories, increasing with age and activity level to around 1,200 calories/day. Reaching 4 years old, they will need about 1,500 calories/day. There really is no reason to count calories to ensure adequate intake if she is adequately gaining weight and staying steady on her growth curve. Provide your babe with a balanced diet and more than likely, she will thrive. 


Adults typically eat more carbohydrates than they need, so aiming for a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet is usually recommended. However with toddlers, the story is different. Young children need diets higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein. It may seem logical to think a growing child needs high protein, but in all actuality it’s very easy to meet a child’s protein needs. Children age 1-3 only need 13 grams of protein/day. 

Just two 8 oz. cups of cow’s milk will exceed a child’s protein needs for the day. What parents should be most concerned with is carbohydrate intake. 


The brain uses glucose from carbohydrates to feed itself. Low carbohydrate diets are not appropriate for children, EVER. Their brain is growing at an astronomical rate and needs a high amount of carbohydrate to function. Children from the age of 1 need 130 grams of carbohydrates a day. If 130 grams sounds like a lot, it is (for a little one). It’s actually the same amount required for an adult brain to function optimally. That is why it’s so important to provide your child a balanced diet with whole grains and fruit incorporated into every meal and snack, plus milk or dairy multiple times a day. Examples of healthy carbohydrates include quinoa, wild rice, barley and oats, fresh and dried fruits such as apples, stone fruits, cantaloupe, and banana, and starchy vegetables like squash, sweet potato and peas. Just a note, milk and yogurt are a good source of carbohydrate, but cheese is not.

toddler nutrition


Children age 1-3 need a minimum of 19 grams of fiber a day. If you incorporate healthy carbohydrates like listed above, there should be no problem in reaching this goal. Remember, whole foods, not processed, have the most fiber.


We all need sodium to live! Toddlers age 1-3 NEED at least 1 g/day to keep their body functioning as it should. Sodium is an electrolyte and works to maintain blood pressure, muscle contractions and nerve function. Sodium is not evil! So many moms are concerned with how much salt is too much, so they end up going overboard on cutting it way back.

Don’t eliminate all the salt from your babies diet.

Too little sodium actually causes more problems than too much. Your little one needs 1,000 mg of sodium per day, this equates to a ½ t salt/day. The tolerable Upper Level is set at 1,500 mg/day which means: avoid going over 1,500 mg on a daily basis. Food made from scratch may be lightly seasoned, not unseasoned!

Remember, salt brings out the natural flavors in food, make your little one’s meals palatable. Rule of thumb, cut the recipe’s salt in half and season your portion at the table. After all, they will be eating your food for years to come, there’s no need for such a drastic change when baby starts to eat.

Sodium lurks in processed food items, not your home cooking. Do watch for sodium in breads, crackers, chips, popcorn, nuts, and pretty much all processed snack foods. And of course most all meals that come from restaurants, especially fast food, are loaded with sodium. This is what you should try to avoid, not the salt in your homemade pasta sauce.


Meals provided to children age 1-3 should provide 7 mg of iron per day. Many moms are concerned about iron intake, and rightly so, iron-deficiency is the most prevalent nutrition deficiency in the U.S. and Canada. As children progress from the highly absorbable iron in breastmilk and iron fortified formula to cow's milk, a poor source of iron, a picky eater may end up with a sub-par iron intake.

What you can do is serve your little one foods high in Iron paired with foods high in Vitamin C and cook with cast iron cookware when you can. Supplements are usually unneeded, unless your babe is a chronically poor eater or drinks most of their calories from cow's milk. Read here for more information about supplementing baby. If you suspect your baby is low in iron, talk with your pediatrician before deciding to supplement. An excellent pediatrician will suggest you steer clear from supplementation and focus on high iron food intake. Supplements are no compensation for healthy food paired with healthy food habits. Remember, food should always come first, don't rely on supplements.

High Iron Foods Iron (mg)
Clams, canned, 3 oz 23.8
Fortified ready-to-eat cereals,  1 oz 1.8 -21.1
Oysters, 3 oz 10.2
Organ meats (liver, giblets), 3 oz  5.2-9.9
Fortified instant cooked cereals , 1 packet 4.9-8.1
Soybeans, mature, cooked, ½ cup 4.4
Pumpkin & squash seeds, roasted, 1 oz 4.2
White beans, canned, ½ cup 3.9
Blackstrap molasses, 1 Tbsp 3.5
Lentils, cooked, ½ cup 3.3
Spinach, cooked from fresh, ½ cup 3.2
Beef, chuck, blade roast, 3 oz 3.1
Beef, bottom round, lean, 3 oz 2.8
Kidney beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.6
Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 3 oz 2.5
Beef, rib, 3 oz 2.4
Chickpeas, cooked, ½ cup 2.4
Duck, meat only, roasted, 3 oz 2.3
Lamb, shoulder, 3 oz 2.3
Prune juice, ¾ cup 2.3
Shrimp, canned, 3 oz 2.3
Cowpeas, cooked, ½ cup 2.2
Ground beef, 15% fat, cooked, 3 oz 2.2
Tomato puree, ½ cup 2.2
Lima beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.2
Soybeans, green, cooked, ½ cup 2.2
Navy beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.1
Refried beans, ½ cup 2.1
Beef, top sirloin, lean, 3 oz 2
Tomato paste, ¼ cup


 The above table is courtesy of the USDA


Milk Choices

There are so many milk choices these days. Each has their benefits and drawbacks, there’s no perfect choice. Dairy milk has certainly gotten a bad rap lately, with studies showing that a lifelong intake of dairy milk shows an associated risk between high milk intake and higher mortality and fracture in older adults. Cow’s milk definitely isn't what it used to be due to the way dairy cows are raised and treated in today’s world. Because of this fact, parents are put in a rough spot, now needing to research what is best to give their children. 

Is a Plant-Based Milk a Better Alternative?

Looking at the milk comparison chart below, you can see, soy, cashew, coconut and almond milk are poor choices looking from a carbohydrate standpoint, as they provide next to no carbs (great for you, not so great for kids). But soy milk is the best option when looking at iron, as soybeans are a great source. Almond milk is next in line.

toddler nutrition

As your baby is weaning off formula or breast milk, they need a replacement that is somewhat nutritionally comparable. Looking at the options, each have their benefits and drawbacks. As a dietitian and mom, I have personally decided to give organic, full fat cow's milk to cover macro-nutrient needs, in conjunction with organic soy milk, to assist in meeting iron needs for the first couple years

Fairlife Milk

toddler nutrition

Surprise! There’s a new milk product that arrived on shelves in 2015 called Fairlife. It is a cow’s milk that has gone through a special filtering process to remove most of the sugar (which in turn reduces it’s carbohydrate and lactose content) and increases protein content. This milk may be a better choice for adults, but not for young children. It reduces the important carbohydrates that your baby needs and replaces it with protein. Hold off until your kids are older before offering this as a daily beverage.

And just a side note, this milk is marketed as natural and humane for cows, but don’t believe it. As a product of Coca-Cola, they are sneaky marketers. In all actuality, this milk is not organic, the cows do not eat grass like they should, and are kept indoors, “Protected from the environment” and milked and milked and milked… how nice.


Children age 1-3 need 1.3 liters/day (45 US fluid ounces) of water coming from water itself, the water in milk, and the water contained in food. (7) Many parents are unsure about how much water to give. From the age 6-12 months, babies can be offered water in small plastic cup, from a straw or sippie cup during meals and throughout the day. By the time baby reaches 1 year, they will drink a fair amount of water.

Offer a sip of water every half-hour or so.

You will notice that the more active your child is, the more they will drink down the water. Don’t worry about offering too much; just like with eating, your child should be in control of her own intake. However, avoid letting your child having free reign to walk around with the cup at all times. Make it a habit to offer them a drink every time you take a drink. And if you aren’t drinking enough water throughout the day, remember to offer a sip about every half-hour.

I wish you the best health and happiness for you little one.


Rolfes, S., & Whitney, E. (2006). Understanding normal and clinical nutrition (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

THE INFORMATION PROVIDED DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. All content information is intended to be for general informational purposes only. Please see your doctor with regard to information attained from the above article if you are concerned with the health of your child. The content above is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. NEVER NEGLECT YOUR DOCTOR’S PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE READ. 

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  • What is the best milk to offer toddlers ? I’m struggling finding what’s best as my son had E. coli from which I suspect was from the organic low temp pasteurized milk I was giving him but cannot be sure about it. I’ve been trying to give him non dairy but he doesn’t like almond or soy milk at all

    Victoria on
  • Michaela,
    There is not an intake guide for sugar. Limiting added sugar as much as possible is the best choice. Thanks for your comment!!

    Jessa Nowak on
  • Really helpful, just what I was looking for… what about sugar?

    Michaela Jones on

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