7 common toddler nutrition questions answered

Worried that your tot might be underweight? Registered dietitian Abigail Courtenay answers common questions about toddler eating habits and nutrition.


Children come in all shapes and sizes, but if you’re noticing that your child is shorter than her friends at school, it’s natural to wonder if your she’s growing normally.

Most children take well to eating solids for the first time. Being naturally inquisitive, children will try a variety of gloopy and colourful tastes and textures. Unfortunately, as babies become toddlers, their tastes in foods begin to change dramatically.

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As parents, this period may be particularly stressful, leaving you worried about whether or not your child’s diet is meeting their growing needs. This is a greater concern if your child is growing more slowly than their peers. Therefore, it is important to know what’s “normal” when it comes to your child’s growth and development.

Registered dietitian Abigail Courtenay answers 7 common questions asked by moms.

What are the consequences of undernutrition or being underweight?

Being underweight interferes with optimal growth and development as it is often related to nutrient deficiencies. Specific nutrients are required to support your child’s cognitive health, immunity and physical development.

What are the causes of slow growth?

There are many factors that could lead to slow growth namely:

  • Poor appetite (this may also occur in healthy children)
  • Acute or chronic illness
  • Restrictive eating due to illness (like allergies) or misinformation
  • Poor absorption (e.g. coeliac disease)
  • Chewing or swallowing difficulties (e.g. children with cerebral palsy)

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What is considered normal eating behaviour?

You can safely assume that children gaining weight appropriately according to their growth chart are getting enough to eat (even if you believe they should be eating more). Children between the ages of three and five years of age have demonstrated the ability to self-regulate their energy intake. Your child’s appetite will depend on a variety of factors such as tiredness, activity levels and growth spurts. Some children experience what is known as a food “jag”. This is when a child bcomes fixated on a certain type of food or food group and refuses all other foods. It is not clear how long these food jags last, but often a child’s overall nutritional status is not affected by them.

ALSO SEE: A handy guide to portion sizes for toddlers

What can I do to help my child enjoy food more?

  • Offer a variety of nutritious foods.
  • Repeat exposure to foods (sometimes it can take up to 15 repeated exposures before a food is liked or tolerated).
  • Schedule meal and snack times (this makes eating a routine and assists in managing your child’s nutritional needs).
  • Provide more frequent, but smaller, meals ,
  • Be your child’s role model for healthy eating by eating healthy foods yourself,
  • Remove distractions at mealtimes, including TV, tablets and phones.

 ALSO SEE: 2 fun dinner ideas for toddlers

What should I avoid doing?

  • Don’t force or pressurise your child to eat.
  • Don’t prepare separate or special meals for your child.
  • Don’t give rewards for trying new foods.

Why shouldnt I force or pressurise my child to eat?

Pressuring young children to eat may cause overeating, which may lead to excessive weight gain, or cause them to actually eat less as a result of the stress. Either way, pressuring children to eat may upset your child’s natural appetite-control system, resulting in him ignoring his internal hunger and satiety cues.

When should I consider supplementation (in the form of a nutritional drink)?

If you are concerned about your child’s diet, observe slow growth patterns, or if your child is falling behind in height and weight, this could be a good opportunity to introduce a drink-type nutritional supplement. Drinks, such as PediaSure, are often well tolerated by most children and can be made into fun and tasty snacks using a variety of flavours like hot chocolate or fruit purée. Drinks are preferential as they are easier to consume between meals and may be more acceptable and manageable for your child.

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