Dietary restrictions and your toddler | How to make it work

If your toddler’s diet excludes certain food groups for religious, personal, or health reasons, nutritional therapist Hannah Kaye has some advice on making it work.

For many moms, the process of weaning their baby onto solids is heaps of fun. Babies are generally prepared to eat most things, or at least give them a try.

As your once easy-to-feed baby grows into a toddler, you can expect her to have some strong opinions about food. Favourite foods of the past are tossed at the dog.

Added to the difficulty of feeding a toddler, many moms are faced with dietary restrictions due to food allergies or sensitivities. For others, dietary restrictions come down to religious or personal beliefs. This often means that there are no five-minute, quick-fix meals and that you have to be organised and vigilant to ensure that your toddler’s diet is balanced on a daily basis. While it isn’t easy having a little one on a restricted diet, it can be done. However, if you’re going to embark on one, you need to ensure that nutrient deficiencies don’t hamper your toddler’s development.

How to make dietary restrictions work

Dairy free

  • Dairy allergy is the most common food allergy in babies and toddlers. While most toddlers outgrow it by their third birthday, dairy must be avoided while the allergy is still active.
  • Very few parents opt to put their toddler onto a dairy-free diet without a medical reason, because dairy is a major component of many toddler diets. It not only contains calcium as well as some vitamin D, but is also an easy source of protein in the form of yoghurt or cheese.
  • If your toddler is on a dairy-free diet for medical or personal reasons, it is essential to ensure he is getting vitamin D and calcium from alternative sources, as both of these nutrients are essential for development. Eggs, tahini, almonds and green leafy vegetables are all good sources of calcium. If you have a fussy eater, it’s important to find a way of getting these into his diet.
  • Some vitamin D can be found in salmon and eggs, but it’s worth asking your paediatrician to recommend a supplement.
  • Following a dairy-free diet without making up for calcium and vitamin D requirements will be detrimental to your toddler’s development, including bone health.

Click here for tips on how to spot a food allergy.

Gluten free

  • Gluten-free diets have become extremely common. However, it’s not advisable for a toddler to be gluten-free without a defined medical condition such as coeliac disease.
  • The good news is that there is no research to suggest that following a gluten-free diet causes harm, but it can be difficult and costly.
  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that can be difficult to digest and may contribute to health issues for many people.
  • Going gluten free doesn’t mean that you’re cutting a vital nutrient out of your toddler’s diet, but it also doesn’t automatically mean that your toddler is eating a more nutrient-dense diet either. It matters what you replace those wheat-based breads and pastas with.
  • A gluten-free label doesn’t automatically indicate a healthy toddler food. In fact, such a claim often means it’s heavily processed, less nutrient-rich and much lower in fibre. White gluten-free bread is going to be as unhealthy as wheat-based white bread.
  • If your toddler is on a gluten-free diet for medical or personal reasons, the focus must be on whole, unprocessed foods to ensure an adequate intake of fibre and B vitamins.
  • Instead of looking for gluten-free alternatives, feed your toddler whole plant-based foods, plenty of fats and healthy proteins as alternatives.

Vegan, raw and vegetarian diets

  • A 100% vegan diet is probably the most difficult diet to implement with a toddler. It excludes meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients.
  • A raw diet takes it one step further with all vegetable-based foods being served raw, sprouted or dehydrated. While vegetarianism is similar to veganism, dairy and eggs are typically included.
  • Toddlers, by nature, tend to be fussy when it comes to vegetables and it takes commitment to ensure they are getting in their veggies − even on a non-restrictive diet. There are many benefits to eating a plant-based diet, but toddlers often become vegans who don’t eat vegetables.
  • Toddlers need about 24g of protein per day. There are 6g of protein in a large egg, whereas one tablespoon of chickpeas contains about 2g of protein. It is, therefore, a lot harder for vegan toddlers to meet their protein requirements. An adequate fat intake will also be crucial in meeting growth needs, making foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado and coconut essentials.
  • If you have a picky vegan or vegetarian toddler, they may not get enough calories to thrive. For vegan toddlers, the amount of vegetables needed for proper nutrition and calories may also be too bulky for their tiny stomachs.
  • Vitamin B12 is very difficult to come by in a vegan diet and many vegetarians also find their B12 status low. It is essential for vegan and vegetarian toddlers to be on a B12 supplement. Iron levels will also need to be monitored closely.
  • Unless there is a long-term family history of successful veganism, it is not recommended to embark on a vegan or raw diet for a toddler. This doesn’t mean that toddlers can’t follow a vegan diet successfully, but rather that parents need to be familiar with recipes and food preparation as a way of life, rather than as the latest fad.

Grain-free diets

  • You would be hard pressed to find a South African who hasn’t heard of Banting. Many claim it is life changing, but for others – not so much.
  • Banting is a low-carb, high-fat diet. The true aim of the diet is to put the body into a state of ketosis. This is where the body burns fat for energy instead of glucose. While ketosis has been shown to be beneficial in managing some childhood conditions, such as epilepsy, a state of ketosis is certainly not advisable for your average toddler.
  • A more toddler-friendly grain-free diet is the Paleo diet. Paleo promotes healthy eating without technically being low carb since there is no need to restrict intake of higher carb vegetables (such as butternut and sweet potato) or fruit. However, a true Paleo diet excludes all forms of dairy.
  • With this diet, you have to be prepared to do kitchen time to find ways to incorporate all those essential nutrients into your tot’s diet in a toddler-acceptable way. If you don’t have the time, and your toddler’s diet becomes too high in protein, it will have serious implications for kidney function.

Top tips

  • Birthday parties are always difficult. Take your own snack packs or cupcake so your child doesn’t feel isolated.
  • Follow the same diet as your toddler. You don’t want him to feel that he is being punished by
    dietary changes.
  • If you’re cutting out a particular food group, educate yourself on potential deficiencies and avoid replacing one potentially bad food with another.
  • Your child’s health, both physical and emotional, is more important than any belief system. If your child isn’t doing well on a particular diet, it’s time to speak to a healthcare professional.
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