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Early Years Nutrition

Toddlers need to eat a variety of food from the four food groups:

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
  • Meat, fish, eggs, beans, and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • Milk and dairy products

Fruit and Vegetables

It’s good to introduce lots of different types from an early age, whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Make sure that fruit and vegetables are included in every meal. Different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals, so the more different types your toddler eats the better. But don’t worry if they’ll only eat one or two. You can keep giving them small amounts of other fruits and vegetables every so often, so that they can learn to like the taste. Some children don’t like cooked vegetables but will nibble on raw vegetables while you’re preparing a meal. Try putting them on the top of a pizza or puréeing them in a sauce.

Starchy foods

Starchy foods provide energy, nutrients and some fibre. Whether it's bread or breakfast cereals, potatoes or yams, rice or couscous, pasta or chapattis, most children don't need much encouragement to eat foods from this group. You can also give wholegrain foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice. However, it’s not a good idea to only give wholegrain foods because they can fill a child up before they have taken in the calories they need.

Milk and dairy products

Milk and diary products are a good source of calcium, which helps a child to develop strong bones and teeth. They also contain vitamin A, which helps the body resist infections and is needed for healthy skin and eyes.

From the age of one, you can replace breast or infant formula with whole cows' milk or carry on breastfeeding. Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of two, provided they are a good eater and growing well for their age. 1% fat or skimmed milk does not contain enough fat so is not recommended for children under five.

Try to offer 3 servings of calcium rich foods each day. This can be given as milk, or in the form of foods made from milk such as cheese, yoghurt or fromage frais.

Recommended Calcium Intake


Calcium needs*

Portion sizes

1-3 years

350 mg/day

100ml whole / semi-skimmed milk

80g yoghurt

15g cheese

These portion sizes provide approximately 395mg of calcium

4-6 years

450 mg/day

130ml semi-skimmed milk

100g yoghurt

20g cheese

These portion sizes provide approximately 510mg of calcium


At the age of one, children need less milk than they do as babies. It is important that children over 1 year do not fill up on milk before meal times.

*This is the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI); a figure set by the DOH which describes the amount of nutrient that is enough to meet the dietary needs of most people in a group (97%).


Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein

Young children need protein and iron to grow and develop. Try to give your toddler one or two portions from this group each day.

Meat, fish, eggs, pulses (for example, beans, lentils and peas) and foods made from pulses (such as tofu, hummus, and soya mince) are excellent sources of protein and iron. *Nuts also contain protein, however, whole nuts including peanuts should not be given to children under five in case they choke. Peanut butter is a popular snack at early years settings, but always check for allergies before offering to young children.

Oily fish is very good for brain development and so try to include it in your menu. It can be served as part of a main meal or at snack time as a dip (mix with cream cheese and lemon juice). Boys can have up to four portions of oily fish (such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines) a week, but it's best not to give girls more than two portions a week. This is because oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body.


Iron is essential for a child’s health. Lack of iron can lead to anaemia, which can hold back their physical and mental development.

Children who carry on drinking too much milk are most at risk from anaemia.

Iron comes in two forms. One is found in meat and fish is easily absorbed by the body. The other is found in plant foods and is not as easy for the body to absorb. Even a small amount of meat or fish is good because it helps the body to absorb iron from other food sources. If a child does not eat meat or fish, they will get enough iron if you give them plenty of: fortified breakfast cereals, dark green vegetables, bread beans, lentils and dhal, and dried fruit (meal times only) such as apricots, figs and prunes.


Foods containing fat, sugar and salt


Young children, especially those under the age of two, need the concentrated energy provided by fat. There are also some vitamins that are only found in fats. This is why foods such as whole milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish are so important.

At two years, you can gradually introduce lower fat dairy products and cut down on fat in other foods - (providing they are a good eater and are growing well) - so that by the time they reach five years they are eating a healthy low-fat diet like the one recommended for adults.


To help keep teeth healthy (in addition to brushing their teeth regularly and visiting the dentist), limit the amount of added sugar they have. Added sugars are found in fizzy drinks, juice drinks, sweets, cakes and jam.

Do not let the children in your care sip sweetened drinks. The longer and more often the sugar touches your child’s teeth, the more damage it causes.

Dried fruit and 100% fruit juice can also damage teeth, so it is best to give these to your child at meal times and not as snacks.


There’s no need to add salt (sodium chloride) to food for children. Most foods already contain enough salt. Too much salt can give them a taste for salty foods and contribute towards high blood pressure in later life. Try to limit the amount of salty foods offered, for example sock cubes gravy granules and baked beans, and always check the label.

Babies up to one year old should have no more than 1g of salt a day.

The maximum amount is 2g of salt a day for children aged one to three, and 3g a day for children aged four to six.


Would you like to learn more about Nutrition in Early Years?

Click here for information about the Eating Well for Under Fives course

Click here for information about the Nippers' Nutrition Programme