Amanda Ursell, renowned TV nutritionist, answers questions for healthcare and nursery practitioners on toddler diets and the importance of early years nutrition
Why are toddler diets uniquely important?
It may seem hard to believe, but between the ages of one and three, toddlers grow faster than at any other time of life, gaining an astonishing 40 per cent in height and weight over these three short years.
Not only this, but a toddler's brain is very active. Add to this the energy needed to tear about, fall over, get up, rough and tumble and it begins to become clear why toddlers have some very specific and age-related nutritional needs.
Unfortunately many toddlers are not getting the right nutrients in the right quantities to meet these needs, with a government survey1 revealing that eight out of ten toddlers are failing to meet the recommended daily requirements for iron2 and nine out of ten are not getting the recommended vitamin D requirements.3
Too little iron can lead to toddlers having low energy levels as well as impaired development of the brain, which may have a negative impact on cognition. Too little vitamin D can compromise bone health, even leading to the bone condition rickets in severe deficiency.
While energy and micro nutrient needs are relatively higher than those of adults, toddlers need much less salt and sugar making it inappropriate to feed them adult-style pre-packaged foods.
Worryingly a recent survey showed that up to 81% of parents are however offering their toddlers these kinds of foods which shows just how important it is that we all get the right messages across.4
How can parents help their toddlers meet their nutritional needs?
Adopting sound and age-appropriate eating habits during toddler years can lay a really solid foundation for this crucial period of growth and development.
This involves establishing regular mealtimes with a breakfast-snack-lunch-snack-dinner (and possible extra bedtime snack) pattern being ideal, with water and milk being their main drinks. It is important to note however that milk intakes should not be excessive because it could leave toddlers so full that it puts them off their food.
Sitting and eating with children on each occasion can really help them to not only eat well, but to enjoy the meals and snacks being offered, helping them to feel secure in trying new foods and to broaden their experiences of new textures and tastes.
Certainly the toddler years can be tricky for parents and things won't, however well organised, always go to plan.
Neophobia for example is a completely normal phase of development when many toddlers suddenly fear new foods and resort to sticking with just a narrow range of foods they feel completely safe with.
Maintaining the normal pattern of meal and snack times and eating with them helps to pull through this phase unscathed nutritionally and behaviourally.
Even if toddlers are eating from all the major food groups and eating regularly and well, it is important to remember that supplementation with vitamin drops containing vitamins A, C and D is still recommended by the Department of Health up to the age of five to ensure these vital nutrients are well topped-up (these are available free of charge if you qualify for Healthy Start).
An alternative to this would be if a toddler drinks a Growing Up Milk daily; 300 ml will go a long way to meeting those vitamin requirements. Growing Up Milk also contains the key minerals iron and calcium as well as Omega 3 and 6.
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