How Much Should Your Toddler be Eating?

Invariably, we always come back to the same discussion – is my son eating enough?

When it comes to children, especially Chinese children in families who live to eat, the question of how much a child should be eating is always the subject of a very heated debate.  Being raised in a family that is nutrition conscious, I have always wanted Gavin to get off on the right foot of healthy eating.  Unfortunately, being the highly selective eater that he is, I have succumbed to feeding him anything that he will eat because of the pressure from the rest of the family to make him eat.  And when the rest of the family feeds him foods like Kit Kat, chips and any other tid bits stocked in the house, I refrain from saying anything because I know they are concerned about his food consumption (or rather lack of).

In a Chinese family where food is love, it reflects rather poorly on the mother when her child refuses food.  It is almost as if I have failed to raise him properly or that I don’t care about his well-being just because I have not succeeded in correcting his habit of rejecting food and picking at his meals when he doesn’t like what is being served.  The fact that he isn’t eating a bowl of rice “like other babies his age” is also a sign of a bad mother – never mind the fact that I was also a “poor eater” as a toddler (never mind the fact that toddlers only eat about a quarter of what an adult eats so a bowl of rice is four times more than what an average toddler would eat).

Considering that I read in the Parenting section of The Star that 25% of all young children are picky eaters, I’m sure that there are plenty of other mothers out there who are under the same pressure I am.  Perhaps some are facing even more heat if their children happen to have “skinny genes”.  My son, at least, is above average weight for his age and he looks chubby enough for the paediatrician to laugh off our concerns about his poor food intake.  This fact is probably the only thing going for me in this battle to feed him.

Unfortunately, according to the statistics, the bad news is that some of these children don’t break out of the “picky eating” cycle until about 7-9 years.  Good grief!  That means I have another 5-7 years of this!  Alternatively, you could view it from a more positive light and relax in the knowledge that your child will eventually outgrow this fussy phase of eating.

Being tired of constantly being under fire about my son’s food consumption (or lack of), I decided to get the facts straight.  Here are some of the arguments versus the facts:

Sometimes when the topic is raised about how little Gavin eats, I defend him by stating he ate a lot for lunch or some other meal, etc.  The next argument that arises then is that my idea of “a lot” is actually very little.

So how much should a toddler really eat?  I decided to find out.

Both Parenting iVillage and Keep Kids Healthy confirm that the recommended food consumption of a healthy toddler should be about a quarter of the recommended daily intake for an adult.  Hence the expectation that Gavin should be able to finish a bowl of rice on his own is unrealistic.  As for those kids who do (the examples that have been cited to me) – they’re either overeating or they are an exception to the norm.

Since Gavin is a nursing toddler, I thought it was more appropriate to check the advice of KellyMom who outlines the nutritional guidelines for nursing toddlers.

“Your child can continue breastfeeding just as often during the second year, but offer solid foods a few times a day. After 12 months, you can begin offering the solids BEFORE baby nurses, if you wish, instead of after. Your milk is still an important part of baby’s diet and will offer him many benefits (nutritionally, immunilogically and emotionally). There is not any particular “recommended number of times per day” that a toddler should be nursing. Some are only nursing once or twice a day, while others continue to enjoy lots of time at their mother’s breast. As baby slowly moves into eating more solids, your milk will fill any nutritional gaps nicely. Once you do start to breastfeed less often, remember that you must make a greater effort to ensure that your child eats several meals of nutritious food each day.”

Gavin nurses as and when he pleases – usually before naps and before bedtime, and during car rides if I’m not driving, or just before if I am.  He hasn’t shown an inclination towards cow’s milk which is also fine since breastmilk is better for him anyway (it contains higher fat content and it is species specific so all the nutrients are easier for him to absorb).  Cow’s milk is just a convenient supplementation if your toddler isn’t getting enough breastmilk (i.e. nursing less than 3-4 times a day, which Gavin is not).

Another thing that a lot of sites have echoed is that toddlers do not need as much food as we think they do, especially because their rate of growth slows between the age of 1 to 5 years.  So often when we think they aren’t eating enough, they really are.  The important thing is not to look at how much they are eating but to observe their behaviour and growth to ensure they are healthy.

“Some children take a little longer to begin taking solids well. Some of them have food sensitivities and this may be their body’s way of protecting them until their digestive system can handle more. Others are late teethers or have a lot of difficulty with teething pain.”

Yup, that’s definitely Gavin.  Until now, he’s only got one of his lower molars although I can feel the bumps for more teeth coming up.  When the tooth is breaking the surface, Gavin often loses what little appetite he has for food and wants to nurse more.

“At this point there is NOTHING that your milk lacks that your child needs, with the possible exception of enough iron. As long as his iron levels are within acceptable levels and when he does eat you are offering him foods naturally rich in iron, then you have plenty of time before you need to worry about the amount of solids he’s getting.”

I was initially worried about whether he was getting enough vitamins but obviously I can relax a little since he is eating enough foods that are calcium rich.  Clearly the multitude of bottles of vitamin C tablets for kids on the shelves of pharmacies are intended for children who have been weaned because breastmilk does contain vitamin C and quite a bit of it, too.

KellyMom recommends that:

“All you need to do is to continue to offer foods. Don’t worry if he’s not interested or takes very small amounts. Your only true responsibility is what you offer, when you offer it and how you offer it, not whether or not he eats it. That has to be up to him. Trying to force, coax, or cajole your child into eating is never recommended. Continue to nurse on demand, day and night, and trust your child to increase the solids when he’s ready. As baby slowly moves into eating more solids, your milk will fill any nutritional gaps nicely.”

The general recommendations for feeding is to allow your toddler to graze throughout the day.  For instance, three small main meals plus two to three snacks.  In reality, some toddlers may end up only eating one main meal a day but so long as you offer (don’t force), you’ve done your job.  As long as your toddler is active, happy and alert, hitting all the developmental milestones and growing, you have nothing to be concerned about.

Looks like I can relax again…

Out and About

Updated 1/12/08: This post is on the Carnival of Kid’s Health – have a wander over there to read more articles about keeping your child healthy.


  1. figur8 says:

    You’re very welcome Nancy! The subject of toddler eating is a very touchy one filled with stress and tension. I’m glad this post has helped you in some way.

  2. Nancy says:

    This makes me feel a lot better!!!


  1. […] learning more about how much breastfeeding toddlers should be consuming, perhaps I had jumped the gun a little.  If I had done a little more research earlier, I might […]

  2. […] extra teeth can do to a toddler’s intake of food.  Although there had been concern over the quantity of his food consumption initially, I think that concern has relaxed now that he’s eating much more heartily.  He is […]

  3. […] is telling us in details about how much should toddler be eating, a great support for the moms of picky […]

  4. […] How Much Should Your Toddler be Eating? […]