By Lauren M. Koch, RDN
Hellooooo there moms and dads! I have a confession: My name is Lauren, and I’ve lost my way.
I realized it a few days ago, after speaking with a fellow dietitian and entrepreneur Gisela, the brains behind B Nutrition and Wellness. I started this blog to spread inspiring, evidenced-based nutrition information on to parents. But somewhere between taxi-mom duty, an attempt to master Instagram marketing in 0.58 seconds (p.s. it’s not possible), and the basic struggle to keep a household on the rails, I forgot my purpose. So for that, I’m sorry. I will do better!
Because as the old saying goes, “write what you know.” And if I know anything, it’s managing to get good, healthy foods into three very different kids. In the tiny pockets of time that a busy working mom, with busy active kids, has available (not much).
In chapter 1, we went over when and how to start introducing food to baby. If you think your babe is ready for solids, jump over to that article first before coming back here. Today, I want to cover the nitty-gritty of WHAT they need, from a nutritional standpoint. Let’s look at the official recommendations first, then some examples of how to meet them.
Here’s a fun fact: your little tiny human has pretty much the same nutritional needs as a larger human. One big difference being in the number of calories they need daily. Adults need roughly 12-18 calories per pound of body weight, depending on our age and activity levels. Babies, however, need more calories per pound because of how rapidly they grow and develop during the early months. I mean, it feels like they get bigger overnight, right? They do! And they need more calories and nutrients to support that growth. After the first year, their calorie need backs off as rate of growth slows. Here are some *general* guidelines as to how many calories your babies & toddlers need. If you are concerned about your child’s growth, please speak with your pediatrician and a pediatric dietitian for personalized recommendations!
- 0-12 months: 35-50 calories per pound
- 12-24 months: 35-40 calories per pound
It’s important to note, that while they need more calories per POUND, they also weigh a lot less than us parents. So they end up needing far fewer total calories than we do. The average 12-month-old needs no MORE than 1000 calories per day, usually closer to 900. And that brings us to our next point.
Make Their Calories Count
While calories needs differ, our tiny humans otherwise have very similar nutrients needs as we do. They should consume a good variety of foods from all the major food groups: proteins, starches, fruits, vegetables, and brain-building fats. You’ve probably heard that they “need” 2 cups of milk as well. But if your kids don’t drink milk, as mine don’t/didn’t, rest assured that all of the key nutrients found in milk (Calcium, Vitamin D, Potassium, protein, and fat) are also found in many other foods.
I often get asked why I never gave my kids milk. That’s probably a topic for another day. In short, I never wanted them to get accustomed to drinking anything other than water. Habits are developed early. When they are thirsty, I want them to reach for water. Not juice, milk, lemonade, or any other caloric beverage. It’s not that those things are off-limits, they are just not part of our daily life. With sweetened beverages being a major driver of excess childhood weight gain, it seems especially important to rely mainly on water for hydration. But let’s get back on course here.
How to Meet Those Calorie Needs
So. Their calories needs are lower, got it. But, because they still need all the same fruits, veggies, protein, starches, and fats, it’s extra important that all the foods they eat fall into one of those categories. We really can’t afford to fill them up with empty calories like processed snacks, or sugar-sweetened treats. Here’s a basic idea of how much a 12-month old needs from each of the basic food groups to meet their nutrient needs (according to the AAP):
- 1 cup of fresh fruit (not fruit juice)
- 3/4-1 cup of vegetables
- 2 oz whole grain starch
- 1.5 oz protein
- 2 cups milk, or milk alternative (breastmilk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, dairy-free milk)
Here is a quick cheat sheet on what an “oz” translate in real life:
- 1 oz whole grain starch: 3/4 c unsweetened whole grain cereal, 1/2c cooked oatmeal, 1 slice whole wheat bread, 1/3 c cooked brown rice, 1/2 c potato/sweet potato, 1/2 c cooked wheat pasta, 4-6 wheat crackers (Utilize the “Nutrition Facts” panel on your items to assess the what accounts for 1 oz of that specific product. Breads and cereal, for example, have a large range of nutritional content. It’s always best to check!).
- 1 oz protein: 1 egg, 1 slice cheese, 1 oz meat/poultry/fish (about the size of 2 dice), 1/2c beans, 2 tbsp cottage cheese, 2 tbsp nut butter, 6oz plain yogurt.
To meet a child’s fat needs, it is important to choose foods that are naturally a good source of healthy fats, like nut butter, seeds, avocado, whole milk cheeses and yogurt, eggs, and fish.
Let Them Be the Boss
Because the stomach of your average 12-month-old is still pretty small, their meals are also small. Aim to feed your child regular meals, plus small snacks in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Offer a small, nutritious bite to eat every 2.5-3 hours. And, as always, pay close attention to your child’s cues for hunger and fullness. It is very important to let them take the lead as to when and how much they eat. Often, kids will eat more earlier in the day, and very little in the evening. Some days they will eat a lot, and others not so much. As long as your child is following a growth curve that your physician is happy with, try to relax and let them direct the show. Allowing them to honor their own feelings of hunger can go a long way to maintaining a healthy weight in later years.
Think of it this way:
A parent’s job is to offer lots of healthy options.
A child’s job is to consume what they are hungry for.
And remember that happy baby who ate just about everything you offered? They may soon be replaced with a frustratingly picky toddler. This is also a normal (albeit extraordinarily tiresome) phase in your growing child’s development. Also a bigger topic for another post. But in short, do your best to continue to offer wholesome, healthy choices, and avoid the temptation to become a short-order cook. You’ll thank me later.
Let’s look at an example of what your typical 1-year old should eat in a day.
Sample Diet for a 12-month old
- 1/2c cooked oatmeal, prepared with 1c milk (or milk substitute like breastmilk, or hemp milk)
- 1/2 banana, sliced
- 1/2c fresh berries
- 1/2 grilled cheese (1 slice whole wheat bread + 1/2 slice cheese)
- 1/2c butternut squash cubes
- 6oz plain whole milk yogurt
- 1oz rotisserie chicken
- 1/2c broccoli florets
- 1/5th avocado, in slices
Does this volume of food surprise you? If yes, know that you aren’t alone. The above meal plan works out to almost exactly 900 calories, the amount your average 12-month-old needs for proper growth and development. With all the mixed messages in media, pressure from well-meaning family members and friends, and aggressive advertising from food companies, it’s no surprise that many parents are confused. But rest easy. It’s actually pretty difficult to underfeed a child. Stick with a good variety of whole foods, offered frequently, and you’re likely in good shape.
cover: Photo by Aaron Mello
Dairy case: Photo by NeONBRAND
Cereal: Photo by freestocks.org