Skip to section navigation Skip to main content Help with accessibility

The importance of each nutrient in a healthy toddler diet

Health check


Your toddler is growing and developing in fascinating and incredible ways. This period of rapid change requires a diet rich in a variety of nutrients to support their health now and provide a healthy base for all future growth and development. Discover which nutrients are essential, and why, along with suggestions of foods to include in your toddler’s healthy diet.

Supporting your toddler’s development with a healthy diet

Between the ages of 1 and 3, your toddler is in a rapid and important period of growth and development. During this time, their weight will increase by around 40%, they will grow 25% taller and their organs will continue to develop to support their growing body.

Developmentally, they are progressing at an incredible rate. Increased physical and mental activity enables them to go from their first wobbly steps to running and jumping, and from baby babble to complex sentences. By their third birthday, your toddler’s brain growth will be 75% complete.

"Your toddler’s nutritional needs are different to yours; they require nutrients for growth and development, whereas your food only needs to sustain and maintain your adult body."

To fuel all this development, toddlers require a healthy diet, rich in a wide variety of nutrients. However, their needs are different to those of adults. Certain nutrients are more important at this stage, during which the foundations are being laid for all future growth and learning.

Key nutrients to include in your toddler’s diet are:


RNI of iron for toddlers = 6.9mg per day (RNI is the Reference Nutrient Intake – the amount of a nutrient considered to be enough to meet most people’s needs. It’s set by the Department of Health).

Iron is a trace mineral that performs many vital functions in the body. It plays an important role in the formation of haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. It also supports your toddler’s brain development, setting the stage for a lifetime of learning.

As a result, toddlers need nearly 5 times more iron per kilogram of body weight than an adult.

Although iron is found in many foods, over half of toddlers up to the age of 3 years aren’t getting the recommended amount of iron in their diets. A lack of iron can leave your child feeling tired and lethargic, while more serious iron deficiency anaemia can lead to serious health and development problems.

It’s important to make sure your child gets enough iron each day. The following foods are good sources:

Haem iron (the most easily absorbed):

  • Half a chicken breast – (approximately 60g) contains 0.3mg
  • Dark chicken meat – 60g contains 0.5mg
  • Hard-boiled egg – 1 whole egg contains 1mg
  • Thinly sliced roast beef or lamb – 1 slice (28g) contains 0.8mg
  • Sardines – 50g portion contains 1.4mg

Non-haem iron:

  • Spinach – 1 tablespoon cooked spinach contains 0.3mg of iron
  • Broccoli – 1 floret (20g) contain 0.2mg
  • Baked beans – 1 tablespoon contains 0.3mg
  • Wholemeal bread – 1 medium slice contains 0.6mg
  • Lentils – 1 tablespoon contains 0.7mg
  • Dried apricots – 1 dried apricot contains 0.3mg
  • Fortified breakfast cereals – 1 bowl (30g) contains 2.3mg
  • Aptamil Growing Up milk 1-2yrs – 300ml contains 3.6mg
Calcium is important for your toddler’s bone development – they need 3 times more calcium in relation to size compared to an adult


RNI of calcium = 350mg per day.

Calcium is important for normal bone development. It also aids blood clotting, nerve and muscle function and helps to keep teeth healthy as your child grows.

Toddlers need almost 3 times more calcium than an adult in relation to their size, as well as an adequate intake of vitamin D to help them absorb it.

Milk is an excellent source of calcium. However, your toddler shouldn’t have more than 600ml of milk in a day because it can fill them up and affect their intake of other foods and nutrients.

Good food sources of calcium to include in your child's diet are:

  • Whole milk – 100ml provides 118mg
  • Yogurt – 1 average pot (125g) provides 152mg
  • Fromage frais – 1 average pot (55g) provides 86mg
  • Cheddar cheese – 1 small chunk (20g) provides 150mg
  • Tofu – 1 slice (20g) provides 296mg


RNI of zinc = 5mg per day.

Zinc is an essential trace mineral found in all the tissues of the body. It is involved in growth, bone metabolism, wound healing and enzymatic function. It also affects your toddler’s sense of taste and smell.

Toddlers need more than 3 times the amount of zinc for their size than adults do, with a healthy intake contributing to optimal growth throughout childhood.

Zinc-rich foods for your toddler’s diet include:

  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Dairy foods, such as cheese
  • Bread
  • Cereals

Vitamin A

RNI of vitamin A = 400 micrograms (0.4 mg)

Vitamin A has many functions, playing a role in vision, skin and cellular health. A healthy intake of this vitamin supports your toddler’s future health by building a healthy immune response.

Vitamin A is found in:

  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Fortified low-fat spreads
  • Yogurt

Another source of vitamin A is beta-carotene, a substance found in dark green and orange vegetables and fruit, that the body can convert into a usable form. Include plenty of good sources in your toddler’s diet, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, swede, mango, spinach, dark green cabbage and kale.

Vitamin C

RNI of vitamin C = 30mg per day.

Vitamin C plays a major role in the functioning of your toddler’s developing immune system and is a natural antioxidant and antihistamine. By providing plenty of vitamin C in your toddler’s diet, you are helping to fortify the natural defences that will support them throughout their life.

Toddlers need 4.5 times more than an adult in relation to their size.

Rich sources of vitamin C for your child’s diet include fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly:

  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries and berry fruits
  • Oranges
  • Broccoli

Vitamin D1

RNI of vitamin D = 7 micrograms per day.

Well-known for its role in normal bone development, vitamin D has several other important functions. It plays a part in building a healthy immune system that will protect your toddler as they grow, aiding healthy immune function and defending against infections. This sunshine-generated vitamin is also associated with a reduced risk of allergies.

The main source of vitamin D is UVB rays from the sun. Unfortunately, the latitude of the UK means we only get sufficient levels of sunlight from April to October. The use of sunscreen, which is important to protect your toddler’s skin, provides another barrier to getting enough vitamin D naturally.

In fact, the average toddler intake of vitamin D is just 27% of the recommended daily amount from food sources alone.

Some foods contain vitamin D, but it’s difficult for toddlers to get the recommended levels from diet alone. This is why healthcare professionals recommend that toddlers are given supplements with vitamin D every day. Vitamin drops or a fortified growing up milk will help to provide your toddler with the intake they need.

Next Steps

Offer your toddler nutrient-rich snacks to increase their nutritional intake in-between meals:

  • Carrot sticks and hummus
  • Apple slices spread with nut butter or cream cheese
  • Yogurt with sliced banana
  • Grilled cheese on toast fingers
  • A hard-boiled egg

View references

Hide references

drop down arrow

1. Infant and toddler forum. Preventing vitamin D deficiency in toddlers [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: May 2014]

Last reviewed: 27th August 2014