Healthy eating for tots
Imagine a day in which every meal your toddler or child ate was the most nutritious possible. Now find out how easy it is to give him these kinds of meals every day

Feeding a toddler can be very tricky, and in order to avoid a battle of wills we often give in and give our children whatever they are willing to eat, forgetting about the overall nutritional content of their diets.

Celeste Naude, a registered dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre, University of Stellenbosch, says:

“Toddlers are at the age where eating habits for later life are established and it’s therefore important that a positive attitude towards food is formed and sound eating habits are developed.”

Remember that your toddler is still growing at a very fast rate, needs loads of energy and should be eating three meals as well as snacks each day.

For each of these we’ve given you an example of the ideal meal, a meal that is still healthy and an option that is best left for desperate times.


It’s vital that your toddler gets the best start to his day. Sugary cereal is a no-no. While you might argue that it’s all your tot will eat, Patrick Holford, nutrition guru and author of several health and nutrition books including Optimum Nutrition For Kids, says, “Feeding your child sweetened cereal for
breakfast is like giving him rocket fuel.”

Patrick explains that while you may be pleased that your child has begun the day with a full tummy, it won’t stay full for long.

The ideal breakfast

Give your toddler oats with milk and a few berries. The oats provide loads of fibre and low GI energy. This means that your child feels fuller for longer, and energy is released slowly yet
consistently throughout the morning. Milk provides the protein component of the meal. It’s also loaded with calcium.

Berries are without a doubt the most nutritious fruit you can give your toddler. Any berry, from strawberries to blueberries, is considered a super food because berries are packed with phytochemicals.

Also good

Wholewheat toast soldiers and boiled eggs. The combination of the carbohydrate and protein gives a slow, constant release of energy and makes your toddler feel full for longer.

Whole grains are rich in fibre and vitamin E. They are also a slow release form of energy, so your toddler will stay full for longer and his blood sugar won’t spike and dive.

According to Celeste, eggs are great because they are high in protein, iron, folate and vitamin B12. They are also easy to digest.

Orange juice is the best juice to serve with breakfast. It’s high in vitamin C (which helps with the absorption of iron) and potassium, and is also a good source of folate and thiamine. Pure orange juice contains several cancer-fighting phytochemicals.

Folate is especially important for your toddler as it’s necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells in his growing body.

When buying a juice for your toddler, look out for a label that reads “pure fruit juice”. Avoid labels such as punch or blend. These are not 100% fruit juice as they are often diluted with water and contain added flavourants or colourants. It’s far better to give your child a very small glass of fruit juice or a whole piece of fruit than to give him a fruit punch or blend.

Not so good

Peanut butter and jam on white bread. Not only does jam have a high sugar content, which means that your toddler’s energy will spike and dive, but white bread contains almost no nutritional value at all. The only good thing about this meal is the peanut butter – a source of protein and fatty acids.

Lunch options

The ideal lunch

A finger lunch is easy to prepare and makes it easy for toddlers to feed themselves. Serve a slice of wholewheat toast cut into squares or fingers, with a few slices of cheese, naartjie wedges, some carrot sticks and a slice of chicken breast.

Also good

A wholewheat sandwhich filled with cheese or a chicken slice as well as a few slices of cucumber and some lettuce. Carbohydrates need to be served with a protein in order to become a balanced meal.

Not so good

A hot dog. The preservatives and nitrates in the sausage make this an unhealthy meal. Serve a chicken sausage on a wholewheat roll and you’re on your way to a healthier option.


The ideal supper

Homemade fish cakes are great for supper. When fish cakes are made with oily fish like salmon or snoek, they are an excellent source of omega fatty acids. These are important for the development of your toddler’s brain. Serve with some vegetables or brown rice.

Also good

Pasta is a complex carbohydrate, which means that it provides a slow release of energy. When your toddler isn’t using up this energy – when sleeping for example – it’s stored in his body as glucose and released as he needs it.

Pasta is also enriched with folic acid, which plays an important role in your toddler’s central nervous system.  Served with a sauce, preferably tomato-based to ensure maximum iron absorption, and small quantities of meat, fish or chicken and veggies, it makes a perfectly balanced meal.

Pasta is also really exciting for little ones as it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, so your toddler can choose his favourite kind.

Not so good

Chicken nuggets. Frozen meals are usually made from the lowest grade meat. Rather make your own nuggets by dipping chicken breasts in egg and breadcrumbs for a much healthier option.


Because your toddler is at a very active stage of his life he will probably get hungry quite often during the day. Snacks are the perfect way to curb this hunger and provide some essential nutrients.

Healthy snacks also provide the perfect opportunity to expose your toddler to new tastes and textures, so use snack time to its full potential.

The ideal snack

Fruit and vegetables provide fibre, vitamins, phytochemicals and energy to your toddler. Cut them
into bite-sized pieces that he can hold and munch on. Serve veggies with some humus. Your toddler loves being able to feed himself, and using his hands will stimulate his interest in new colours, tastes and textures.

Also good

Yoghurt makes an ideal in-between snack. It’s high in calcium, and loaded with “friendly bacteria” or probiotics, which help boost your child’s immune system whilst keeping his digestive tract healthy. Avoid yoghurt with extra additives, in order to get the most out of its vitamin B12, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium and zinc content.

When it comes to serving a beverage with a snack, diluted pure fruit juice or rooibos tea is the way to go. Rooibos tea is caffeine-free and a known antioxidant.

Not so good

Cookies and milk won’t be much of a nutritious snack. Although dairy is always great for your growing toddler, sugary cookies mean that his energy will spike and then drop back down quickly. Most store-bought biscuits also contain trans fats, so a better option would be to make your own oat biscuits.

Serve snacks at the same time every day so that your toddler doesn’t pick up the habit of grazing throughout the day.

What are phytochemicals?

Plants contain large amounts of “non-nutrient” compounds, called phytochemicals. These
are biologically active chemical compounds that play a large role in preventing disease. They act
as natural defence systems for plants, protecting them against infection and microbial invasions.

Phytochemicals also provide colour, taste and aroma to fruit and vegetables. When we eat
these plants, we absorb the phytochemicals, and reap the same benefits from them that plants do.

More than 2 000 plant pigments are considered phytochemicals, including flavonoids (found in
strawberries), carotenoids (found in carrots) and anthocyanins (found in berries).

Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables are usually rich in phytochemicals, and are often referred to as Superfoods. These include berries, carrots, beans of all kinds, broccoli, oats, pumpkin, spinach, tomatoes and yoghurt.


Celeste Naude, Registered Dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre, University of Stellenbosch

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