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How to design a balanced diet for babies and toddlers

The child’s diet is probably one of the main sources of anxiety for a parent: Is my child eating what they should? Am I offering all nutrients with the meal choices I make? How many times can I offer a particular food? These are some of your most common questions, which I’ll try to analyse below.

balanced diet for babies
Protein-iron: egg, Energy: avocado, bread, Fruit-Vegetable: avocado, tomato cherry

How is variety achieved?

Initially, let me mention that there’s no reason for all of us to become nutritionists and calculate if our little ones’ daily needs in each nutrient are satisfied. We can achieve that simply by offering a variety of foods throughout the week. When I write “variety,” I mean fruit and vegetables of all colours, a selection of cereals (wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, etc.) alternating between refined and whole-grain products, and proteins from different food categories, both plant and animal (meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts).  

What must a dish include?

Having clarified the issue of variety, let’s see how a child’s dish is created. It must include:

  1. A source of iron (like meat, seafood, legumes, fish) or protein,
  2. A source of energy, that is, starch and fats (like pasta, bread, olive oil, avocado),
  3. A vegetable or fruit.

That’s how a dish should be during the start of the transition to solids. As weeks and months pass and your baby is growing more familiar with the processes of eating solid food, you can obviously offer more food from each of these 3 choices, like 2 different vegetables and 1 fruit in the same meal, for example.

balanced diet for babies
Protein-iron: chicken, Energy: potatoes, Vegetable: potatoes, zucchini, leek, carrot

Regarding iron, it’s important to have food rich in that in 2 meals a day, something that applies to when your baby grows into a toddler as well, when their needs are even higher. So, in the beginning, and while your baby is eating 1–2 meals a day, it’s important for iron to be found in all of them. In the third meal, the iron-rich food can be replaced by another protein source, if you want, like dairy (cheese or yogurt, for example) that isn’t a source of iron. Now, we all will certainly make a few faster and easy-to-make meals, or we may not have some of the ingredients we needed to make the meal as outlined above. That’s not the end of the world and shouldn’t worry you too much! Just ensure that most of the week’s meals—and not all of them—follow this template.

balanced diet for babies
Protein-iron: chickpeas, sardines, Energy: chickpeas, olive oil, Fruit-Vegetable: spinach, leek

Is my baby eating the portions they need from every food group?

This is an issue that might create quite a bit of anxiety in the parents, either because their child is eating more fruits than vegetables, or because they’re eating less food in general, not satisfying the recommended portions for every food group for their age.

However, you shouldn’t focus on just that. Each child is different, with a different development and body type, something that should also indicate that they have different needs. As parents, the best we can do is offer balanced meals (as suggested above) and the child will decide what they will eat themselves. Besides, remember that we’re responsible for what we offer in every meal, so if our child has a specific food that we know they’ll prefer too much and cause health problems (for example, many fruits that might lead to intestinal issues), we’ll try to avoid including it in every meal.  

(I should note that Canada’s dietary suggestions are now focusing on the balanced dish and have completely removed the daily suggested portions for each food group for every age bracket, something that I consider to be positive, that might be adopted by other national nutritional guides in the future.)


  • Canada’s Food Guide:
  • Michaelsen K.F. et al. (2003).  Feeding and nutrition of infants and young children: Guidelines for the WHO European Region, with emphasis on the former Soviet countries.
  • Steyn N.P. et al. (2006). Food variety and dietary diversity scores in children: Are they good indicators of dietary adequacy? Public Health Nutrition, 9(5):  644-650
  • World Health Organization. (2009).  Model chapter for textbooks for medical students and allied health professionals.

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