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What should your toddler eat?

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family eating mealThe following guest post was written by Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert and author.

Quick question: How much sugar has your toddler consumed today?

I’m betting you have a pretty good idea. OK, maybe you can’t break your estimate into actual grams, but you probably know whether your child has consumed a little, a moderate amount or a lot. In short, sugar is on your radar, both because you want to minimize sugar-induced rushes and crashes and because you know that, in the long run, high sugar consumption has been linked to several adverse health conditions and lower overall diet quality.

Now, answer this: How much sodium has your toddler consumed today?

If you’re like most parents, you probably haven’t a clue. Sodium just doesn’t typically get the same amount of attention as sugar. However – it should - because sodium is linked to health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Researchers from Tufts University, the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, and the Imperial College London concluded that 1.65 million deaths worldwide in 2010 were attributable to high sodium consumption.

So what’s that got to do with your kids?

The taste for salt—the salty habit—starts early in life. And, as you probably know, eating habits that begin in childhood tend to stick around.

But this isn’t just a long-term thing. Sodium is everywhere—not just in potato chips. That’s right. Wish your kids liked eating peas? Sick of fighting over soda? Think about limiting your kids’ salt consumption.

Consider these two research findings:

  1. One reason kids reject fruits and vegetables is because they don’t provide the same “flavor hit” as the intensely sweet and salty foods kids eat on a regular basis.
  2. Researchers have found a relationship between taste preferences for salty foods, and for sweet foods.”

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends an upper limit for sodium of 1500mg per day for children ages 1-3. Most kids this age consume more than 500 mg over that limit.

The top six sources of sodium in the average child’s diet might surprise you. They are :

  1. Pizza
  2. Bread and rolls
  3. Cold cuts and cured meats
  4. Savory snacks
  5. Sandwiches
  6. Cheese

It’s very easy for toddlers to hit (or surpass) the upper limit of sodium intake. All it takes, for instance, to top out at over 1500mg of sodium is:

  • Half a bagel with cream cheese in the morning (267 mg)
  • 1 serving of baked cheddar fish crackers (250 mg) for snack
  • 3 chicken nuggets (324mg) at lunch
  • 1 mozzarella stick (175 mg) for snack
  • 1-2 slices of frozen cheese pizza (724mg) for dinner.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these foods, when they don’t, as a group, dominate the diet. But some research shows that most child-friendly foods are high in sugar, salt and fat. And that’s the point. Regularly feeding your kids too much sodium is unwise, both for short- and for long-term reasons.

But here’s the good news.

You don’t have to track salt to reduce your kids’ intake of sodium. You simply have to feed your kids healthier options most of the time, and think about tapping into the top 6 heavy-sodium-hitters as treats to be enjoyed occasionally. When you do feed your kids these foods, select the lowest sodium options available and add fruits and vegetables such as red grapes or carrot sticks to the meal. Not only will this strategy reduce your kids’ sodium intake, it will improve their overall diets.

Offering kids a variety of healthier options over time may make them more receptive to different flavors—that’s good news for fruits and vegetables—and more prepared to enjoy a lifetime of healthy eating.


Dina Rose Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert and author.

Read her full bio.







 The American Heart Association’s blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.