Ask the Expert – Balancing Milk and Meat in a Toddler’s Diet

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on Littlestomaks.com. The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

Growing children need both calcium and iron in their early years. This week, Registered Dietitian Cindy Williams explains why you need to balance milk and meat for your toddler so he doesn’t miss out on these critical minerals.

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Cindy Williams, RD
  • New Zealand Registered Dietitian. Master of Public Health (University of Queensland, Australia) Grad. Diploma in Communication (Queensland University of Technology)
  • Over 20 years’ experience as consultant dietitian to food industry, corporate health, sports teams and media
  • Senior writer for New Zealand Healthy Food Guide magazine
  • Website: www.nutritionchic.com
  • Twitter: @nutritionchic

Question: How much milk and meat should I feed my child?

Answer:

Milk

Milk is an excellent source of calcium. Children need plenty of calcium to build strong bones and teeth. Up until 12 months a baby should not drink cows’ milk because the protein is too large for the baby’s immature digestive system. After 7-8 months babies can have a little cooked cow’s milk as part of a milk pudding or custard. Yogurt and cheese are also fine for this age group – and a great source of calcium. Babies who drink cows’ milk before 12 months are at greater risk of iron deficiency.

Up to the age of two children should have full fat cows’ milk. They need the extra energy from the fat for growth. After the age of two toddlers can drink reduced fat milk so long as they are eating a good variety of food.

Up until the age of five, health authorities recommend children should drink about two cups of milk a day. Some toddlers love milk and would be happy to drink it all the time. Stick to two cups a day otherwise they will fill up on milk and have no room to eat their meat and vegetables. Toddlers who regularly drink more than two cups of milk a day are at greater risk of iron deficiency.

In a day they could have milk on cereal for breakfast, a small glass of milk sometime during the day, a little cheese and perhaps a milk pudding or half a carton of yogurt. The amounts will vary according to the child’s appetite. Remember the parent decides the quality and the child decides quantity.

Meat

Meat, especially beef and lamb, is the best source of iron and zinc for a child. The type of iron found in meat is called heme iron and it is easily absorbed. Children can also get iron from non meat foods such as iron fortified cereal, legumes (split peas, dried beans, lentils) and green leafy vegetables. Only about 5% of this iron is absorbed but having vitamin C with the food will increase absorption. Give your child some vitamin C rich fruit such as orange or kiwifruit with their breakfast cereal and they will absorb about four times more iron from the food.

Research has found that children who eat fruit with their meals are less likely to be iron deficient than those who eat fruit between meals.

Babies are born with enough iron stores to last about six months. Premature babies have lower iron stores because iron is mostly stored in the last three months of pregnancy so it is especially important for these babies to start eating iron rich foods sooner rather than later.

At six or seven months a baby can eat cooked, pureed meat, chicken or fish. It provides essential iron for brain development but at this young age is still a top-up after the usual milk feed. By 7-8 months a baby should be eating two or three small meals a day with 2 tablespoons to 1/2 a cup per meal. Increase the amount gradually before increasing the number of meals. Include some cooked minced meat with mashed vegetables most days.

A one year old needs more iron than his or her dad. It is vitally important that toddlers get enough iron from their food. This is when their brain is developing the most rapidly. If they miss out on iron at this stage their brain will not develop to its full potential – and they can’t make up for it later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two serves of meat (or protein equivalent) a day for children under six years. A serve is 1oz of meat, fish or poultry or 1 egg or 2 tablespoons peanut butter or 4-5 tablespoons legumes. Remember to give your child an orange or piece of fruit with the egg, peanut butter or legumes to increase iron absorption. Give your child a mixture of meat, chicken, fish and vegetarian meals each week. Variety is good for both their health and training their taste-buds to enjoy different flavours.

KEY POINTS

  • Don’t drink cows’ milk before 12 months.
  • Toddlers should drink no more than 2 cups milk a day.
  • Eat fruit with meals rather than between meals.

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on Littlestomaks.com is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by Littlestomaks.com.