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Latest news about toddler food

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Six interesting findings about toddlers and food.

Do you have a toddler? Or do you work with families who have toddlers?

Last month (July 2023) the UK government released a very interesting report ‘Feeding young children aged 1-5 year olds’, which gave some stats and some recommendations I think you’d be interested in.

The findings of the report back up the Chilled Mama approach and messages covered in the Starting Solids Workshop and training for practitioners.

Here are six of the most interesting findings and recommendations, which might change how you do things.

I've also made a short video about it.

1. New recommendation #1: After 1 year old children can have semi skimmed cow's milk as their main drink.

This was the biggest change it recommended. Previously the only recommended milks for 1 year olds and up were: breastmilk, whole cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's. The research showed that there was no detrimental affect to nutrition if the main drink, after one year, was semi-skimmed cow’s milk, rather than whole milk. Skimmed milk, or 1% milk, is still not recommended.

Note: this is a recommendation to the government. It has not yet become government advice to parents.

2. Interesting research finding #1: yogurts and dairy desserts were one of the highest sources of free sugars for 12-18 month olds and contributed 18% of free sugars.

I was a bit surprised by this, almost a fifth of sugar intake coming from yogurts. Then I remembered how much yogurt mine had! It’s an easy pudding isn’t it. Or snack.

The report recommends that dairy desserts and yogurts should ideally be unsweetened. This is a good reminder to us parents to be more canny shoppers, and check the labels for sugar content. It is easy to think that something is suitable for babies and children just because it is marketed to them, but standard adult/family yogurts are fine for little ones (being sensible about lumps of course). (And obviously not the ones with extra sugary bits you tip in.)

Did you know that government guidelines recommend 1-5 year olds have five meals a day: three main meals and two snacks? It also recommends that protein and dairy are included in at least one of the snacks. For example, cubes of cheese and slices of apple; peanut butter on toast; ham and crackers; hummus on pita bread slices; crumpet and butter.

3. Interesting research finding #2: 65% of 12 - 18 month olds consumed commercially manufactured foods, drinks, and snacks, and these contributed to 20% of their free sugar intake (one fifth of their intake).

So, another fifth of sugar intake is coming from commercially manufactured foods.

This didn’t surprise me. Many baby/toddler foods, snacks, and drinks have added sugar. Added to make it taste good, be consumed more, and result in anxious parents, who just want their child to eat something, to buy it more. On top of that most pouches contain pear juice or similar, in order to get the consistency for the food to squeeze out of the pouch. First Steps Nutrition Trust has a fascinating report on the nutritional content of commercial baby food including pouches. You can ask me for my summary of it.

Many parents think that commercial baby/toddler food must be a) suitable for their little one, and b) better for them than their home cooked food, especially if it usually a quick freezer food of waffles, beans and fish fingers. But actually what you cook at home is at least as good as baby foods, if not better. Avoiding overly processed foods is always a good thing, and commercially produced baby and toddler foods are some of the most processed foods.

One of the central recommendations of the report is that:

“Commercially manufactured foods and drinks marketed specifically for infants are not necessary to meet nutritional requirements.”

Commercially manufactured family foods or home cooked foods are fine.

4. Interesting research finding #3: 36% of 12-18 month olds (just over a third) had formula milk or 'growing up'/'toddler milks' and these contributed 50% of their free sugar intake.

Half! A third of one to one and a half year olds were having some kind of formula milk, and this was giving them half of their sugar.

Ah, the success of marketing. Ten years ago, or so, there wasn’t any ‘growing up milk’. Formula milk after one isn’t necessary, but let that not get in the way of profits! With typical marketing prowess, the formula companies created a product for a problem that wasn’t there, and then sold us the solution. I remember an ad for an over 1 milk. It had a parent carrying a vast sippy cup, the size of a kitchen sink, with the voice saying “If you want to give your child enough iron, you’d need to give them this much cow’s milk.” It went on to say that your child could get the same amount of iron from this small bottle of its milk. But milk isn’t generally a source of iron! I don’t get my iron from my milk, nor do you. One year olds get their iron from their food. But this marketing plays upon the fears of parents.

Parents worry enough about what their one year olds eat, and if they are getting enough. I know some parents give their children growing up milks to top up the nutrients. But the truth is that there is no evidence that it does that. The NHS website says:

“Growing-up and toddler milks are marketed as an alternative to whole cows’ milk for toddlers and children over 1 year. There’s no evidence to suggest that these products provide extra nutritional benefits for young children.”

The report did recommend that parents be mindful of offering iron rich foods every day, and to give children vitamins A and D (mind you vitamin D is recommended to adults too). Interestingly the research found that 1-5 years were, in general, getting more than the recommended vitamin C (must be all the fruit!), and the report recommends that vitamin C supplementation is not necessary.

The free sugar content of these milks is high, and these milk are classified as ultra processed foods.

“Drinks marketed as ‘growing-up’ milks and ‘toddler’ milks contain free sugars from the addition of extra lactose and maltodextrins. Maltodextrin is frequently used as a carbohydrate source and is mainly derived from maize (corn) or potatoes. Maltodextrin is produced from starch by breaking up the carbon chains to change its structure. Maltodextrin is easily digestible, being absorbed as rapidly as glucose in the body, and can be either moderately sweet or almost flavourless. It is commonly used as an ingredient in a wide variety of processed foods, particularly where bulk without sweetness is needed at low cost.” From First Step Nutrition Trust’s information on ‘Drinks for young children marketed as ‘growing-up’ and ‘toddler milk’’.

It’s also an expense we don’t need! First Steps Nutrition trust estimate that giving these growing up milks instead of cow’s milk increases the cost by 2-3 times. (same reference as above)

5. New recommendation #2: Government should consider strategies to promote and support breastfeeding into the second year.

I was really pleased to see this, with some caveats. Currently the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until two years or as long as parent and child wish, whilst the UK government recommends breastfeeding until at least one, so this would bring the UK in line with the WHO.

However, at the moment most women who start breastfeeding do not breastfeed for as long as they intended or wanted to, through no lack of promotion, but a great deal in lack of support. We know that 80% of women who have stopped breastfeeding by 6-8 weeks wanted to breastfeed for longer. Less than a quarter of babies (24%) are exclusively breastfed at six weeks, with 21% of mothers and parents juggling breastfeeding and bottle feeding. By six months only 34%, just over a third, are breastfeeding (including combined feeding). (2010 data from Unicef UK Babyfriendly Initiative.)

So most babies aren’t breastfed till one, let alone two. Let’s focus on that! Parents wanting to breastfeed experience many barriers, from birth experiences, such as induction, that make breastfeeding harder, to bad advice from ill trained staff, and wider lack of support once home, from professionals and society. I’d like to see improved support for breastfeeding in the early days.

6. Interesting research finding #4: repeated taste exposure to a vegetable (around 8 to 10 times) can increase consumption of that vegetable in the short term (less than 8 months).

The report goes on to recommend that children 1-2 years should be encouraged to try a wide variety of foods (tastes and textures).

There were many other recommendations that were no surprise, but I decided to highlight this one as it is a good reminder to us all to keep expanding our children’s food experiences, including with foods we don’t like! And to persevere in offering foods that get turned down at first.

I also found this interesting as this suggests that far fewer exposures are needed that I had previously come across, and I will change my Starting Solids Facilitator training to update this fact, and from the other points.

What do you think of these recommendations and findings? Will it change what you do, or say? Anything surprise you?

Overall, I was really pleased that the report supported the messages and approach I promote in the Starting Solids Facilitators training and the Starting Solids Workshop.

Let me know if you’d like a copy of my summary on Commercial baby food, or my free guide to starting solids for baby group leaders, or info about training etc. Notes:

  • This report was making recommendations. The government hasn't yet changed their guidelines.

  • Free sugars are added sugars, or those in foods that have been processed, such as fruit juices. Not free sugars are those naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, dairy etc.

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