The recently updated 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) ask us to “make every bite count.” This is an important message in a year when parents have faced challenges on so many fronts, including cooking for their families and eating at home more often than pre-pandemic. For parents feeding very young children, timely guidance in the form of the latest edition of the DGAs arrived at the end of 2020 when, for the first time, they addressed the diets of infants and toddlers.
Having a healthy diet is important in each stage of life, but never more important than from birth to two years. Beyond supporting an amazing first-year growth spurt when children triple their birth weight, early food choices also affect their health and shape lifelong taste preferences. Setting a strong foundation can truly be life-determining, as data indicates that children that are overweight when they are young face a continuing trajectory of weight gain as they get older.
The DGAs serve as the foundation for federal food policies such as the school meal programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC), and as a resource for healthcare professionals and policymakers. But the DGAs also offer clear and direct recommendations that can be followed by parents and caregivers, covering when to introduce foods, when to expose a child to allergenic foods like peanuts, and what foods not to feed infants and toddlers.
Some examples include:
- Breastmilk or iron-fortified formula only (0 to 6 months)
- Introduce nutrient-dense complementary foods (6 to 12 months)
- Introduce potentially allergenic foods (like peanuts, eggs, cow’s milk) (4 to 6 months)
- No added sugars in beverages or foods (i.e., no sodas, juice drinks, honey, maple syrup, toddler milks and toddler drinks, or sweet bakery products) (0 to 24 months)
- If 100% fruit juice is provided, up to 4 oz per day can fit in a healthy dietary pattern (12 months to 2 years).
- No plant-based milk alternatives (e.g., oat, rice, coconut, cashew, hemp, almond milks) (0 to 12 months)
- Limit consumption of foods and beverages higher in sodium (like processed meats, salty snacks, commercial toddler foods)
- Incorporate cow’s milk or fortified soy milk and avoid plant-based milk (12 months – 24 months)
- Consume a variety of foods from all food groups (lifelong)
Avoiding foods and beverages with added sugars may be the toughest guidance to follow, and a sticking point for some families. One place to start might be to avoid beverages with added sugars for this age group, advice that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American Heart Association (AHA) all recommend. Sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., juice drinks, sports drinks, drinks with water and sugar) displace nutrient-dense beverages and foods. As the DGAs explain, children younger than age two have virtually no room in their diet for added sugars given their lower caloric and higher nutrient requirements, and thus should be consuming zero grams of added sugars.
Although it may be hard to resist birthday cake on a first or second birthday, it is important to try and make every bite count when feeding young children. Offering them nutrient-dense food with little added sugar will help them transition to and follow a healthy dietary pattern across their lifespan.
The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI)
Infant and toddler foods are not generally advertised to children. The nineteen leading food and beverage companies and quick-serve restaurants that participate in CFBAI have pledged to advertise only foods that meet CFBAI’s strict nutrition standards to children under 12. Participants also pledge not to engage in any advertising primarily directed to children under age six.