Dietary Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers

Did you know the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) update the dietary guidelines for Americans every 5 years? These updates are based on new research conducted by an independent committee that strives to provide transparency and include public input when possible. The committee doesn’t just look at trends related to current information on nutritional science; it also determines where future research efforts should be focused. This continued research is important as knowledge is gained regarding how and why people have different nutritional needs at different points in their lives.

The latest update to the guidelines provides insight into nutrition recommendations for different life stages and offers the following general guidelines (USDA and USDHHS, 2020, p.17):

  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  • Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  • Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits.
  • Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

It is vital to our health to maintain positive eating habits throughout our lives. Not only do good nutrition habits fuel our development, but healthy eating can also help to prevent chronic diseases. Therefore, it is important for parents to understand how to get infants started on a healthy nutrition path.

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the first edition, since 1985, to update nutrition guidelines that are specific to infants and toddlers. Those updates are outlined below.

Infants birth to 6-months old:

Feeding infants an exclusive diet of human milk is the healthiest option for the first 6 months of life. Families may also consider donor milk. If donor milk is the decided option, ensure you “obtain pasteurized donor human milk from a source, such as an accredited human milk bank, that has screened its donors and taken appropriate safety precautions” (USDA, USDHHS, 2020, p. 54). Sometimes, human milk may not be available to your family. In these situations, you should feed infants iron-fortified formula for the first year.

Infants 6-months to 1-year old:

After 6 months, introduce appropriate nutrient-dense foods to your baby, and continue to provide human milk or formula. Offering your infant food at this stage provides them with the nutrition they need and allows the infant to begin to experience different tastes and textures. Do not give up if your infant does not accept these foods! Remember, these foods offer your baby new tastes and textures, and it may take 8-10 offerings for infants to accept a new food experience. Following these guidelines has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, food allergies, and asthma.

How do you know when an infant is ready to be introduced to complementary foods? Some signs to watch for include the following:
  • Your child can independently control their head and neck.
  • Your child sits upright alone or with the support of a highchair.
  • Your child brings objects to their mouth with their hands.
  • Your child tries to grasp small objects, such as toys or food.
  • Your child swallows food rather than pushing it back out onto their chin.
Nutrient-rich foods that are good to introduce to infants include the following:
  • Iron-rich pureed foods, such as meats and spinach, or soft food in small pieces, like scrambled eggs;
  • Zinc-rich foods such as pureed beans, squash, cheese, and yogurt (no cow’s milk);
  • Soft or pureed vegetables, such as peas, broccoli, carrots, and lentils;
  • Grains, such as infant cereals fortified with minerals and vitamins.
When beginning to introduce your infant to solid foods, note there are some types of foods to avoid. These foods include the following:
  • Added sugars. Besides the normal health problems that can occur from ingesting excess sugar, infants are forming taste buds and may develop a preference for foods with high sugar content.
  • High sodium foods. As stated above, since food preferences are being formed, infants may develop a lifelong preference to high-salt foods if they are fed excess sodium.
  • Honey or unpasteurized products. Unpasteurized products and honey may contain organisms and bacteria that can cause serious illness or death in infants.
Toddlers 13- to 23-months old

At this stage of development, children should be relying on milk as a nutrition source less than they did previously. For the average toddler, professionals recommend that children consume 700-1,000 calories a day. Keep in mind that toddlers should not consume saturated fats. Toddlers should be eating a diet of “nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods (including lean meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, nuts, and seeds), dairy (including milk, yogurt, and cheese), and oils” (USDA, USDHHS, 2020, p. 63).

Healthy Diet Shifts for Toddlers
If you normally provide… Try making this diet shift…
cereal with added sugars cereal with lower amounts of sugar
canned fruit in syrups fruit canned in 100% fruit juice or fresh fruit
deep fried vegetables roasted vegetables
high-sodium meats ground lean meat
beverages with added sugars,
such as some juices
milk or water

You can learn more about healthy nutrition guidance for infants and toddlers, or the other life stages, at the Dietary Guidelines for Americans webpage Here you can view the full report and find additional resources that can help guide you and your family in making healthy nutrition choices.


U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2020). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 (9th ed.).

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