Key Messages

  • The 2020 DGAC says “every bite counts” when it comes to feeding infants and toddlers because it is a critical period for growth and development that is characterized by high nutrient needs in relation to the amount of food consumed.
  • The DGAC emphasizes offering developmentally appropriate forms of nutrient-rich animal- sourced foods, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products, as well as nut and seed containing foods, fruits, vegetables, and grain products in age-appropriate forms.

While children develop at different rates and individual circumstances can influence feeding needs, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee summarizes, “A general principle is to view the period from ages 6 to 24 months as a continuous transition from diets appropriate for infants to diets that resemble family food patterns.”1

6 to 12 Months: Provide Complementary Foods with High Nutrient Density

During the first year of life, human milk or infant formula contribute a substantial proportion of total energy. When an infant is developmentally ready (around 4 to 6 months), complementary foods can be introduced.1

The 2020 DGAC recommends:

  • “…consumption of meat, egg, and seafood is an important strategy” for providing key nutrients such as iron, zinc, choline, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • “Fortified infant cereals can contribute a substantial amount of some of these nutrients, particularly iron and zinc…”
  • “…fruits and vegetables…rich in potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C…not only to provide adequate nutrition but also to foster acceptance of these healthy foods.”
  • “Introduction of peanut products and egg is advised…” to help reduce the risk of allergies to these foods and “to provide good sources of fatty acids and choline.”
  • “…diets at this age include no remaining energy for added sugars and little energy for added oils or added solid fats.”

12 to 24 Months: Continue to Provide a Variety of Complementary Foods and Beverages with High Nutrient Density

In their analysis for 12 to 24 months, the 2020 DGAC started with the same proportions in the 1,000 kcal pattern for 2 years and older and then adjusted in order to meet nutrient needs for toddlers. Guidance was provided for caregivers1:

  • “Provide a variety of animal-source foods (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy),
    fruits, and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grain products, beginning at ages 6 to 12 months and continuing thereafter…”
  • “For toddlers ages 12 to 24 months whose diets do not include meat, poultry, or seafood, provide eggs and dairy products on a regular basis, along with soy products and nuts or seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains and oils.”
  • “Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars during the first 2 years of life.”

Overall, these carefully crafted guidelines emphasize “every bite counts” – that is, infants and toddlers are not able to eat large amounts of food, but require significant amounts of essential nutrients during this critical period for growth and development.

Importantly, the 2020 DGAC provided examples of what infants and toddlers should eat, and suggest research is needed to better understand how infants and toddlers should be fed. The Scientific Report states, “Establishing healthy eating habits during the first 2 years of life is critical. Although the individual experience shapes food preferences (e.g., tastes), the collective modeling of food choices in young childhood through direct observation of food intake by peers and adults also is paramount.” This statement is supported by research that indicates caregivers can play an important role in helping to shape children’s eating habits by providing healthy food in the home and by modeling eating behaviors.2,3  In other words, one of the best ways to help baby learn to eat healthy is by providing nutrient-rich options for the entire family!

  1. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. 2020
  2. Scaglioni, S., et al., Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours. Nutrients, 2018. 10(6).
  3. Yee, A.Z., M.O. Lwin, and S.S. Ho, The influence of parental practices on child promotive and preventive food consumption behaviors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2017. 14(1): p. 47.