Baby and Toddler Food: Top Tips on What to Look for on Ingredient Lists

Feeding kids is no joke! I get it more than anyone. I have three of my own and although they’re starting to help out more in the kitchen, the bulk of the responsibility still falls on me (including having my kitchen organized and stocked at all times). As a parent, your job is to decide WHAT, WHEN and WHERE your child is served food. Simply put, you determine where your child eats (hint – at the table most of the time, without distractions) when your child eats (scheduled meals and snacks about 2-3 hours apart is what I recommend), and what your child eats. This will help your kids to become mindful, intuitive eaters long-term, and really takes the pressure off of everyone.

What most parents find though, is the “what” part is tricky. The overwhelm often starts at the grocery store, because seriously you guys… you can get lost in there (even I do!). Throw a cranky toddler into the mix and it can make for a daunting task. Even just the baby aisle sends most parents’ heads spinning. It’s jam-packed full of foods made specifically for little ones and can be very confusing in terms of what to choose and what to leave. Which puffed toddler snack is better and why? What about the fruit and veggie pouches? 

The truth is – not all packaged baby and toddler foods are created equal. So, to help you feel confident in your food purchases (because we all need packaged, convenient foods once in a while), here are my top 5 tips on what to look for on the ingredient list when it comes to feeding your little ones.

Keep It Short: Short and simple is best when it comes to ingredient lists. To be honest, the ideal ingredient list would only have one ingredient! Apple, banana, eggs, and so on. Although there’s no visible ingredient list, whole foods are as simple as you can get. But realistically, whole foods are not going to be the only foods you consume. So, when looking at the label, look for a short list of ingredients that you can recognize. 

Keep It Real: Try to avoid artificial colours, flavours, and sweeteners, and aim to limit the number of preservatives down. Now there are processed foods, and there are ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods will have five or more of the super cheap ingredients, like white flour, corn syrup, oil, salt and preservatives. These ingredients help to reduce the cost and shelf life of these foods. Try to avoid ultra-processed foods if you can and choose minimally processed ones instead. Look for the most abundant ingredients (the ones at the top of the list) to be real, whole foods. For example, if you are purchasing a fruit and veggie squeeze pouch, make sure the first ingredient is either a fruit or veggie! 

Hold the Extra Sugar: This is a big one, especially when it comes to food for babies and toddlers. Kids have a natural affinity to sweet food. They’re no fools! But for kids under the age of two, added sugars aren’t recommended. For toddlers and kids over the age of two, the recommendation is no more than 6 teaspoons (or approximately 25 grams) of added sugar per day. What exactly is added sugar you may be asking. If you look at the ingredient list, an added sugar will be written as sugar in the form of glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and so on. Look for words ending in -ose and you’ve found sugar! You may be surprised to hear that added sugars also include maple syrup and honey. Although these sugars are more naturally derived, sugar is sugar! Foods flavoured with naturally occurring sugars will be written as apple puree or the whole fruit. You get the natural sweetness from the fruit, plus the bonus antioxidants, vitamins, and fibre.

Foods with too much sugar are often calorically dense and lacking in other nutrients, so the risk with little eaters would be nutrient displacement. Kids have small tummies so let’s make sure we fill them with nutritious food. Look for foods with natural sweetness from fruit or milk.

Choose Products with Whole Grains: Aim for whole grains when choosing starchy foods (most of the time). For kids, granola bars, crackers, and mini muffins are often mainstays. The majority of kids love starchy food! So always look for whole grains when possible. Oats, whole wheat flour, and quinoa would be great ingredients to search for. Whole grains provide essential vitamins and are loaded with fibre to help keep kids feeling satisfied.

Compare Nutrition Facts Panels (if you have time!) First and foremost, I ALWAYS recommend looking at the ingredients list to compare different products. If you don’t have much time, start and end there. If you’re a little more thorough and have lots of time on your hands, check out the nutrition facts panel. The nutrition facts panel is meant to help you determine the nutrient amounts within a product. Great! But when comparing two different products with different ingredients and different serving sizes, how do you know which one to choose? Good question.  

  • First step – make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. There’s no point comparing a package of baby puffs with a fruit and veggie pack because they’re totally different foods. Compare one brand of puff with another and compare one brand of fruit/veggie pouch with another fruit and veggie pouch. Makes sense, right? 
  • Next, check out the serving size. Make sure you’re comparing nutrients based on the same portion size. If one product is basing the nutrient information on a 30g serving, but the other product has a 50g serving, you’ve got to equalize them before comparing something like protein amounts. 
  • And finally, know what you’re looking for. In a granola bar, let’s say, you’d be looking for higher levels of fibre and protein and lower sugar content. In a yogurt container you would, again, want higher protein, and lower sugar. In a fruit and veggie pouch you’d want to look for lower sugar content and bonus if there’s protein or fibre! In a puffed toddler snack, you’d want higher fibre, lower sodium and protein would be a bonus. 

If you have more questions on how to compare ingredient lists or other important questions about feeding your baby, tune in to our monthly Facebook Live or submit your questions on social in advance and I’ll do my best to answer! 

Happy feeding!

Registered Dietitian, Blogger, Media Spokesperson
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