Good Fats for an Infant's and Toddler's Healthy Growth and Development

Did you know that fat is one of the core macronutrients that your toddler needs for proper growth and development? The topic of fat in your infant’s and toddler’s diet is one that parents need to understand since fats are essential in their child's diet. “Fat” is classified as saturated, mono- unsaturated, poly- unsaturated and trans- fatty acids according to the structure and length of the fatty acid composition. Within each of these fatty acid classes, there are specific fatty acids: for example, omega-3 and omega-6 are two different polyunsaturated fatty acids, known as DHA, EPA and ALA and as LA, respectively.

It’s not always clear to understand the role these different fats can play in building a vibrant, healthy body and mind.  Certain fats (such as omega-3 fats) deliver real, significant health benefits for your toddler during these important years of brain growth, neural and cognitive development.

Here is a quick primer on some of the fats to include regularly in your toddler’s diet to optimize their physical and emotional growth, and where to find them.

According to the Institute of Medicine, Children ages 1-3 years old should have 30-40% of their total calories come from fats-which is about 33 grams of fat per day for each 1,000 calories consumed.

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs):

Omega-3 fats (DHA, EPA and ALA) play a critical role in a toddler’s cognitive, brain and eye development. They also support cardiovascular health[1].The Institute of Medicine recommends that toddlers age 1-3 consume 700 milligrams of omega-3 fats from DHA, EPA and ALA daily.

Some of the top food sources for your toddler include

  • DHA and EPA fats are naturally found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, chunk light tuna and barramundi.
  • ALA, an essential fatty acid, is found in plant foods such as walnuts, chia, flax and hemp seeds, as well as soybean and canola oils.
  • Certain brands of whole milk and eggs  are also fortified with DHA, EPA and/or ALA omega-3 fats
  • Some toddler foods are also selectively fortified with these fats, and can provide additional sources to help you meet your toddler’s needs.

Omega 6s.
Most of us get plenty of omega-6 fats in our diets, as the best sources include nuts, seeds, and sunflower, safflower, corn and soybean oils. Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6 fatty acid, as the body can’t make it on its own: the DRI for children ages 1-3 is 7 grams per day, or about 5-10% of calories.

Translating to the Table: What Do PUFAs Look Like?
Here is how that might translate into some common foods you may offer your toddler.

Food | Grams of Fat (PUFAs)

  • 1 tsp. olive, canola or peanut oil = 4.5
  • 1 slice cheddar (1 oz.) = 9
  • 1 medium egg = 5
  • 4 oz. yogurt = 4
  • 1 oz. avocado (1/5 of a medium) = 4.5
  • 1 pat butter = 4
  • 1 oz. cooked wild salmon = 2

Source: USDA Nutrient Database

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)
These fats support a healthy cardiovascular system[2], and are found in avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, and certain vegetable oils such as canola, olive and peanut. While there are no established DRIs for monounsaturated fats, these can be offered with confidence as a healthy part of your child’s total fat intake.

Saturated fat (SFAs) and cholesterol are essential nutrients for adequate growth and development of  children less than 2 years of age and should not be restricted in the diet. However, these are considered nutrients of public health concern for the general population of 4 years and older and recommended to be limited to maintain a healthy diet.

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, and are found in animal products such as beef, butter, bacon and ice cream, as well as coconut, palm and palm kernel oil. Parents with children under age 2 should offer modest amounts of foods with saturated fat to older toddlers and children.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans current recommendations: for children ages 2 and older, no more than 10% of total calories are recommended to come from saturated fat. That translates into about 11 grams of saturated fat in a 1,000 calorie toddler diet. 


[1] “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy.” Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Fall; 3(4): 163–171. ‘Monounsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Synopsis of the Evidence Available from Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrients. 2012 Dec; 4(12): 1989–2007.


[2] ‘Monounsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Synopsis of the Evidence Available from Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrients. 2012 Dec; 4(12): 1989–2007.