6 brain foods for your toddler and how to serve them

You are what you eat—especially in the years before age two. Here’s how to make sure your little one is getting the nutrients they need to thrive.

6 brain foods for your toddler and how to serve them

Illustrations: Justine Wong

You knew your baby needed wholesome, nutritious food to grow, but did you know that what they eat also helps their brain develop? “The first 1,000 days of life, from conception until age two, are the most important for brain development,” says Molly Schoo, clinical dietitian, NICU, Paediatrics and Obstetrics at Mississauga Hospital. After introducing solid food at six months, it’s important to start thinking about safe, kid-friendly ways to incorporate these valuable nutrients into your kid’s diet.


Realistic illustrations of a glass of milk, a soft boiled egg, tofu, beans, an egg muffin, scrambled eggs and an egg wrap all containing protein Illustrations: Justine Wong

Protein is needed to build the structure of the brain and contributes to its size. Neurotransmitters, which send messages to other parts of the brain and tell the body what to do, are also made of protein. Beans and lentils, meat, cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and nuts and seeds are all high in protein.

1. Mini egg cups Combine egg, grated cheese, shredded zucchini and butternut squash and pour into muffin cups; bake until set.

2. Scrambled egg Make a scramble with egg, feta cheese and chopped red peppers.


3. Egg wrap Scramble egg, then wrap in a tortilla with tomato.


Realistic illustrations of a shrimp, mussels, beans, lentils, chili and a quesadilla Illustrations: Justine Wong

Zinc helps the body process carbohydrates, protein and fat; promotes immunity; and helps with body tissue growth and repair. Find it in beans and lentils, cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts and seeds, shellfish and seafood.

1. Quesadillas Mash black beans with mozzarella cheese, fold into a tortilla, and grill to make quesadillas.


2. Chili Add red kidney beans and chopped bell peppers to a mild chili.

3. Lentils Serve cooked lentils in a small dish as a finger food.


Realistic illustrations of almonds, salmon, avocado, sunflower seeds, avocado puree, avocado toast and avocado spears all containing healthy fats Illustrations: Justine Wong

More than half the brain is made of fat, says Schoo. It helps build connections between neurons and the nervous system and protects brain cells from future damage. Foods that are rich in healthy fats include avocado, nuts and seeds, and salmon.


1. Creamy purée Blend avocado with half a banana to make a smooth, creamy purée.

2. Avocado toast Mash avocado and spread on toast strips for mini avocado toast.

3. Avocado dip Slice avocado into thick wedges and dip into chia seeds.


Realistic illustrations of cashews, spinach, meatballs, chicken strips and fried rice all containing iron Illustrations: Justine Wong


Iron is needed to carry oxygen from the lungs to the body and is vitally important for learning and growth. There are two kinds: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body and is mostly found in meat, such as beef, chicken, lamb, pork and turkey, and in fi sh. Non-heme iron is found in grain products, like infant cereal fortified with iron; cashew butter; lentils; soybeans; and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale—which all need to be consumed with vitamin C so that the body can absorb the iron.

1. Meatballs Make meatballs with ground chicken and serve with tomato sauce.

2. Chicken strips Prepare your favourite chicken breast recipe and cut into strips for your baby or toddler.

3. Mixed rice Chop leftover chicken and veggies and mix with cooked brown rice.


Realistic illustrations of a fish, a scallop, a broccoli, shrimp tacos, salmon spread and fish sticks all containing choline Illustrations: Justine Wong

Choline is super important while the brain is developing in utero and during infancy—it supports learning and memory—so pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should try to consume plenty of this nutrient. Recent research also suggests that it’s important for brain development through toddlerhood as well. Eggs, soybeans, chicken breast, broccoli, quinoa, fish and seafood (such as cod, salmon, shrimp and scallop) are high in choline.

1. Shrimp tacos Chop cooked shrimp and serve in a small tortilla with mashed avocado for a simple shrimp taco.

2. Salmon toast Mash cooked fresh or canned salmon with a small amount of mayonnaise and slather on infant cracker.

3. Fish sticks Make homemade fish sticks by slathering plain Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard and garlic on cod pieces, dipping in panko crumbs, and baking.



Realistic illustrations of hemp hearts, a smoothie, banana sushi and hemp flour all containing DHA Illustrations: Justine Wong

DHA plays a role in intelligence, vision, attention and impulse control by being responsible for the creation, movement, organization and connection of the brain’s neurons. Find it in fatty fish and seafood, ground chia and hemp seeds, ground flax seeds, walnuts and walnut butter, and omega-3-enriched eggs.

1. Chia smoothie Blend chia or hemp seeds in your favourite smoothie recipe.

2. Banana sushi Spread almond butter on a tortilla, add a banana, sprinkle with chia seeds, roll and slice into rounds.


3. Hemp flour Grind chia or hemp seeds into a fine powder and add them to an infant cereal.

Get the most out of your nutrients

Although the food and nutrients your infant and toddler eats is important for brain development, the environment in which your kids eat also affects brain health. “You can be serving all the right foods, but if you’re force-feeding or creating a less fun or calm environment, the child won’t get the same developmental benefits as eating the foods in a calmer environment,” says Schoo. Never force-feed your baby or toddler or use food as a punishment or a reward for good behaviour.

This article was originally published on Dec 10, 2020

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