A guide to healthy sugar consumption in toddlers

Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist


Sugar is everywhere, and the trouble is, a lot of the sugar we eat can be hidden in the food we buy – and often in foods we wouldn’t expect! It is no secret that a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet is essential for toddlers’ growth and development, and this includes keeping a close eye on their sugar consumption. The question of just how much sugar is healthy for young children to consume is one on many parents’ lips. Our guide below aims to demystify sugar consumption and provide tips and advice on how to keep your child’s sugar intake within the recommended amounts.

Did you know that?

  • Some breakfast cereals contain as much as 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons, of sugar in a small 30-gram serving
  • One medium carton of tomato soup can contain up to 7 teaspoons of sugar
  • A jar of ready-made pasta sauce may contain around 8 teaspoons of sugar
  • One squirt of ketchup contains over one teaspoon of sugar

The impact of too much sugar 

According to recent figures from Public Health England (PHE), the average UK child exceeds the recommended level of sugar intake for an 18-year-old by the time they reach the age of 10. The report also highlights how children, on average, are consuming around eight excess sugar cubes a day (or 2,800 excess sugar cubes a year).

Consuming too much sugar can contribute to the build-up of harmful amounts of fat, having a negative effect on a child’s health. The overconsumption of sugar is linked to a host of health problems, including skyrocketing rates of obesity and illnesses such as type-2 diabetes, with cases being recorded younger than ever before. The risk of developing heart disease and some cancers is also higher.

Painful tooth decay is another result of increased added sugar intake, with recent figures from PHE showing more than 100 children a day are having teeth removed in UK hospitals due to decay. Tooth decay can be easily prevented by establishing healthy eating practices and good cleaning habits early on, and it is advised that toddlers have a dental check by the time they turn two.

What to give and when

Whilst the negative stigma attached to sugar remains, cutting out all sweet foods, or those with added sugars altogether is not essential or realistic. It is also important to remember that fruits, starchy vegetables, and milk all contain naturally occurring sugars, as well as vital nutrients. As a rule of thumb, the steps below give some guidance about the amount of sugar young children should be given:

  • Try to avoid any drinks with added sugars, including squash, flavoured waters and fizzy drinks. Fruit juice can be offered once per day diluted with water (1:10) and is best offered with a meal.
  • Biscuits or cake can be served with fruit to make a nutritious pudding, but these should only be given a maximum of once a day. Chocolate and confectionery however should be limited to occasional meals and should not be offered more than once a week, with the same rule for savoury snacks high in salt.
  • Up to two years of age: Toddlers under two years of age have lower energy requirements and it is recommended to not offer any sweet puddings, cakes, biscuits, confectionery and chocolate. Savoury snacks often high in salt such as crisps should also be avoided.
  • Over two years of age: Small amounts of sweet food and salty snack foods on an occasional basis can be introduced to toddlers over two years of age and are best given on a weekly basis. These snacks should be offered alongside a balanced diet and should not be given as a reward, as this can send a mixed and confusing message to toddlers.

Top tips to help reduce children’s sugar intake

  • Read food labels – Getting into a habit of checking the labels of packaged foods you often choose will help you get to grips with how much (if any) sugar is in your toddlers food. As a rule of thumb, try to choose foods with less that 5-10g ‘of which sugars’ per 100g. You might also find the traffic light labels on the front of foods an easy way to screen for foods with a high sugar content as these will be coloured in red.
  • Be aware of other names for sugar – Added sugars come with many disguises, and often are misinterpreted as healthy. Remember you’re not always looking for ‘sugar’ in the ingredients list, other names of added sugars include: honey, any ‘syrup’ or ‘nectar’, fruit concentrate, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, molasses and treacle.
  • Freshly preparing meals – Although not always possible, preparing meals at home ensures more control over the food that your toddler eats and the ingredients used. This also makes it easier to steer away from processed foods and easily incorporate healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables into meals.
  • Out of sight, out of mind – Keeping foods high in fat and sugar out of sight of toddlers is also advisable to help remove temptation. Consuming these foods in moderation is not harmful, however problems arise when toddlers consume these foods in excess.
  • Swap for low sugar alternatives – Here are some lower sugar foods – and guide portion sizes – which can be offered as an alternative to foods high in sugar, to help nourish toddlers in this time of critical development:
High sugar food Lower sugar alternative Portion size
Sugar or chocolate coated cereal Whole-wheat biscuit cereal ½ – 1½ biscuits
Muffin Malt loaf ½ – 1 slice
Ice cream or high sugar yoghurt Low sugar yoghurt or plain natural or Greek yoghurt 125ml
Jam Peanut butter ½ – 1 tablespoon
Toffee popcorn Unsweetened and unsalted popcorn ½ -1 small cup
Sugary drinks Water infused with fruit pieces 100-150ml


Found our guide to sugar consumption in toddlers useful? Find out more on healthy eating here, and be sure to share with your friends and family!

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Further Reading

  • By Melanie Pilcher and Dr. Gillian Harris Establishing bedtime routines for toddlers and young children
  • By Dr. Gillian Harris, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Applied Developmental Psychology at the University of Birmingham and ITF member Most parents will struggle at some point to get their toddlers to eat certain foods. Is toddler food refusal a sign of an eating disorder. or is it merely a phase? In the run up to Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Gill Harris provides practical advice to help parents tackle fussy eating in toddlers.  
  • By Lucy Upton, on behalf of the Infant and Toddler Forum On behalf of the members of the Infant and Toddler Forum, I am proud to announce the launch of a new infant feeding educational programme, which includes practical resources for frontline healthcare professionals (HCPs) working with parents and infants.