We get it. It's hard to feed a toddler! Parents rank meals as one of the most stressful occasions of the day, so you’re not alone!
There are a number of reasons why a toddler may refuse to eat, and it's important to remember that these reasons are normal and common. For instance, they might eat a lot one day, and then not very much the next. So consider thinking of their food intake being measured in weeks rather than days because they fluctuate a lot.
Eating is a natural human instinctual behavior we all learn, so our job is to let them learn it. Even animals aren’t “made to eat”, we give them food and they eat it or not. Sometimes we parents try to treat our kids like plants, “feeding and watering them”. But really our job is to provide healthy foods, trust them to eat what they need, and help them develop healthy habits rather than worrying about how many calories they consume.
We found that trying to "get them to eat" can actually backfire, as any amount of control or pressure we use may have them rebel and eat even less.
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A simple way to think of it is it’s a parents job to provide healthy food choices, and it’s a kids job to decide what to eat or not. We even use this language with our kids when they complain about the food we gave or make a big deal about not eating something. We just say “it’s my job to provide you healthy foods, it’s your job to decide what to eat or not.”
Why A Toddler May Refuse to Eat
First of all, toddlerhood is an important development stage where they learn to have more control over their environment. Choosing what foods to eat or not to eat is one area they can have some control over, so they will exert it ferociously. The idea is to let them know it is up to them to eat or not, while also offering a variety of healthy foods and modeling healthy eating habits.
Other reasons why toddlers refuse to eat include their desire to explore their food or decide what to eat. An active toddler may have numerous snacks and drinks throughout their days, which may interfere with how much they eat at meals. Teething, growth spurts, and food neophobia (very rare) are additional reasons. Here's the breakdown t:
Your toddler’s eating habits
- Your toddler wants to explore with food
- Your toddler might want to play while they eat. Serve some fun finger foods with each meal (or try cutting existing foods in different ways, like with shaped cookie cutters). Let them play with it. “Playing” is a key way that they learn to explore and interact with their food.
- Your toddler is deciding what to eat
- Toddlers can get overwhelmed by too many options or portions that are too large on their plates, especially if many of them are unfamiliar. Try offering small amounts of 4-6 foods,, and always include something familiar commonly referred to as a “hero food”.
- Your toddler is getting nourishment from liquids and snacks and doesn't feel hungry
- If your toddler is filling up on liquids (like milk) or snacks (yes even healthy snacks) between meals, they may not be hungry at mealtime. Try spacing snack time a bit further from meals, and reduce the size of the snack if needed.
- Your toddler is teething
- Teething hurts! The pain may mean that your little one isn't up for eating. The good news is, it's only temporary! Try some of our tips for teething here!
- Your toddler has food neophobia or a fear of trying new foods
- Most toddlers have some amount of pickiness, but a true fear of new foods is very rare. Try to avoid any tendency to go down a Google spiral and if you feel like there is really a true fear, reach out to a health practitioner.
- Your toddler has preferences for certain colors or textures
- Why is it that toddlers seem to love beige food? Most toddlers have preferences for certain foods or types of foods, like crunchy textures. Try to identify preferences and then test out different forms of the same foods. For example, if your toddler doesn't like sautéed greens, try a crispy kale chip.
- Your toddler is experiencing pain or discomfort
- It might seem obvious, but nobody likes to eat when they're uncomfortable. Rule out any other sources of pain or discomfort like constipation (check out our tips on the poop topic here!). You can also check your toddler's position to make sure that they are comfortable in a chair or seat that fits them at family meals.
- Your toddler is tired
- Tired or overstimulated toddlers generally don't want to sit for a meal. Many parents find that dinner is the toughest meal of the day, especially when it is close to bedtime. Toddlers may also struggle in new environments, like at big gatherings or out at a restaurant if they are distracted by their surroundings.
Is Your Toddler Refusing to Eat? This is What You Can Do
Now we know some reasons your toddler might be refusing to eat. So what can we do about it? Here are some tips:
TRUST that they will learn to eat. Being patient starts with decreasing your own pressure, fear, or anxiety around what your toddler eats. This is important so that your little one can have their own healthy relationship with food and not eat just to try to please or displease you. Growing up in this culture, many of us developed our own issues with food, so this step may require a healing journey to reduce our own emotions related to mealtimes.
Have a meal schedule
Kids thrive with some routine. Establish clear snack times and meal times so that your toddler is hungry (but not too hungry) for their next meal.
Give your toddler small portions of 4-6 foods
Big servings or too many varieties of food can be overwhelming. Make sure your portion sizes are reasonable for their age. When in doubt, start with less food and refill their plate as needed.
Allow your toddler to play with food
Making mealtimes a sensory experience can help to combat picky eating. Let them play with food (yes, it can be messy) so that they can touch and taste different textures and flavors.
Use a divided plate
If your little one doesn't like when different foods touch, try a divided plate to separate out the different components of their meal, especially when serving a new food.
Provide a “No Thank You” Bowl
You can give your child an empty bowl and tell them they are welcome to put any foods they don’t want into the bowl. This helps them know they are in charge of what they eat, and gives them a better alternative to throwing that unwanted vegetable onto the floor!
Eat with your toddler
It can be way more convenient to quickly make kid plates to occupy them with food while you finish up work or make your own dinner. But this can foster picky eating. Try to avoid separate meals and instead set a good example of eating the same thing that they are to help establish healthy eating habits.
Check your toddler's oral and motor skills
In general we try to avoid the tendency to pathologize normal toddler behaviors (which is totally normal for parents!). However if you observe some of the following behaviors when your child eats, you may want to consider an evaluation by a specialist.
- Slow or inefficient chewing
- Food left in the mouth
- Food falling from the mouth
- Excessive Gagging (a little is normal)
- Excessive Coughing or choking (a little is normal)
Check if your toddler is in pain or sick
It probably seems like a no-brainer, but remember that your toddler's appetite will likely decrease if they aren't feeling well. Many parents worry about nutrients when their kids are sick, but hydration is more important.
Check if your toddler is comfortable
Are the high chair straps too tight? Do they have a dirty diaper? Rule out any discomfort that might be making them hesitate to eat.
Give your toddler healthy food combos
Pair new foods with favorite foods so they feel "safe" and not overwhelmed by too many unfamiliar things on their plate. This is often called a “hero food”.
Fun dips and sauces can help combat picky eating by giving your toddler a familiar flavor and a way to play with their food. We like the ones from Primal Kitchen and Kite Hill. You can also use our Baby Food Purees as a dip.
Shop and cook together
Bring your toddler into the meal planning and prepping process by involving them in meal selection as well as shopping for and cooking meals. Many parents find that kids are more likely to try something new when they can help pick it, and when they're in the process of preparing it.
Avoid junk food
Of course there will always be treats in your toddler's life and we don't think it’s ever necessary to restrict all treats. But keeping the pantry and fridge stocked with nutritious foods rather than junk food helps to make nutritious foods the default. We know that hyper-palatable processed foods that typically contain sugars and grains can have addictive properties, and therefore may interfere with your little one's desire for a more nutritious balanced diet. Read our division of responsibility tips here if your child would only like to eat junk food.
Avoid punishment or rewards
We have to always remember that the most important thing is that our children develop a healthy relationship with food. The last thing we want is for them to eat for any other reason than because they're hungry, including to avoid punishment (such as a parent’s display of displeasure) or for a reward (such as desert). The RELATIONSHIP they develop with food is much more important than HOW MUCH of it they eat.
Food Ideas That Your Toddler be less likely to Refuse
Need some fresh ideas to offer your toddler? Here are 33 ideas to try! And of course, check out our Picky Eater Preventer Bundle for the ultimate collection of products that make introducing the rich flavors of herbs, bone broth, high-quality, ethically sourced meats, and organic veggies to your little one easy, fun, and convenient on the go.
It's important to know that many toddlers go through phases of refusing to eat. It can be terribly frustrating, we get it. All we can do is keep offering healthy foods and new flavors and textures and have the patience to let them eat it or not. Use these tips to help you get through the tough phases, and remember that this too shall pass!