What to Do if Your Toddler Won’t Eat
“My toddler won’t eat at meals… Why?”
When you have a toddler, mealtimes can be a big challenge. What to make, when to make it, and how to make it appealing for your kiddo and everyone else at the table. You go through all that work to ensure your child is provided with a nutritious meal… only for them to not eat a single bite. Sigh. You do your best to get them to take “just one bite” but this is likely met with pushback or even a total meltdown! The process of getting your toddler to eat can feel overwhelming and confusing, maybe even a bit worrying. The good news is, there may be a few explanations as to why your toddler is refusing to eat!
Check out these five potential reasons your toddler is refusing meals and some tips that can help make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone.
1. Appetite Changes
Does your toddler’s appetite or interest in eating seem to fluctuate day-to-day? Perhaps you’re wondering how your once-hungry baby turned into a toddler who seems to survive on as little as a few bites per meal? While this can be concerning for parents and caregivers, there is no need to panic! After one year of age, growth velocity decreases significantly. Your toddler’s appetite has likely decreased because they don’t have the same energy requirements as they once did to support their growth.
“How can I ensure my child is getting enough food to support their growth?”
Believe it or not, toddlers are good at knowing just how much their bodies need to eat. Parents can support their child’s appetite regulation by offering regular, scheduled meals and snacks throughout the day to ensure they have plenty of opportunities to fuel up. Curious as to what this might look like? Continue reading below!
2. Too Frequent Snacking
When toddlers are not eating well at meals, parents may feel pressured to offer frequent snacks in between in order to make up for the nutrition they have missed. It is also common for toddlers to prefer snack foods such as cookies and crackers. While the intention is good, parents should be aware that their toddler’s snacking habits may be affecting their appetite at meals. Toddlers have much smaller tummies than us adults, and it is possible that those few crackers they had just before lunch filled them up!
“Should I avoid giving my toddler snacks between meals?”
When it comes to feeding toddlers, snacks are encouraged! However, it is possible to offer too many snacks to your toddler. As a general guide, parents and caregivers should allow for at least 2-3 hours between food offerings to allow toddlers to develop an appetite for meals. If a toddler goes into a meal feeling hungry, they will be more interested in eating the food that’s in front of them. If your toddler is asking for snacks and there is less than two hours left until the next meal is served, let them know that food will be available soon and redirect them to other, non-food related activities.
3. Mind the Milk
Cow’s milk is a very nutritious beverage for toddlers, providing protein, calcium and Vitamin D. While it is encouraged to include a few servings of milk throughout the day, too much milk outside of scheduled meals and snacks can cause your toddler to not feel hungry when it is time to eat. Too much milk can also displace iron-rich foods in a toddler’s diet, which are critical for proper growth and development.
“How much milk should I be giving my toddler?”
According to Health Canada, it is recommended for toddlers to have no more than 2 cups (500 ml) of milk per day, preferably served with scheduled meals and snacks. In between meals and snacks, it is recommended that children are only provided with water to drink to prevent spoiling their appetite.
4. Too Much Pressure
“Just take one more bite” is a common tactic used to get toddlers to eat at mealtimes. Parents and caregivers may not realize that this “pressure” to eat can deter them from wanting to eat at all! A study conducted by Galloway et. al (2006) found that intake was significantly greater in children who did not experience pressure to “finish their soup” compared to those that did experience pressure. Too much pressure at meals may also negatively impact a child’s ability to self-regulate their intake, causing them to eat more than what their body needs.
“How can I best support my child with their intake and ability to self-regulate?”
As a starting point, it can be helpful to understand the roles in the parent-child feeding relationship. This is outlined in Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which highlights the following:
- Parents and caregivers decide What, When, Where meals are eaten
- Children decide If and How much they will eat
While parents are responsible for making decisions around the mealtime environment, it is important to allow children to decide how much they will eat as they know their body best! Removing pressure will create a more positive mealtime environment for toddlers and will allow them to listen to their internal hunger and fullness cues.
5. Food Neophobia
Parents and caregivers might find that their toddler will reject foods that are served at family meals. Some parents and caregivers have learned to become short-order cooks if their child dislikes the food or will prepare an entirely separate meal to cater to their toddler’s preferences. This can make meal planning exhausting! Food Neophobia, or the fear of new foods, is a common occurrence in toddlers and there are things parents and caregivers can do to help their child overcome their food fears.
“How can I get my child to be more accepting of new foods?”
In this case, exposure is key! It can take up to 10-12 exposures before a child may be willing to try a new food. The more a child is exposed to new foods, this increases the likelihood that they will become accepting of them in the long-term. Some ways to encourage food exposure include:
- Family meals – the more your toddler sees other members of the family enjoying the food, the more likely they will try it for themselves
- Allow your child to touch, smell or play with the new food – these are all effective methods that don’t involve eating to help your child become more familiar with different foods
- Serve a new food with a “safe/familiar” food on their plate. While your child may not touch the new food at first, presenting it with a safe food will increase the likelihood that they will try it in the future
- Try preparing new foods in different ways! For example, if the new food is blueberries, try serving them raw, blended in a smoothie, as a jam or in baking
Next time you’re thinking to yourself “my toddler won’t eat!” try experimenting with these tips! There is no doubt that the toddler years can put parents and caregivers to the test when it comes to feeding, but there is hope!
Looking for more advice and ideas when it comes to family feeding and meal planning? Book an appointment with one of our team members who specialize in family nutrition!
Let our meal planning dietitian support you with a customized plan that makes sense for your family situation, food preferences, and schedule.
You don’t need to plan complicated meal plans for weeks at a time or spend all day Sunday prepping for the week ahead. If you are like many of our clients who are not great at planning and need super simple systems for shopping, cooking, and meal ideas, we’ve got you covered.
Don’t forget to check your health insurance! Many insurance plans cover Dietitian services.
Want more information on supporting your child with their nutrition? Check out these other blog posts below:
Jamie Lee Kwong
Disordered Eating, Pediatrics, Family Meal Planning & Chronic Disease
Jamie will greet you with a warm and approachable smile that has a way of putting you at ease. You can count on her to be adaptive and collaborative in coming up with right-fit solutions that meet your health, mental health and family needs. She also specializes in Mental Health, Anti-inflammatory Eating, and Arthritis.