Everything You Need to Know About Your Toddler Who Won’t Eat

Feeding toddlers can be one of the most stressful times of the day for parents. Shouting, screaming, running around, refusing to sit down and throwing food are all normal, yet frustrating behaviours that leave parents feeling angry, stressed and out of control. Hands up who is struggling with a toddler who won’t eat?.

Inside: The ultimate guide to your toddler and preschooler who won’t eat, reasons why your toddler won’t eat and ways to help your toddler who won’t eat. How to turn your picky, fussy or "normal" toddler into a healthy eater. Includes free food diary.

Quick family photo before ice cream? This toddler is not keen!

A Bit of Toddler Reassurance

Most babies are keen to shovel food into their mouths (not all but most). Many parents find that things change when their baby hits toddler hood. The toddler months and years are difficult for them, they are emerging out of their baby life into grown up girls and boys and they think they can do anything and everything. They get frustrated when they can’t and to top it all, their communication skills aren’t exactly refined.

Even if your toddler can talk, pointing and grunting or screaming is often easier.

And reasonable? Logical? Consistent?

These are not words that we associate with toddler behaviour.

An Average Meal with an Average Toddler

Sebastian: Me want blue bowl.

Me: Here you go sweetie. (gets blue bowl).

Sebastian: Weetabix!

>Me: Here you go, weetabix in a blue bowl. (places bowl in front of Sebastian.)

Sebastian: NOOOO! (howls of rage.)

Me: (Puts in earplugs.)

Only joking but it is tempting!

Toddlers Aren’t Logical

Once their flight or fight response has been triggered there’s no reasoning with a screaming toddler.

Or another frequent scenario:

>Me: Dinner time everyone! Look Sebastian, it’s your favourite blue bowl with vegetable stir fry.

Sebastian: Me no like it!

Me: Yes you do! You ate it last week and loved it. And the week before and the week before. In fact you’ve had it about a billion times and we always have to go through this ridiculous rigmarole before you actually sit down and eat it. (OK, I didn’t say all of that aloud.)

>Sebastian: wanders off to play with his fire engine.

The rest of us sit down to eat dinner. At least it is quiet and Sebastian isn’t screaming.

Just as we are finishing eating…

Sebastian: Oh look! My dinner. My like this don’t I? (sits down and eats his dinner without any fuss.)

As frustrating as it is, it is a good idea to continue to offer your kids foods that they won’t even touch.

Most Toddlers Are Picky or Fussy Eaters

The majority of toddlers, go through a “picky toddler” or “fussy toddler” stage.

The natural course of events is that most children grow out of “picky” and “fussy” by around 8 years of age. As long as you don’t do anything to reinforce that behaviour. As long as you don’t turn eating into a battle ground. As long as you don’t pressure them into eating. (And as long as there are no other issues or medical reasons that are causing the picky eating.)

A caveat. If you are worried about your toddler’s diet, you should take them to your family doctor to make sure they are getting all the nutrients that they need and that they are growing healthily.

What Should You Do To Help Your Toddler Who Won’t Eat?

In a nutshell, you should offer them healthy food options at regular intervals throughout the day. (Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and dinner.)

You choose the healthy food that you offer, they choose what they want to eat, out of the food you offer.

It is much easier said than done! Our natural instinct is to encourage our kids to eat, to pressure them to eat. And that’s when the battles start. So put on your best poker face and stop.

Stop encouraging. Stop pressuring. Stop bribing.

That includes the “just one little bite”. Here’s what’s wrong with the one bite rule.

Just let your toddler eat what they want to (out of the healthy options that you have chosen.)

Healthy Toddler Diet

In order to get your child to eat a healthy diet, you need to offer them lots of healthy food. If you’re not sure what a healthy diet is, here’s what you need to know about toddler nutrition.

Toddler Won’t Eat Anything

There are several reasons why your toddler won’t eat anything.

1. Toddler Won’t Eat After Being Sick

If a refusal to eat comes on suddenly, it may well be that your todler is unwell. It’s normal not to eat when you’re not feeling unwell, especially if your child is vomiting or has diarrhoea. (Illness doesn’t have to come on suddenly, it may also come on gradually.)

If you’re concerned about your kid’s health, take them to the doctor.

2. Your Toddler Is Actually Eating More than You Realise

The majority of parents worry that their toddler isn't eating enough and compensate by offering too much food. It may be that your toddler is eating as much as their little body needs.

Try filling in a food diary for a few days to see what they are actually eating.

It can be really difficult to know exactly how much your toddler is eating, but here's a great tool for measuring their intake.

Toddler portion sizes are much smaller than you think.

A Note on Toddler Portion Sizes

There is no such thing as an “exact” portion size for toddlers. Generally, they do not need as much food or calories as parents think. Look how little they are! Look at their little hands. A good rough guide of what is a suitable portion of one food is to see how much they can hold in one hand. This is by no means accurate, but it gives you an idea and shows you how much less it is compared to an adult portion.

The infant, toddler forum have a useful article on different portion sizes for toddlers.

3. Toddler Isn’t Eating Dinner

Another option is that your toddler isn’t eating all those healthy vegetables at dinner time. A really common reason for this is that they are filling up on calorie rich snacks throughout the day and don’t feel hungry. If you fill out a food diary, you’ll probably notice a correlation between “big sticky afternoon snack” and “didn’t eat dinner”. If that’s the case, go back to basics and offer your toddler healthy food through out the day. Ditch the treats for a while to see if that helps. There may be complaints but remember that you decide what food you offer. Your toddler decides what they want to eat out of the food that you offer.

Check out How to Stop Your Child Nagging for Snacks and the Secret to Combining Kid’s Treats with Healthy Eating.

4. Toddler Feels Pressured into Eating

If you are finding that mealtimes are becoming a battle of wills, or the “war of the pea”, it may be that you are putting too much pressure on your toddler to eat.

Think about it. How do you feel when someone tells you to do something? Most of us don’t like being told what to do. We like to feel in charge. We like to feel in control. We like to feel that we are our own bosses.

Toddlers are no different. In fact, toddlers probably hate being told what to do even more than most people.

Take a step back, relax and let go of the stress. Stop nagging your child to eat and you’ll soon find that mealtimes are much happier and more relaxing.

Although if there are any toddlers around, they’ll probably still be noisy!

Toddler Won't Eat? The Pediatrician's Ultimate Guide.

Toddler Won't Eat? The Pediatrician's Ultimate Guide.

5. Technical Difficulties

Many toddlers struggle with using a knife, fork and spoon. By now, your toddler should be feeding themselves. (It’s great to start your baby on finger food as soon as they can cope with it.) It’s fine to help your toddler when they ask for it but they should be in control of what goes into their mouths. It sure is a messy business but let them enjoy feeding themselves.

If they are really struggling to use a knife and fork, how about turning it into a game and practising with some play doh?

6. Toddlers Have Erratic Appetites

Have you noticed how sometimes your toddler or preschooler (or even an older child) will eat their way through a mountain of bread? At other times they won’t even eat a crumb?

More normal toddler behaviour.

In fact, they are listening to their tummies and not over eating as most adults do. If you’re worried, fill out a food diary and look at how much they eat over a few days rather than individual meals.

Toddler Healthy Eating Basics

In these articles, I’ve delved a little deeper into feeding your toddler and how to present food to your toddler.

Help! My Toddler Won’t Eat. 11 Simple Ways to Help.

12 Tips to Transform Your Picky Toddler into a Healthy Eater

Increasing Variety In Your Toddler’s Diet and Introducing New Foods

Another common scene that I see with all my kids, not just the toddlers.

Me: Dinner time! I’ve made something new! roasted vegetable pasta.

All my kids: Yuck! We don’t like it. It smells of poo!

Me: How do you know you don’t like it? YOU HAVEN’T TRIED IT YET.

All my kids: Yuck, yuck, yuck! It’s disgusting!

Here’s the thing.

Kids don’t like new and exciting. They like familiar and safe.

The big secret to introducing new foods to toddlers and children is not to expect them to like it. Or even try it.

Here are Some Other Tricks to Introduce New Foods to Your Toddler.

Like food pairing.

Presenting loads of new foods.

Make food fun.

Have family meals.

Use tooth picks.

Let them play with food (away from the table.)

Feeding Toddlers Book

How to Feed your Toddler a Healthy Diet. A great resource for parents who are struggling to feed their toddlers healthy food. By a pediatric doctor

If you’re struggling with feeding your toddler, this simple book will show you all the secrets you need to know to restore peace to toddler mealtimes

“Feeding Toddlers. A Pediatrician’s Guide to Happy, Healthy Mealtimes”.

Here’s what one reader said:

"I love how Orlena stresses for parents not to be stressed about kid's eating. Most parents don't realize what a toddler sized portion is, so i love how to lay out that information for people so they can realize how small a child's portion actually is. With my daycare parents, that's what I find the biggest problem is, they don't realize how small a child's diet really is. I also love the advice about feeding regular meals. This is the best way to help kids get the most nutrition! Thanks for writing this book, I think it will be a great help to parents who are concerned with a healthy diet for their kids." Christina Kamp.

Toddler Feeding Cheat Sheet Free Download

How to Feed your Toddler a Healthy Diet. A great resource for parents who are struggling to feed their toddlers healthy food. By a pediatric doctor

This post comes with a free Toddler Feeding Cheat Sheet that you can download. A quick summary of the main points, including the basics of toddler nutrition and a free FOOD DIARY. Just subscribe to my mailing list and you’ll be sent the free cheat sheet.

My Toddler Won’t Eat

There are days when my toddler, Sebastian, won’t eat. He screams and shouts and gets upset. There are other days when he sits quietly and eats without a fuss. On those days, his twin sister feels obliged to fill the role of “toddler who won’t eat.” But I know not to make a fuss, not to push him to eat, not to enter into a fight.

I just present him with healthy food options and wait for him to eat what he wants. I know that overall he eats a balanced diet and he is learning healthy eating habits. Of course it is frustrating to listen to him screaming and making a fuss, but I know that that is normal toddler behaviour and that it is normal for there to be times when my toddler won’t eat.

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