Is your picky toddler not eating? It happens to all of us at one time or another. Here’s why it might be happening…and what you can do to make it better (or at least how to know what’s normal so you can relax).
Picky Eating in Toddlers
You get everyone to the table and bring out the food. Your toddler won’t eat, throws a fit, or fusses. No matter how hard you try, this is often the reality of feeding toddlers. The good news is that a toddler not eating is actually quite normal.
The bad news? It’s a difficult thing to know exactly why your toddler isn’t eating—and what exactly you should do about it.
But there are simple steps you can take to improve the situation.
Toddler Not Eating? Here’s What to Do
Family meals are a chance to be together at the end of a long day, to enjoy food, and to create daily rituals and routines. But when a toddler won’t eat, whether at the family table or not, it can throw off even the best of intentions. And it can make meal time a huge source of stress.
The reasons a toddler won’t eat are unique to each kiddo and situation, so I’m going to try to be as comprehensive as possible here.
Daily Toddler Nutrition
For a quick reference, you can download my Printable Toddler Nutrition Guide so you can refer to it for reassurance and information. Use it as a guide, not a hard-and-fast rule, since kids aren’t robots and will not eat like a chart. I share this first because portion sizes may actually be a lot smaller than you realize and often we are simply overestimating the amount that our kids need.
(Aim to serve healthy fat with most meals or snacks since little kids need it for proper brain development.)
Why does my toddler refuse to eat?
It’s very possible your toddler’s not eating because he simply isn’t as hungry as he was when he was a baby. Toddlers grow less rapidly than babies and may be less hungry and need less food than you expect. If you give them a larger portion size than they need, they may eat some and leave the rest—and it may visually look like they haven’t eaten anything even though they did.
And toddlers don’t always have the words to be able to effectively communicate that they aren’t hungry, so they may just refuse to eat. This may look like playing with food, throwing food, or flat-out refusing to have anything to do with food.
A normal toddler meal may be two bites of a food. Or it may be a whole plate. A normal toddler may like something immensely one week and not at all the following week.
This is to be expected and is 100% normal.
Or, it’s entirely possible that once they have it in their head that they don’t want something, they won’t eat it. Sometimes not wanting dinner is about power. Toddlers are in the developmental stage where it’s normal for them to test boundaries. They are learning what they can and cannot do and the effects their actions have—both at the table and away from it.
Talk with the rest of your family about how to create some structure around meals—when they happen, where they happen, who sits where, if music is playing, if phones are put away—to help your child know what to expect. Toddlers thrive on routine and attention.
- Consider using only water between meals and snacks (to avoid filling bellies up with milk or juice if that’s a potential issue).
- Serve very small portions to start to avoid wasting food or overwhelming the kids with large portions. Think a single piece of broccoli, one chicken nugget, or one small scoop of yogurt to start.
- Create some mealtime structure so there are set expectations at the table. This could be as simple as always sitting down at the dining table or the kitchen counter.
- Let it be ok if a child isn’t as hungry as you expect them to be. (The Division of Responsibility can be helpful here.)
How do I get my picky toddler to eat?
There are a few ways to rethink this issue. First, if you are in the habit of short-order-cooking the foods you know your toddler will eat, you may want to consider stopping. Explain to your kids that we’re having such-and-such tonight but that you will make their requested favorite food soon. Then follow through so they know they can trust you!
Then, make sure there are 1-2 foods on the table that the child usually likes, even if it’s something simple like fruit or cheese. Surround them with the food you want them to eat and let them decide what and how much of it to eat.
Using this Division of Responsibility in Feeding approach to meals can be a total GAME CHANGER, as it clearly delineates what the parent and child are each responsible for at the table, lessening pressure on everyone. It also gives the child a chance to stay in touch with their own hunger cues without prodding, pushing, or cajoling—which has the added benefit of helping to make mealtimes more enjoyable for you, too.
We want our kids to know their own hunger and fullness cues so they know how much to feed themselves as they grow into adolescents and adults when we aren’t around. And those cues can be hard to tap into if they are constantly overridden by external cues (like if we push them to eat a certain amount), however well-intentioned.
You can also try to involve them in doing something to help get ready for the meal to distract them from their concern about what’s for dinner. Try letting them help to set the table, help with simple meal prep (like washing veggies), or wash their hands. Hand washing is an excellent toddler-diversion tactic when they get upset about something.
If you are okay with cooking separate meals for your kids because it works better for you right now to know they will eat the food you make, then by all means, do that.
But if you’re wanting your child to eat family meals and eventually eat more of the same foods as the rest of the family, then try the tips I just shared above.
Remember: Even if you follow all feeding advice “perfectly”, your child may still eat differently than you expect. That is normal.
It is incredibly difficult to accurately estimate someone else’s hunger. I am a big proponent of moving from the goal of “getting the kids to eat” towards “how can I make mealtimes happier for all of us?”.
TIP: Almost every toddler is “picky” in one way or another at some point. Toddlers are quirky, it’s part of the fun! (And the challenge, of course.)
Why did my toddler stop eating?
If your child is playing with their food rather than eating it at the start of the meal, chances are they aren’t hungry enough to eat. Take a break and try again in 30 minutes if possible—or for the next snack or mealtime.
If your child just doesn’t seem hungry for any food or much food, consider how long it’s been since their last meal or snack, how much milk (or juice) they’re drinking throughout the day, how much they ate at their last meal or snack, and whether they are teething or tired or otherwise off.
It’s very possible a toddler won’t eat simply because they aren’t as hungry as you expect them to be.
Or they may be hungrier earlier in the day and taper off with their intake as the day goes on.
If your toddler won’t eat foods he once liked, try serving them in new ways—such as cutting carrots into sticks rather than rounds before cooking them, but also remind yourself that it’s normal for toddlers to go through phases of loving and not loving foods. They may be obsessed with blueberries one week and not want them again for two months.
It’s possible they simply need a break from having certain foods as frequently. That is OK. (And very relatable!)
- Serve very small portions to start to keep your own expectations of how much they should be eating in check. Then, allow seconds (or thirds) according to the kiddo’s hunger.
- Space out meals to 2-3 hours apart to allow time for hunger to build. And remember that their hunger may change during different phases of growth.
- Remember that there are simply times when kids aren’t hungry or aren’t as hungry as we expect. That is not a sign of pickiness, just their way of telling us that they aren’t hungry at that moment.
What if a toddler won’t eat anything but snacks?
Often, if a toddler knows there is a snack ahead that includes traditional “snacky” foods, they won’t eat the meal you are serving. It can help to serve “regular” food at snack time, instead of relying on crackers and fruit snacks, and serve classic “snack” foods with meals. This can even out the appeal of all food intake opportunities.
In other words, think of snacks as mini meals and serve all types of foods at each eating opportunity.
Kids often relax when they have access to their favorite foods, so there’s nothing wrong with serving Goldfish crackers along with strawberries and a hard-cooked egg. Or a chocolate chip snack bar with a banana and carrot sticks. It’s all good!
When it comes to feeding, the best thing you can do is to give your child lots of low-pressure opportunities to see (and maybe) eat a range of foods—while still offering foods your kids you know your kids usually eat. It’s all about balance…for everyone involved.
It still counts as an exposure even if a child doesn’t eat a food. They can touch it, see it, learn what it’s called, and add to their food literacy—which can be helpful over time as they grow.
- Buy more of the foods you want your kids to eat, but still include foods they love so they avoid feeling restricted.
- Serve small mini meals at snack time instead of traditional “snack” foods and incorporate more traditional “snacks” into meals—like crackers alongside soup, for example.
- Think of all eating opportunities as “mini meals” and serve all foods at all times to lessen the appeal of “snack” a little.
- Stick with a routine for meals and snacks by having them at set times (roughly) and avoiding all day grazing.
Is it normal for my toddler to refuse to eat?
There will be times when your toddler simply doesn’t like a meal you make. And whether it’s the texture, flavor, appearance, or the way the wind is blowing, we may never know, but it will happen. Or, a toddler won’t eat at times because they are either not that hungry or they know you will get them something they prefer if they refuse.
A child will usually choose a more familiar, fun, and safe food when given the chance. But if you pair safe foods with other ones, they can gently expand their accepted food range. Or, at the very least, have those exposures to other foods (even if they don’t eat them yet).
My method is to make family dinner, including 1-2 foods per meal that the kids usually like even if those foods are a simple side of fruit and milk. Then, if they don’t want to eat, I can trust that they aren’t hungry.
This is a very reliable method if you do it regularly. I do realize this is hard when it’s 6 p.m. and your little one hasn’t eaten a thing for dinner. If that happens and they legitimately seem hungry after dinner, wait at least 30 minutes (so they don’t feel rewarded for refusing dinner) and offer a super boring bedtime snack like a banana. If they are hungry enough for boring food, you know they are hungry!
If your toddler seems to legitimately dislike a meal, you can institute a “backup meal” to give them the chance to satisfy hunger. Choose something plain that they would likely never choose to eat by themselves and offer that and that alone so you don’t have to negotiate in the moment. (To me, this is something that should be used very rarely since it can create more work, especially if you have multiple children.)
Good backup meal options in our house are plain yogurt with granola, plain toast with nut butter, a scrambled egg, or a bowl of cereal. We keep the options plain.
- Avoid getting up during a meal to get different food at your toddler’s request. Instead, aim to include 1-2 foods they usually like in any meal to ensure they always have something to eat.
- Ask the kids (who can communicate verbally) to choose between options for dinner, such as choosing which vegetable or side dish to have from two options you have on hand. Kids like to be involved in making decisions!
- Serve a boring bedtime snack if they didn’t eat dinner and seem hungry before bedtime.
- Have one boring “backup” meal option for those rare nights when they legitimately don’t like the dinner on offer—something they probably wouldn’t ask for but are happy enough to eat if hungry.
My toddler won’t eat because he’s sick. Should I worry?
When toddlers are sick, normal eating very often goes out the window. With any illness, appetites can decrease. The general rule that our pediatrician always shares is that as long as they are drinking and going to the bathroom normally, then you shouldn’t need to worry too much.
Keep portion sizes small, keep the actual foods simple, don’t push food too hard, and trust that their little bodies are doing what they need to feel better. You can get back to normal eating when they are feeling better, and you can always check in with your doctor.
Be patient since lower appetites can linger longer than you might expect, even once a child starts to feel better. And of course, check with your doctor if they aren’t drinking, there’s another red flag, or you just need reassurance from a medical professional.
Also, toddler teething can cause reductions in hunger. Try not to expect that your toddler will eat normally when they are cutting teeth (especially not with molars!) and instead offer them plenty of liquids, chilled foods, and things that don’t require too much chewing—smoothies, yogurt, pasta, popsicles—to help avoid irritating their already sore gums.
My toddler won’t eat anything but milk. Help!
If you have a toddler who’s not eating but drinks lots of milk, it’s possible that milk is filling their bellies and reducing hunger for other food. (The same can be said for any other food that they are insisting is the only food they want.)
The AAP recommends toddlers have 2-3 serving of dairy a day, which includes milk and other dairy foods like cheese and yogurt. A serving of milk for a toddler is ½ cup. Try serving a smaller portion of milk just at meals and offering water in between. (You may need to do this gradually, especially since milk is often a comfort food.)
Keep portion size in mind, especially if your toddler won’t eat anything but milk, since cups and bottles can be quite large. This 4-ounce sippy cup is a nice size to use at meals since it ensures that a toddler won’t fill up on milk and will be more likely to have room in their bellies for some food. A very small juice glass works, too.
You may need to taper down the volume in bottles if that’s how they’re consuming their milk.
- Serve milk at meals and offer water in between.
- Serve milk in a small cup (or a smaller cup than you have been using) to help avoid serving too much at once.
- Start to decrease the volume of milk in bottles and work on moving milk to meals, rather than as separate feeding around 18 months.
- Remember that milk is often comforting for kids, so you may need to take a gradual approach with this.
How can I increase my toddler’s appetite?
Why do you want to increase your toddler’s appetite? Are you worried she isn’t eating enough of the “right” foods? That she is “too small”? Is she low on the growth curve? A good question to ask is whether her growth is consistent with her own history, not as compared to other kids her age.
Every toddler grows at their own unique speed, and it’s possible she is exactly the size she needs to be—and is eating a perfect amount for herself in her current phase.
If your toddler truly doesn’t seem to be eating enough (remember, they may eat only ¼ as much as an adult…you may need to adjust your expectations!) and there is a medical concern—such as if they have fallen off of their growth curve or are losing weight—you can try serving smaller snacks and meals more often, adding lots of healthy fats to their food, and getting them involved in the kitchen.
Here are some foods that may help a toddler gain weight.
Sometimes just being around food in a situation without pressure can encourage a kid to explore and enjoy more at the table, too.
Be sure to check with your pediatrician to make sure you’re on the same page about a plan if there’s a weight-loss issue.
Why won’t my 1-year-old eat?
Toddlers aren’t growing as rapidly as babies, so while your child may have eaten a lot as an older baby, he might not be as hungry now. This is very, very common in 1-year-olds.
One-year-olds are also BUSY. They have a lot going on in their little worlds and many constantly want to be moving.
Avoiding distractions at the table can help a toddler focus on their food, and keeping a consistent mealtime routine—when meals happen, where they happen, and what’s generally expected during a meal–can go a long way toward happier mealtimes for everyone.
One-year-olds are also just discovering that their actions have consequences, so they may not eat (or they may throw food or do all sorts of other behaviors) simply because they’ve realized that they can. Keep your reactions during meals as low key and consistent as possible so they don’t try to get you to react. (I fully understand that this is really hard.)
- Limit distractions at the table, and sit and engage with your child during mealtimes as is possible.
- Keep your reactions to undesired behavior neutral, consistent, and swift. (If they throw food, end the meal or at least take a break. If they spit out their milk, remove their access to milk. Etc.)
- Give them time to work up an appetite between meals—and avoid letting them graze all day (or at least acknowledge they are getting their calories throughout the day that way).
- Remember it’s NORMAL for a 1-year-old to be less hungry than they were as a baby. They may eat less than they used to, and we might need to adjust our expectations. This often shows up around 14-17 months; it is not “pickiness”, it’s a normal decrease in hunger.
Why won’t my 2-year-old eat?
Outside of illness or teething, a 2-year-old won’t eat for similar power dynamics as above, but they also may be much more sensitive to new foods due to a normal phase called neophobia. This fear of new foods, which usually spikes between 2 and 6 (though it can start at 1 year old), can cause them to refuse foods they once loved and foods you think they will love.
It can also cause them to refuse to want to eat foods mixed together or foods with certain textures.
Try to remember that this is a normal phase of development that will, in all likelihood, eventually pass. Researchers have found you may need to offer a food 8-15 times before a child may willingly try it. In other words, keep on offering the foods you want them to eat regularly in small portions and without pressure, and eat those foods in front of your child.
Because even if they don’t want it today, one day they just might surprise you some day in the future.
(Two of my kids literally refused beans for two years at our weekly taco night. Then one day, they each decided to try them. It took forever, but it wasn’t really a big deal—since they had other foods on the table during those meals they could eat—and they got to that food in their own time.)
For a 2- and 3-year-old, serving meals family style can also help to diffuse power struggles at the table. Simply put the components of the meal in bowls on the table and encourage and help your toddler decide what they’d like to eat. Don’t force bites of everything, unless your child responds positively to that approach, but give them space to choose what looks appealing.
This small amount of ownership over what goes onto their plate can be extremely helpful for strong-willed toddlers. A lot of times, all they really want is to feel like they have some control over their lives.
- Ask your child “how can I make this yummier?” to see if they can help you figure out how to make their food more appealing.
- Serve meals family style to diffuse power struggles and let them choose which foods to put on their plates.
- In each meal, include 1-2 safe foods they usually like to ensure they always have something to eat if they are hungry.
- Trust their appetites, which may be different than you expect and may vary a lot from day to day.
Why won’t my 3-year-old eat?
A 3-year-old may not eat for reasons similar to a 2-year-old, but they may also have more words to express themselves—so they may be more dramatic in their response. They may not be as hungry as you expect, their appetite may be unpredictable, or they may be worn out by the time dinner rolls around. (That last one is fairly common!)
Three-year-olds also know how hard they need to push to get what they want. Toddlers at this age benefit from set expectations at mealtimes and routine. Which is to say, if you start getting up to get them foods other than the ones you’ve made for dinner, they will continue to demand that you do that.
There’s no rule that says that a toddler needs to eat every single thing you serve for dinner. If they eat some of it, there’s decently good behavior, and minimal crying, that can be defined as a happy meal. Keep the bar low, my friends, and you might find that things are better than you realize!
- Serve meals family style and let them choose what to eat from the foods you put out.
- Let them choose what to have for dinner from two predetermined options so they feel like they have more power.
- Serve very small portions to start to avoid overwhelming them.
- Include 1-2 safe foods they usually like in each meal to function as safety nets in case they don’t like the main dish.
My toddler won’t eat breakfast. Why?
You may simply have a child who isn’t super hungry first thing in the morning. Try to give them a little time to wake up before sitting down for breakfast and/or serve a smaller portion for breakfast and increase the amount of the morning snack.
If your toddler drinks milk or breastfeeds in the morning, it’s possible they have a full little belly that doesn’t have room for food. Keep that in mind if your toddler won’t eat breakfast and adjust expectations accordingly—and perhaps also serve smaller amounts of food.
My toddler is constipated—is that why she won’t eat?
It’s certainly possible! If a little one (or anyone, really) feels uncomfortable in their belly, the idea of putting food into it may not be appealing. In addition to fiber, having enough water is key to alleviating toddler constipation, so offer lots of water to drink throughout the day, along with hydrating produce like melon, cucumbers, berries, and zucchini.
You can also try to include healthy fats (avocado, coconut oil) in their diet, or try a Constipation Smoothie, as they, too, can help food more easily move through the digestive system. And remember: Each kiddo has their own “regular,” so it’s possible that your toddler needs to go once every two or three days…or three times a day.
If your toddler has been holding it all day at school, he may not want to eat dinner because he’s uncomfortable. Try to give him a chance to use the potty, with as much time as is needed to relax, before dinner.
Why does my toddler always want a bedtime snack?
If your toddler has some time between dinner and bedtime, she very well might be hungry before bed. You could either push dinner back a bit or institute a regular bedtime snack. This is a tactic I read about in this book and it makes sense.
If there is always an easy bedtime snack, you won’t have to renegotiate it every night. And you also won’t have to worry about sending your child to bed hungry if you are prone to that particular worry.
I’d just caution against making the snack something they LOVE because kids may recognize that they can simply skip dinner and have the snack they love instead. If a child regularly asks for a snack right after dinner, it may be a habit (or a bedtime delay tactic!), not true hunger. Try “you can be hungry for breakfast” or “if you’re really hungry, you can have a banana.” Both of those phrases can work wonders to suss out true hunger.
- Find super simple healthy bedtime snacks in this comprehensive post.
How do I know if my toddler’s eating problems are serious?
Here’s some great advice from Katja and Jenny, the authors of Extreme Picky Eating:
“Ask yourself: What is your underlying fear? The point is to figure out what you are worried about, and then find out if you need to worry (or not) from a book, a doctor, or dietitian. If you don’t need to worry, you can direct your energies to more productive things like supporting your child’s eating. If a problem is discovered, like an oral-motor delay, then you can get that addressed. Studies suggest that between one- and two-thirds of all young children will be described as ‘picky’ in early childhood.”
If there is a growth delay, severe reactions to different or specific textures, regular gagging, difficulty eating or digesting, oral-motor delays, muscular disorders, or any other issues that make eating difficult, reach out to your pediatrician and/or a feeding therapist. They will be best suited to help you work through the issues.
Bottom line: When a toddler won’t eat, it is not a judgement on our cooking skills or our parenting skills. A lot of it has to do with the developmental stage they are in—of learning and exploring boundaries—and simply seeing how much power they have. Hang in there!
Did I miss anything? Comment if you have a question!
This post is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with a pediatrician or a feeding therapist as needed.
This post was first published April 2018.
— Update: 01-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article 8 Things You Can Do When a Toddler Refuses to Eat from the website yourkidstable.com for the keyword one year old not eating much.
Get real solutions for when a toddler refuses to eat that you can start using today, and learn about why toddler eating habits matter. You’ll also find food ideas for picky toddlers inside!
Terrified. Overwhelmed. Confused. When you’ve placed another meal in front of your toddler and they’ve refused to eat it again, you’re likely feeling all of these different emotions. Those feelings only intensify when you’re around another toddler that’s eating well. You can’t help but wonder why your toddler won’t eat.
As an occupational therapist that specializes in feeding, I’ve worked with a lot families that have a toddler refusing to eat and I know often times the next thought is that you’ve done something wrong.
This is almost NEVER the case. Unfortunately, the idea that you should’ve done something differently or are doing something wrong now is often only innocently perpetuated by friends, family, and possibly even their doctor. When toddlers don’t eat, people get confused, and naturally want to place the blame somewhere.
If you’re currently blaming yourself or feeling guilty in any way, let’s put an end to that now, because I’m going to let you in on what a lot of parents and professionals don’t know and that’s why toddlers refuse to eat and how to help them!
Toddler Eating Habits
First, we’ve got to talk about the nature of a toddler because this absolutely plays a role in their eating.
Once babies become toddlers at one year old, their growth slows down from the insanely accelerated pace as a baby and that means they actually need less calories. It is completely normal for toddlers to eat less or seemingly to not eat a lot. You can check out more in Toddler Portion Sizes.
On top of their need for less calories, toddlers are often new walkers and want to explore their environment. They’re interested in everything and curious. While they’re absolutely adorable at this age, it’s also an exhausting time for parents. You’re moving every knick-knack in your home, table tops are bare, and safety gates are in place because they’re into everything.
Many toddlers can’t be bothered with sitting because of this need to explore, and that includes when it’s time to eat!
To make it even more challenging for toddlers to eat a full meal, their attention span leaves a lot to be desired. They’re easily distracted (which can be used to your advantage), but for some toddlers, this can create the perfect storm to refuse to eat.
That means that a toddler’s eating habits are often:
- Quick – They don’t want to be seated for long. Or, they may have a hard time sitting to eat at all. They usually don’t eat a lot, which is normal.
- Exploratory! – They may like to get messy or squish their food.
- Picky – If something looks new or different, they’re likely to avoid it. This often results in throwing food on the floor. Head to Stop Throwing Food on the Floor for some specific tips!
Why A Toddler Refuses to Eat
It’s 100% normal for a toddler to refuse to eat – sometimes. This happens because of those normal toddler eating habits, it’s part of the stage they’re in, despite how annoying and worrisome it is to their mama.
But, some toddlers refuse to eat ANYTHING or mostly anything. Ever. This is a different situation, and is likely caused by some other factors – none of which are your fault:
1. Difficulty learning to eat table foods – More babies than most people realize don’t make a smooth transition to eating real food after their baby food. Some get stuck on purees or even refuse those as well and continue to rely on their milk or formula. If a toddler never learned how to eat, they likely have no desire to do so at this point.
The good news is that you can still teach a toddler to eat table and finger foods. It takes some time and patience, but I’ve got a step by step guide for you over at How to Transition Your Toddler to Table Foods.
2. Sensitivity to textures – Some toddlers are so sensitive to different textures that they’re either very limited in what they’ll accept (i.e. only crunchy foods) or just won’t take anything because the texture is so overwhelming to them. This can be difficult for us to relate to, after all, the texture of eggs seems just fine to you.
But, their brain is telling them that it looks, feels, or tastes yucky.
Other signs that your child is sensitive to textures is that they don’t like getting messy or will gag when they smell/see/touch/taste foods. Often, they’ll also not like to have their hands dirty. Learn more in Sensory Issues with Food.
3. Can’t chew well – It’s quite easy to overlook, because chewing is something we take for granted. But, some toddlers never learned to chew well or can’t move the food around in their mouth. When toddlers are struggling with this, or their oral-motor skills, they’ll often have food fall out of their mouth, gag after chewing, or lose track of the food in their mouth.
4. Grazing – Because of the toddler eating habits we talked about above, letting your toddler graze on food throughout the day seems like a good solution, and you may have no other choice right now. However, constantly eating a bite or two of food throughout the day never allows them to get hungry and they don’t learn to eat a new food.
I know it can seem like the only option sometimes, but breaking this habit is important for teaching your toddler how to eat at meals.
5. Underlying medical – If none of the above reasons feels like what is going on with your child, it’s possible there’s some underlying medical reason they aren’t wanting to eat. While it’s usually the last thing I consider, unless there’s obvious signs, it’s worth considering if your toddler has silent reflux, allergies, or possibly some other medical reason for refusing to eat.
Reflux and allergies can greatly affect appetite or make it painful to eat, and there are lots of other medical possibilities, as well. To get to the bottom of it, check with your child’s pediatrician, or schedule an appointment directly with a pediatric gastroenterologist.. You can find some additional recommendations for spotting food allergies in kids from Healthy Children.
*If your child is 3 years old or older, check out 5 Reasons Kid’s Refuse to Eat for additional details.
Are They Just Being a Picky Eater Toddler?
After hearing these deeper causes of a toddler refusing to eat, you might be asking yourself, “What if my child is just being a plain old picky eater toddler?” And, the answer is maybe.
The reality is that most toddlers are picky eaters. It’s a normal part of development that starts between 1 and 2 years old and lasts through age 3-5 (sorry to be the bearer of bad news!) Being a picky eater toddler means that they refuse some foods and have other favorite foods that they prefer and usually eat well. It does not mean that they always refuse food. If you’re here because your toddler almost never eats, it’s more likely one of the reasons from the previous section is in play.
How to Help the Toddler Refusing to Eat
Okay, let’s get to the nitty gritty. I want to share with you some of my best and most impactful feeding expert tips, ones that you can start using today.
One caveat though: be patient.
That may be the hardest advice to hear because you may be at the end of your rope with your toddler refusing to eat. I get that, but making the effort to dig a little deeper and not only be patient with them, but be patient in waiting for these tips to take hold, will get you on the path to your toddler eating!
Affiliate links used below. See full disclosure.
Here’s the tips for the toddler that refuses to eat:
- Get them on a schedule – Where they only have milk with their meals or shortly after. Pop over to How Much Milk Does My Toddler Need, if you aren’t sure how much they should be drinking in a day. And, if you’d like a sample, I have a sample Feeding Schedule for 1 Year Olds.
- Schedule meals so that they’re 2-3 hours apart – Avoid grazing on snacks or other foods in between so they’re really hungry when they sit down. It only takes a few cheerios for a toddler to refuse their next meal.
- Give small portions and try to stick to foods that they seem to like – If you have no idea, think crunchy, this is low texture and actually easier to chew, if it’s a meltable crunchy food. Puffs, graham crackers, and cheese curls, are all good starters.
- Choose a spot to have most of your meals, the consistency of eating in the same place will help them adjust to the routine – Ideally, this is in a high chair or strapped booster seat. If your child has a total meltdown sitting at the table, then Check out How to Keep Your Child Seated at Meals.
- Let them get messy! – Yes, this is super important, albeit annoying to tired moms, because toddlers need to explore. And, it’s even more important if your toddler seems to not want to get messy. Remember how we talked about being sensitive to textures, this will help them NOT be sensitive. The more they play in and touch different textures, the better. An excellent way to do this either through specific messy play or sensory bins.
- Eat together – Even if they’re currently refusing to eat, sit down and eat while they sit there, if only for a few minutes. Focus on the meal simply being a positive experience, even if your just chatting with your toddler for a few minutes while they have some food on their tray.
- If you think your child is having trouble chewing or swallowing food, check out my Oral Motor Skill Activities – Blowing whistles, bubbles, or chewing on teethers may be just what your child needs to strengthen these skills.
- Change something unexpectedly to grab their interest – When your toddler refuses to eat the food you put in front of them, one of my favorite tricks to pull out and take advantage of their short attention span is to change something up. I may get out a different utensil that’s more colorful, and say “Oh, did you want the airplane fork?” And then I’ll stick their food on it, lay it on their tray, and act like I don’t care what happens next.
- Or, I might cut it differently, saying “Oh, here’s a little piece” – This doesn’t always work, but it does more often than you’d think and is worth a try. Get creative in changing up some small aspect of the meal to shift their focus from refusing or crying to at least acknowledging their food!
- Use a divided plate – Picky eaters and toddlers get worried that their food is going to be ruined if it touches something else. In part because mixed textures taste different and can be more difficult to chew, but also because they’re worried it may taste different. The divided plate you see in the pictures above is from Target, but we use these ones too and I love them!
Foods for Picky Toddlers Refusing to Eat
While every toddler is unique and has their own food choices, there are some foods that may be more likely to be eaten that others. When I’m working on feeding as a therapist, these are some of the specific foods I’ll focus on as we make progress. But, if your toddler never ate table foods, you’ll want to start with those meltable crunchy foods.
Or, if your child has a few foods they do eat, you’ll want to build off of them, introducing foods that are similar. This is a popular feeding technique that’s often referred to as food chaining. You can learn more about this powerful picky eating tip here.
So, generally speaking, here are some specific food ideas for picky toddlers:
- Thin apple slices
- Frozen peas
- Thin and crispy chicken nuggets (I personally love the Dino Nugget brand, they pique toddlers interest because of the shape and are low texture with the bread crumbs and amount of chicken inside)
- No-hull popcorn
- Garlic bread (not to heavy on the garlic)
- Toast with butter
- Bread sticks
- Plain noodles
- Bacon crumbles
- Pan fried quesadillas (start with just a little bit of mild tasting cheese in a tortilla and make it a little bit crispy)
And, if you want to get even more inspiration for toddler meals, check out these lists:
- The Essential One-Stop Guide for Easy Toddler Meals
- The Ultimate List of Baby/Toddler Meal Ideas
- The Greatest Toddler Breakfast Ideas, Easy + Healthy
- The Most Awesome Toddler Lunch Ideas You Can Find!
I know the food is what most parents focus on and I get it, so I made this quick little video just explaining in some more detail how to find the best foods to feed your toddler, whether they’re picky or flat out refusing to eat. It’s important to find out which of the two categories your toddler falls into…
Need More Help for When a Toddler Refuses to Eat?
As I already mentioned, a lot of toddlers that never learned to eat table foods now seemingly refuse to eat all foods. If that’s the case with your child, grab our free printable pack: Teach Your Child to Eat Table Foods. I’ll deliver the simple steps you need to take right to your inbox.
Get the Free Table Foods Printable Here
And, if your child is hardly eating anything and you’re concerned about their growth and nutrition, I highly recommend talking to your doctor and/or looking into feeding therapy for you toddler.
Did You Pin This?
If this guide on toddlers refusing to eat has been helpful, pin it to your toddler or parenting board. It’s packed with lots of info and you may want to find it again!
Citations and References for this Article:
Teaching Chewing: A Structured Approach Nicholas Eckman, Keith E. Williams, Katherine Riegel, and Candace Paul (The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 2015) https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1867108
Learning to eat: birth to age 2 y Leann L. Birch and Allison E. Doub (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2014) https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/3/723S/457749
Parental Influence on Eating Behavior, Conception to Adolescence Jennifer S. Savage, Jennifer Orlet Fisher, and Leann L. Birch (US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, 2008) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet Cheri Fraker, CCC-SLP, CLC, Mark Fishbein, MD, Sibly Cox, RD, LD, CLC, Laura Walbert, CCC-SLP, CLC (Da Capo Press 2007)
Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges! Lori Ernsperger, Ph.D. and Tania Stegen-Hanson (Future Horizons, Inc 2004)
— Update: 01-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article What’s the deal with toddlers refusing to eat? Here’s 14 reasons why from the website childrensnutrition.co.uk for the keyword one year old not eating much.
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It can be incredibly frustrating when you’ve spent hours slaving over a hot stove to have your toddler reject their meal. But before you resort to encouraging them to eat or bribing them with a yummy dessert, let me explain why this happens.
During the first year of life, babies grow really rapidly as I’m sure you’re aware. They double their birth weight by four to six months of age. And then they triple it by the time they get to their first birthday. That’s a massive growth spurt. But they don’t actually quadruple their birth weight until their second birthday, which means that this is actually quite a reduction of the rate of growth.
Because of that, their nutritional requirements are lower, and their appetite’s reduce as well. It stays like this until puberty starts, when rapid growth picks up again. That’s often why you might question why your little one, who as a baby ate everything you put in front of them, as a Toddler eats much less.
It’s not uncommon for Toddlers to skip meals for this reason. It’s normal for them to come to the table and just poke and prod a few things and not be interested in eating. It’s part of their self-regulation of their food intake based on what their bodies actually need.
2. Food Neophobia.
This is a fear of trying new foods. It’s a developmental phase, and part of normal child development. It’s thought to be an evolutionary protective mechanism to prevent inquisitive young children from picking things up and putting them in their mouths and inadvertently poisoning themselves. It’s thought to stem from the hunter-gatherer days where people had to forage for their own foods.
However, food neophobia is an actual true fear response, and you can’t fight it without really upsetting your child. You’ve just got to wait it out until that developmental phase has passed.
But essentially, what it means is that your little one could be sat at the table, you present some food, they’re absolutely terrified of trying it and no matter what you do or say, entice or encourage, (which if you know me you’ll know I’m not a fan of), they are not going to eat the food.
Watching you eat those foods and survive them however, will help your child understand that they are safe.
So sitting together and sharing one family meal while role modelling what you want your child to do will help them get through the neophobic phase. Neophobia can last right through childhood.
3. Your child’s temperament.
If you have a Toddler who’s strong-willed, who knows their own mind and is determined, then they’re going to dig in their heels and refuse to eat food if they don’t want to or if you’ve asked them to. Often Toddlers at this stage are testing their boundaries and your limits. They want to be in control. They want to be in charge, all of the time. They’re incredibly narcissistic, the world revolves around them. They’re the centre of their own universe and that’s often why Toddlers aren’t able to share, and everything is “mine.”
If you’ve got a strong-willed Toddler, they’re not going to eat food if they don’t want to. They’ve made up their mind and nothing is going to change it. They’ll do this in other aspects of their life as well such as fighting you when trying to strap them into the pushchair or car seat (this was exactly what my first baby Charlie did)!
Babies and toddlers have mature, sweet taste buds. It’s another evolutionary survival mechanism to help them seek out breast milk when they’re born. But the bitter and sour taste buds aren’t mature yet. Vegetables for example, have many bitter compounds and are something that children have to learn to like. It doesn’t come naturally and they don’t automatically like those foods. Research has shown that 70% of pre-schoolers are sensitive to the bitter compounds that you find in fruits and vegetables, particularly green vegetables, which is why they’re often rejected. (1) (2)
As well as having more mature sweet taste buds, children also just have more taste buds in general compared to adults which means that they taste things differently to the way we do. We might try something and think it’s delicious. They might try it and it might be too overpowering for them, particularly bitter flavoured foods like veg. Often parents say to me “if they would just have a mouthful, they would know it’s nice” but this might not necessarily follow through. Children may experience flavour in a different way to you.
There’s also a genetic component to taste as well. We know that food preferences run in families because we tend to cook the food we like to eat but preference can be passed on through the genes as well. (3)
5. Still learning their eating & feeding skills.
Children are still learning to eat right through the Toddler years, when self-feeding skills are being practiced. They’re exploring different foods and they’re learning to manage different textures.
They’re also learning how to eat in different environments. That’s why sometimes children will eat better at nursery than they will at home or they’ll eat different foods at their grandparent’s house but if you present that same food in your own home, it might not be eaten. Young children can’t yet generalize, so what happens in one environment may not happen in another straight away. Both foods have to be mastered in both places.
Some children become competent with eating quickly and some children don’t. Meat can sometimes be rejected by Toddlers because it requires quite a lot of chewing and can be hard work. Sometimes children will chew, and chew, and chew and then spit out. It’s part of them developing their eating skills and ultimately they just need more time to practice.
6. A preference for beige food.
Have you ever wondered why foods like bread, crackers, rice cakes, breadsticks, chicken nuggets, fish fingers, hot dogs and chips are often requested and accepted over anything else? Well there’s a couple of things going on here. The chicken nuggets, fish fingers and hot dogs, are mechanically easier to eat because they’re processed. Your child doesn’t have to work as hard and chew them as much before they’re ready to be swallowed.
Secondly the bread, chips, crackers, rice cake etc are all starchy carbohydrate foods. The brain’s preferred fuel source is carbohydrate and because brain development is really quite rapid during the toddler years, young children have a desire, or preference, for carbs. In a way they crave carbs for energy for their developing brains.
In addition, shop-bought starchy carbs are always exactly the same. No matter whether you buy it tomorrow or you buy it in three months time, the texture and the taste is going to be the same. It’s predictable, they know what to expect. There’s not much chewing involved and they’re easy to eat and they get that energy that their brains are asking them for. It’s easy to understand why they’re preferred.
Consider the timings of meals and snacks. Snacks that are too close to a meal time can take the edge off appetite and the desire to eat might be lost. I recommend leaving between two and a half to three hours in between meals and snacks for Toddlers, and school aged children can go a little bit longer; four hours or so. Even with a structured meal and snack routine, Toddlers will sometimes ask for more snacks in between times. A couple of things could be happening here. They could be undergoing a developmental leap which in turn requires more energy, especially if they’re asking for carbs. Or more often than not it can be because they are hungry, mostly likely because they didn’t eat well at the last meal.
If your little one is teething for example, they’ll be experiencing discomfort and pain. Pain switches off appetite and you’ll see the same if they’re coming down with a bug or they’re just generally feeling under the weather, or, if they’ve fallen over and scraped their knee. All of these things can really have an impact on appetite and their food intake.
With teething, I recommend keeping on top of the pain if you can with regular paracetamol to ensure that the pain doesn’t have a chance to rise, as the paracetamol wears off.
Children need to have really good core stability to be able to concentrate on the skills that are required for eating. Eating is a complex process and involves 8 different sensory components.
Children need stability around their middle, around the backs of the legs and under their feet. A decent high chair that allows for hips, knees and feet to be supported at 90 degree angles is crucial. Often I see little legs dangling! That can be a real problem and something to address if you’ve got a child who’s not eating very well.
A well supported highchair allows for core stability so that children can master proprioception or their ‘sense of self in space.’ This allows them to direct their efforts to the job in hand, eating rather than keeping themselves steady. It also really helps with things like learning how to use cutlery.
If you have a high chair without a footrest, look for something that you can use instead. You could stack up a pile of boxes or textbooks under the chair or you could tie an elastic resistance band (that you might use for yoga) around the legs of the high chair so they’ve got something to rest on. Alternatively you can buy a Footsie. These are highchair foot rests that attach to any chair, with suction pods to hold them in exactly the right spot. If you enter TCN10 at the checkout, you’ll get 10% off!
If you’re in the market for a new chair that will grow with your child, my favourite is the Stokke Tripp Trapp chair. It has a built-in footplate, and both this and the seat are adjustable and will last your child right through till their teenage years.
These work in the short-term. For example eating while watching the TV or iPad or bringing the toys to the table and having Mr. Dinosaur take a bite of dinner, however this amounts to mindless eating or eating not in response to hunger. Distractions can also be just having too many people in the room. If there’s lots going on and it’s noisy, that can put a little one off eating too. Also, silly conversations around the table such as “Which animal would you rather be?”
These do get your child to eat in the short-term because it’s fun, but it’s mindless. Children will shovel food in, or if you’re feeding them, you can spoon food in because their mind is elsewhere, doing something else.
But when children are eating mindlessly, they are not interacting with the food. There’s no learning happening, they are not experiencing the sensory properties of the food and they are not paying attention to their hunger or their fullness cues.
This can lead to them either overeating as they grow up or it can lead to them not eating enough, simply because they haven’t learned how. It actually exacerbates fussy eating, making it worse and lasting longer.
There’s no practice of cutlery, there’s no learning about how to move food around their mouths, there’s no acknowledgement of the taste, smell, texture or flavour and there’s no noticing whether they feel hungry or full.
Often the children I see in my private practice have had years of these experiences.
11. Self feeding.
Another reason why Toddlers don’t eat is down to self-feeding.
Undoubtedly, Toddlers will eat more if you’re loading up the spoon or the fork and you’re plopping it into their mouths. But actually, that’s not what we want them to do.
Yes, absolutely, they won’t take in as much, but that’s not the aim. The aim of this is for them to become independent feeders, so they can scoop up food with a spoon, or spear food with their fork in response to those internal hunger and fullness cues from inside their body.
They need to learn that those feelings they get in their tummy, tell them that they’re hungry and are taken away when they eat. We want them to be able to respond to those cues autonomously.
Believe it or not children are actually good at doing this, it’s called self regulation and they are born with it. Even babies can do it.
A breastfed baby will only feed when you put them to the breast if they need to. They simply won’t latch on otherwise. They are intuitively eating.
As parents we actually teach our children to override this natural instinct when we spoon feed them, so letting them be independent in their eating whether that’s by using their hands or cutlery and trusting them is how we allow children to regain this self-regulation.
Pressuring children to eat will turn off appetite completely.
Often as parents, (and I’m guilty of this myself), we’re thinking about how can we get food into our children, but actually that shouldn’t be our objective.
We worry that they will wake in the night, we worry that they wont get enough nutrition and will pick up every bug going, we worry that they might not grow and so I understand why all you might want them to do is eat.
What pressure looks like might be offering them a reward. “If you eat your peas, you can have some ice cream for your pudding,” or, “If you take two more bites of that broccoli, I’ll let you have the iPad.” Or even just reminding children, “Well, you haven’t had very much of that tonight” or “Can you please eat some of your chicken?,” and punishment “There’ll be no stories at bedtime if you don’t finish your dinner.”
All of this amounts to pressure. And pressure results in a release of hormones that actually switch off appetite, physically stopping your child from wanting to eat.
The same thing can happen when mealtimes become a battleground. For example, if there’s teasing between siblings or an argument at mealtimes, the hormone release simply cuts appetite dead.
Dinner is often the worst meal of the day for many children, from Toddlers to pre-teens and that’s because they are tired. It makes sense, it’s the end of a busy day and they’re getting ready for bed.
I often see families where breakfast goes down really well, kids might do OK at lunch but by dinner they don’t eat much.
In reality toddlers just can’t be bothered anymore, it’s too much effort.
That’s when they’re going to gravitate towards those beige foods, that’s when they’re going to ask for chicken nuggets and hot dogs that are pre-processed so they don’t have to chew as much.
Make life easier for yourself, switch meals around.
Make lunch a bit more substantial and dinner something a bit more low key like pizza, scrambled eggs or beans on toast.
Sandwiches can be just as nutritious as a cooked meal. Their dinner doesn’t always need to be a hot one.
14. Activity levels.
If your Toddler has had a busy day, whether that’s running around the park, or they’ve been using their brain such as if they’ve had new experiences, visited somewhere new, if they’ve mastered a new skill like a puzzle, that can lead to an increase in appetite.
Conversely, if it’s been a rainy day, you’ve spent the day at home with the TV on, they might not eat so much. That’s purely down to energy expenditure. If they haven’t used a lot of energy, they’re not going to need to refuel themselves quite as much. This is another reason why appetites vary and fluctuate on a daily basis!
Why is a sensory preference not listed as a reason why children don’t eat?
This is a question that gets asked a lot! And the true answer is that sensory reasons are involved throughout most of the 14 reasons!
We use our senses to experience food and eating. Your toddler is still learning to eat by using their senses every day, whether it is the texture or taste of a food, their activity levels and appetite, or a desire for those predictable beige foods that are easy to eat.
Likewise pain, their position on their chair and getting mixed up with their internal body feelings are also sensory related.
If your child has sensory related fussy eating it’s likely that there have always been signs but you may not have understood their link. That’s not surprising, there’s very little information for parents on this topic.
If you are worried that your child may have more than just typical fussy eating, then please take my quiz, which will help you identify what’s going on for them.
So there you have it!
I hope that helps you understand a little more about what’s going on when your Toddler isn’t eating well.
If you want to learn more about how to get your toddler to eat, you can read my blog all about it here.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.
The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.
Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open