This article was updated on October 26, 2019.
“My child won’t eat,” said Debbie.
“I’m at my wits end. Every night, my little guy barely touches the meal.” She describes how, night after night, getting her child to eat ruins the meal.
“It’s a real struggle!” she exclaims.
What do you do when your child refuses dinner?
Or when your 2 year old won’t eat vegetables?
When your toddler won’t eat anything?
When your child refuses to eat anything, it can be extremely frustrating. If your child is refusing food, it can leave you angry, full of despair, and even hopeless.
I don’t want you to feel that way.
We hear a lot about children who are overweight and kids who overeat. As a result, we may be left wondering about kids who don’t eat enough or the toddler who is refusing food.
In this article, you’ll learn the potential reasons why your child isn’t eating, and what you can do about it.
There is always a reason why when your child won’t eat, and it’s not always because he doesn’t like the food that’s offered.
12 Reasons Kids Don’t Want to Eat
In my experience, when your toddler or child won’t eat there can be a number of underlying reasons. Understanding the root of the problem will help you solve it.
1. Your Child’s Growth is Slowing Down
Around age two or three, your toddler’s growth slows down, and his appetite follows. It’s no coincidence that this is right around the time that picky eating begins.
Often, this is the reason why a toddler’s not eating, or even why the two year old isn’t eating. Although it’s concerning, it’s pretty common for young children, especially toddlers.
School-age kids are steady growers and their appetite stays fairly predictable, so a drop in appetite related to growth isn’t usually the culprit with this age group.
Like the baby phase, teens see an uptick in their appetite due to the teenage growth spurt. Again, we don’t see slowed growth as a reason for teens not eating.
2. Your Child is a Picky Eater
It’s not uncommon for toddlers to be picky eaters. As mentioned, toddlerhood is the age of picky eating, spanning between ages two and six years.
Being choosy with food is often part of the toddler developmental stage that nearly all children pass through. They are doing the important jobs of exploring, separating from their parents, and using their newfound voice to say, “No.”
Picky eaters often won’t eat vegetables and may refuse to try new food. When it comes to vegetables, young children may find them bitter and shy away from them.
Food neophobia, or a fear of new food, is a common characteristic of toddler picky eating. Food jags, or eating the same food day after day, is another hallmark of picky eaters.
You can see how development and those typical symptoms of pickiness work together to interrupt that honeymoon phase of eating, when babies eat whatever you give them.
Picky toddlers can also be sensitive to the appearance, smell or overall sensory experience of unfamiliar food and be less willing to try new food. If you suspect you’ve got a child who is sensitive to the texture, flavor or appearance of food, be sure to explore this further.
My article, Does My Child Have ARFID? can help sort this out.
You can make this picky eating phase drag on by forcing your child to eat, bribing him with dessert, or taking away privileges (or food).
Of course you don’t want to do that! In the end it doesn’t work anyway.
3. Your Child Experiences Pressure to Eat at the Table
Research shows that children who are pushed, pressured or prompted to try new food, take another bite, or finish their meal may be less willing to try new food and more likely to eat poorly and less healthfully.
Let’s digest that.
The more you ask, remind or demand your toddler to eat, the less he does.
Alternatively, pressure to eat may cause different results: encouraging children to eat beyond their appetite, and perhaps too much.
How? That child who is compliant and does what he’s asked may eat more than his internal body cues are telling him to. Doing this over and over can teach children to overeat.
If your toddler is not eating, take a step back and assess whether he’s in a picky eating phase. If so, pressuring him may cause early fullness and shut down his appetite.
Any kind of pressure, even celebratory remarks like, “Yay! I knew you could do it!” and excessive praise can lead to the same results.
4. Your Child has a Food Allergy
Some children don’t eat well when they have a food allergy. There are several food allergies that are common in children. We call them the Big 8: milk, soy, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, fish and shellfish.
If a child has multiple food allergies, you can bet there are many food restrictions and diet limitations, which can lead to narrowed food selections and boredom.
Poor eating is a real risk in this situation.
Be sure to work with a nutrition professional if your child has food allergies so that you can make sure he’s getting all the nutrition he needs to grow well.
5. Your Child has Super Sensitive Taste Buds
When your child won’t eat vegetables or other foods, like meat, it may be due to highly sensitive taste buds. For some children, the taste of bitter is highly offensive because they taste it more intensively.
Super-tasters have more taste buds on the tongue, and they may be more sensitive to the chemical components of food, especially those of bitter and sour flavors.
If this is true with your child, it can result in selective eating, especially with vegetables. Pushing or pressuring your child to eat veggies may worsen the situation.
6. Your Child is Sensitive to Texture
When I hear a toddler is not eating, I am suspicious of texture aversion. If your child is leery of foods that are mushy, wet or slippery, she may be exhibiting signs of sensory sensitivity.
Picky eaters who tend to eat bland foods or all white foods may also be sensitive to the appearance or smell of food.
Having a sensitivity to certain food characteristics can limit the diet, leading to poor eating and nutrition.
You may need to work with a feeding specialist or nutritionist who can help your child branch out to new foods and learn to tolerate those textures.
7. Your Child is on a Food Jag
Is your child eating the same things day after day? Loving a handful of foods? Your hot dog loving preschooler may be on a food jag, getting stuck on a few favorite foods.
This can appear like your toddler is not eating, but most likely your child is eating enough, just not the variety of food you’d like to see him eat.
If your child is growing well, happy, and the two of your aren’t struggling over food, I’d bet your child is moving through a normal phase of development.
8. Your Child is Filling Up on Snacks
When your child refuses to eat, it’s time to look at the big picture. What is she eating throughout the day?
If she’s filling up on snacks, she’s filling up her belly, which can curtail her appetite at mealtime.
Some kids will fill up on food-based snacks, while others will fill their bellies with juice or milk. Any of these foods and beverages can shift the balance of the diet.
Make sure your child has plenty of opportunity to eat meals and snacks on a predictable schedule.
9. Your Child may be a Disordered Eater
If you have an older child who won’t eat, you may be dealing with a larger concern called disordered eating. When kids and teens cut back on eating, they may be trying to lose weight.
They could also be emulating their peers, experimenting, or dieting due to body dissatisfaction.
Disordered eating includes skipping meals, cutting out food groups, or dieting, and paves the way for an eating disorder.
10. Your Child has Too Many Distractions
If you’re using distraction techniques to help your child eat, they may be working against you rather than for you (or your child). Kids are easily distracted by TV or toys at the table, and this may have a negative impact on their eating.
It’s best to let your child focus on food and eating at the table—he can get back to playing or TV time later.
11. Your Child is Too Tired to Eat
When your child won’t eat dinner, it may simply be due to sheer exhaustion from a long day. Think of the young athlete who’s gone to school all day and attended sports practice afterward, or the toddler who is naturally tired at the end of the day (especially if they are weaning off of nap time!).
The good news is most children are good at making up the difference in their food consumption when one meal is less than stellar. They just increase their eating at the next meal or snack.
12. Your Child is Sick
When your child is ill, she tends to eat less well. This is mainly due to a reduced appetite, which is common when any of us get sick.
Generally, illness is short-term and not a worry, as the appetite tends to comes back when your child starts to feel better.
When your child won’t eat, it’s important to figure out the WHY behind it so you can correct any potential practices that interfere with your child’s eating. If it’s a normal part of development, you can ride it out.
And that’s where it can get tricky.
My Child Won’t Eat and Is Losing Weight
If you have a child who won’t eat and is losing weight, you’ll want to pay more attention to the nutrition you are providing him. In my experience, this is one of the most stressful challenges for parents.
Instead of shoveling food into your toddler’s mouth, you’ll have to take a balanced approach to this delicate situation. Feeding the underweight child includes optimizing calories and nutrients to help the picky eater gain weight, while also using a positive feeding style.
How to Get Your Toddler to Eat
Kids eating can drive us crazy! Feeling stuck with your child’s eating? Want to help your child try new foods? If your child won’t eat and your find yourself caught up in a negative cycle of feeding, I’ve got the perfect resource for you!
Try New Food will help you, step-by-step, set up a positive environment to help your child taste new foods, even if it seems you’ll never get your child to eat. You’ll even get new foods for picky toddlers. Grab your copy NOW!
Are you struggling to get your toddler to eat? I’ve got a cheat sheet in the article to help you get started.
If your child isn’t eating because he’s a picky eater, read this article for help.
And, read this article if you’ve got a baby who refuses to eat.
Or listen to these podcast episodes on picky eating:
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: October 26, 2019
Updated on: October 26, 2019