This post was updated in November 2019.
Toddlerhood can be a frustrating time for parents, especially when your toddler won’t eat. As a working pediatric nutritionist, I hear the details, the concerns and the hair-pulling frustration from so many parents.
“My toddler won’t eat dinner. He can barely sit still at the table and always wants to get down.”
“My son is 3 years old and won’t eat anything but snacks. The only meal I can get him to eat is pizza and milk. I’m worried about him.”
“My toddler won’t eat dinner. Plus, she is almost 3 and still won’t eat vegetables — even the few she was eating before.”
“My son is almost 2 and has suddenly stopped eating …what are the reasons a toddler won’t eat?”
“My 2 1/2 year old son will only eat a certain brand of chicken and French fries (of which I try to bake). Anything else he gags on…”
The consistent question I hear about toddler eating is this:
Why won’t my toddler eat?
It’s a good question!
Why do toddlers change so dramatically, going from avid eater to one that seems to care less about food and exist on next to nothing?
In this article, I’ll explore the main reasons your child won’t eat, and how you can help your child. My step-by-step guide, developed from years of working with children and their families, will help you tackle this issue, so keep reading.
Toddler Food Changes
For toddlers, eating takes the backseat to exploring the world, doing things for themselves and learning. Picky eating is part of many toddler’s developmental trajectory.
I think it’s pretty normal, however, it probably doesn’t feel very normal to you.
Any parent of a toddler will tell you, the days of the Honeymoon Phase of Feeding come to a halt, often immediately.
The toddler refuses to eat the foods he once loved.
He wants the same food day-in and day-out.
He won’t even try something unfamiliar.
Toddler food changes can be dramatic and sudden…and very frustrating for parents!
Toddler Growth Slows Down
During toddlerhood, growth slows down compared to the quick clip of the first year of life when the body size increases two to three times from birth.
As growth slows the appetite follows, becoming less voracious than it once was.
While all this is happening, toddlers get more curious, desire more independence, and are figuring out how to have control over their environment (and you!), while flexing their self-control muscles.
Yet, you may expect that eating will continue to go well. You may even be shocked to see how differently your toddler eats compared to when they were a baby.
Most toddlers experience some dip in their eating, or at least some changes in their food preferences.
To ensure your growing toddler will continue to happily accept new foods, new textures and all experiences with food, you’ll have to pay attention to a few things.
Negative Feeding Begins
If your toddler stops eating well your gut instinct may be to make eating happen.
Who wants to worry about how much their kid ate, or whether he’ll sleep through the night?
You take action!
You may put pressure on your toddler to take another bite of food, eat more, or you may even force your toddler to take bites of food.
Mealtimes get longer and longer and your child becomes less cooperative.
You see the joy of eating and exploring new food slipping away.
When you pressure your toddler to eat, the feeding dynamic and parent-child interaction may get off track, causing your toddler to eat less, while you become more frustrated and worried.
How to Get a Toddler to Eat
When parents ask me, “How do I get my picky toddler to eat?” I cringe a little on the inside.
I know that if your mindset is set on how to get your child to eat, you are probably engaging in some negative feeding tactics.
Parents do well to stay the course with food and feeding, following Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
It helps to adjust your expectations and not getting too ruffled about how well your toddler is eating.
Easier said than done, right?!
Remember this: The more attention you bring to your toddler’s eating and the more you try to control, change it, or make it happen, the worse his eating can get.The more attention you bring to your toddler’s eating and the more you try to control, change it, or make it happen, the worse his eating can get. #pickyeating #pickyeater #feedingkids Click To Tweet
Even worse? You can extend the picky eating phase for your child.
There are many more potential underlying reasons for the child who won’t eat. I’ve covered the top 12 in this article.
How to Help the Picky Eater Toddler
First, if your toddler isn’t eating to your liking, make sure you know the 7 basic principles of healthy toddler meals.
This is a good place to begin.
Then, move through these 6 steps.
They will help you set up a system that supports your toddler through this phase, while avoiding more eating problems.
Step 1: Kids Eating & a Schedule for Meals and Snacks
You’ll want to set an eating schedule during the day, planning for meals and snacks to happen at predictable times.
For toddlers, I like to see a 2-3 hour window between eating sessions and a total of five to six eating opportunities during the day.
Going longer than that can produce a toddler who is too hungry. You know how toddlers can get when they’re starving — cranky, tantrum-prone and uncooperative.
If you offer fewer meals and snacks, you’ll have a tough time meeting your child’s required nutrients for the day.
Here’s an example of what a toddler eating schedule might look like:
6 am breakfast
8:30 am snack
11:00 am lunch
2 pm snack
5 pm dinner
7 pm snack
You’ll want your child’s meal and snack routine happening at roughly the same time day in and day out.
**meals should offer most food groups; snacks generally include two or more food groups, or could be a cup of milk**
For more on how to create a balanced meal for your toddler, read The Best Balanced Meal Plan for Kids.
Step 2: Create a Positive Feeding Environment
Toddlers can be easily distracted and meal times are no different. Turn off the TV, put the toys away, shush the animals, and create a quiet environment so your toddler can give all of his attention to eating.
Pick a familiar location for meals and snacks, such as the kitchen and the highchair, or another regular place.
Make sure your toddler is comfortable in his seat and make toddler utensils (small utensils for small hands) available.
Sit with your child and pay attention to his eating signs that tell you when he is done.
Don’t pressure your toddler to eat or stop eating (see Step 5 below).
Step 3: Choose Healthy Foods for Picky Toddlers & Let Your Toddler Lead with His Appetite
Toddlerhood is a time of food exploration. Namely, you are offering a lot of different foods in order to help your toddler try new foods and expand his food variety.
It is a time of learning and accumulating more foods in the diet.
You’ll want to offer all the different food groups—grains, fruit, vegetable, protein, and dairy foods—throughout the day, and plan to include them at each meal.
Include two or more food groups at snack time. Rotate items within the food groups to build variety.
For example, rotate different fruits such as strawberries, peaches, banana, cut grapes, raisins, and so on.
Generally, toddlers eat small portions of food when you compare it to what an adult would eat.
A toddler portion of food reflects his tummy size—it’s small.
My general advice is to start with a toddler portion. Let your toddler ask for more food if he is hungry.
Milk can be a big contribution to the diet.
If your toddler is filling up on milk, he may not eat very well.
Milk can be filling to a small tummy, crowding out room for food.
You can always offer food first and reserve milk or other liquids for the end of the meal if this is an issue for your toddler.
Step 4: Pay Attention to Important Nutrients
Zinc is important for overall growth and keeping your toddler’s immunity in top form.
Iron helps keep your toddler’s brain growing and developing normally, while making sure he is energized.
Calcium and vitamin D help your toddler’s bones grow strong and hard.
Healthy fats like DHA help to make sure your toddler’s brain and body are growing well.
For the toddler, iron deficiency anemia, frequent illnesses, and rickets (a condition resulting in bowed legs) may be the result of nutrient deficiencies, so keep your eye on foods that help your toddler get enough of them.
Here are a sampling of important nutrients and some nutrient-dense food options:
Zinc foods: red meat, beans, ready-to-eat cereal
Iron rich foods: red meat, dark leafy greens, dark meat poultry, soybeans, raisins
Calcium rich foods: milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified ready-to-eat cereals
Vitamin D foods: tuna canned in water, vitamin-D fortified orange juice, milk, eggs
Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, seeds, nuts, fatty fish such as salmon
For more details on the nutrients your child needs, and an easy way to go about making sure he gets them from food, check out my Nutrients for Kids, Advanced Guide book.
My book, The Calcium Handbook, can help with calcium and vitamin D food sources.
Step 5: Use a Diplomatic Feeding Style
As mentioned above, research tells us that too much pressure can make things worse, leading to less eating and prolonged picky eating.
Even too much praise can backfire!
Not only does pressure interfere with your toddler’s eating, rewarding your child with dessert, taking away food, or short-order cooking (making your child what he will eat) also complicates eating for your child.
It’s best to keep a neutral disposition when feeding young children.
Remember, the goal is not to get your child to eat but to provide opportunities to taste, eat and explore food without negative interactions.
Yes, I know that the eating habits of your toddler may be less than satisfying to you, but there are things that help and things that don’t help.
It helps when you:
Provide regular meals and snacks
Offer nutritious combinations of food
Let your child decide whether he is eating what you offered or not
Close the kitchen after meals and snacks
Remain calm no matter how badly your toddler is behaving
It doesn’t help when you:
Get mad, frustrated or upset in front of your toddler
Pressure your toddler to eat
Bribe or negotiate over food
Reward your toddler with dessert in exchange for eating or trying something new
Punish your toddler for not eating
Force your toddler to eat
Want to do a self-assessment of your feeding style? Snag my feeding style comparison guide.
Step 6: My Toddler Won’t Eat Anything. How Long Can a Child Go Without Eating?
Some toddlers will get stuck in the “not eating” phase, and may need more help.
If your toddler is going days without eating, you need to see the pediatrician and make sure your toddler isn’t losing weight or in immediate danger of dehydration.
If your toddler isn’t growing well or is underweight, you may need to see a dietitian who works with kids to make sure your child is getting the nutrition he needs.
If you suspect other things are contributing to your toddler’s eating behaviors, you may need to get a feeding evaluation.
I’ve created a Step-by-Step Guide to help you stay on track as you move through this tricky phase with your toddler.
You can snag it here:
What do you do when your toddler won’t eat?
P.S. If you’re in over your head, you may need to dig into a more positive and productive way of feeding your child.
Sure, my 6-Step Guide above will certainly get you started, but if you want to really transform HOW to offer and interact around new food and a picky eater, get my workbook, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat, & Like New Food!
If you want to learn more about nourishing your child as he grows, check out my online program, The Nourished Child Project. Learn how to set up a food system in your home, a diplomatic feeding style, and establish the healthy habits your child will need to grow up healthy — in the comfort of your own home!