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My Toddler Won’t Eat! [A Step-by-Step Guide]

Toddlerhood can be a frustrating time for parents, especially when your toddler won’t eat. As a pediatric nutritionist, I hear the details, the concerns and the hair-pulling frustration from so many parents.

And as a mom who’s been through it and seen the dark side of picky toddlers (hello, low weight and anemia!), I have a heart for parents who are worried and struggle with this.

I hope this post will help you feel calmer.

If you want to hear my story in detail, check out my TEDx talk.

My daughter at age one.

Why Won’t My Toddler Eat?

There are several reasons why toddlers change their eating. Often it seems to happen overnight and the worry for parents spikes.

Here’s what some parents are saying:

“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 so worried!”

“My toddler won’t eat dinner. Plus, she’s 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…”

Sound familiar? The consistent question Why won’t my toddler eat? is a good one.

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 at all?

In this article, I’ll explore the main reasons toddlers refuse to eat, and how you can help. My step-by-step guide to toddler picky eating, developed from years of working with children and their families, will help you tackle this issue, so keep reading.

Why Did My Toddler Stop Eating?

For toddlers, exploring the world, doing things for themselves and learning takes center-stage. And this can certainly interfere with eating.

Picky eating during toddlerhood is a part of the toddler developmental trajectory for many children.

I think it’s pretty typical, however, it probably doesn’t feel very normal to you.

Any parent of a toddler will tell you, the days when their baby would eat anything, something I call the “Honeymoon Phase of Eating,” 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 new.

Toddler food changes can be dramatic and sudden…and very frustrating for parents! But there are good reasons for this.

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 its size from birth.

As growth slows the appetite follows, becoming less voracious than it once was. Let me repeat, because this is an important concept: Growth and appetite are tightly woven together. When growth slows, appetite slows. When growth picks up, appetite picks up too.

Growth and appetite are tightly woven together. When growth slows, appetite slows. When growth picks up, appetite picks up, too.

Toddlers are Curious Creatures

While growth and appetite are tapering off, toddlers are getting more curious about the world around them. They want to separate from mom or day and have more independence. That’s why they don’t want you to feed them any longer. They want to do it themselves.

Toddlers are also figuring out how to have some control over their environment (and you!), while figuring out how to control themselves. Ever notice how you have to help a toddler calm down from a temper tantrum? It’s partly because they can’t control themselves yet.

As a parent, you may expect your little one’s eating will continue to go well. Just like infancy. You may be shocked to see how differently your toddler eats compared to when she was a baby.

The truth is, 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 the potential experiences with food, you’ll have to pay attention to a few things.

Negative Feeding Can Cause Toddler Refusal to Eat

If your toddler stops eating, your gut instinct may be to make eating happen. Whether you offer him what he likes to eat or make up a “rescue” meal, you take action.

Because what parent wants to worry about how much their kid ate, or whether he’ll sleep through the night?

When you take action, you may put pressure on your toddler to take another bite of food, encourage him to eat more, or you may even force feed your toddler to take bites of food by feeding him with a spoon.

What happens? Mealtimes get longer and longer and your child becomes less cooperative.

You see his joy of eating slipping away.

When you don’t trust your toddler and use tactics to make sure he eats, like pressuring him to eat, the feeding dynamic and parent-child interaction can get off track, causing your toddler to enjoy eating less and ultimately eat less food. And you become more frustrated and worried.

My toddler won't eat! A 6-Step Guide to Help

How to Get Your 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 like the one I described above.

Parents do well to stay the course with food and feeding, following Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, where you are in charge of what is on the menu, where eating happens, and when and your toddler is in charge of whether he eats and how much.

Your job isn’t to get your child to eat. It’s to offer nutritious, delicious meals at predictable times and in a usual location. When you’ve done that, your job is complete.

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.

Even worse? You can prolong the picky eating phase for your toddler.

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

There are lots of reasons why kids won’t eat. I’ve covered the top 12 in this article.

Click Here to Snag Your FREE Cheat Sheet: Your Toddler Won’t Eat? A 6-Step System to Help

How to Help When Your Picky Toddler Won’t Eat Anything

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 the following 6 steps.

These steps will help you set up a system that supports your toddler through this picky phase, while avoiding more eating problems down the road.

Step 1: Set up 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 and increases the risk your toddler won’t be able to eat enough to meet his nutritional needs.

You know how toddlers can get when they’re starving — cranky, tantrum-prone and uncooperative.

No fun.

Toddler Eating Schedule

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. Yes, you can feed your baby/toddler without the TV. Go ahead and 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).

nutrient rich foods for toddlers

Step 3: Choose Healthy Foods & Encourage Trying New Foods

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 and overall diet.

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.

Because “exploration” is the theme of toddlerhood, use this to your advantage. Let your toddler explore food, get messy with it, and have some independence and autonomy with eating and choosing foods.

Food Portions for Toddlers

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.

Some toddlers fill up on whole milk. You’ll want to be careful with this as it can crowd out other important foods.

If your toddler is filling up on milk, he may not eat very well.

If your toddler drinks milk alternatives, you’ll want to pay more attention to other sources of protein, fat and nutrients in his diet.

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.

toddler eating an orange

Step 4: Pay Attention to Essential Nutrients

During toddlerhood, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and healthy fats like choline are important to the health and development of your toddler, as well as other 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 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.

Nutrient-dense Food Options for Toddlers

Zinc foods: meat, beans, ready-to-eat cereal, grains

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 Essential Nutrients for Kids Guidebook.  

My book, The Calcium Handbook, can help with calcium and vitamin D food sources.

My Toddler Won't Eat! A 6-Step Guide to Help

Step 5: Use a Diplomatic Feeding Style

Your feeding style can get in the way of really raising a healthy eater!

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, and 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. Get more insight on parenting food, as it’s an essential foundation of knowledge.

It’s helpful to children 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’s not helpful for children 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’s Not Eating. When Should I Call the Doctor?

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.

My Toddler’s Not Eating and Losing Weight

This happened to me. My daughter started to not gain weight and eventually she started to fall off her growth chart. If you’re in a similar situation, don’t panic. If your toddler isn’t growing well or is underweight, you may need to talk with your pediatrician about seeing a dietitian who works with kids to make sure your child is getting the nutrition he needs.

My Toddler is Choking

If your child is choking or gagging a lot when eating, this can be unpleasant – even negative – for her. Seek additional help in this case. You may need to get a feeding evaluation.

Prolonged negative experiences can cause aversion which can lead to more problems down the road.

An evaluation will help you learn if there is more going on, such as a mechanical issue in the mouth, sensory sensitivities that interfere with trying new food, ARFID, or other medical factors.

What do you do when your toddler won’t eat?

Need More Help for Picky Toddlers?

If you’re in over your head, you may need to dig into a more positive and productive way of feeding your child.

My 6-Step Guide 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! It takes you through all the steps to nourish and feed yourr toddler when picky, and even when older and extremely picky.

Toddler picking a raspberry out of an adult's hand.

Or, if you want to learn more about nourishing your child as he grows, check out my online program, The Nourished Child Blueprint.

You’ll 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!

Click Here to Snag Your FREE Cheat Sheet: Your Toddler Won’t Eat? A 6-Step System to Help

This post was updated in September 2020.

7 Principles of Serving Healthy Toddler Meals

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  1. hi jill, i have a 15months old baby boy and i do really have a problem on letting him to eat, he have lots of distruction sometimes we have to chase him first and then he will eat al ready, i also give him milk but he often drink it, im really worried about it ’cause his been look lossing weight. What would be the best for this. ?

    1. Rannie,
      You probably need to work on a bit more structure with feeding, and remember he is learning your routine. You’re teaching him now that it’s a game to get to the table (a game of chase). You need to bring him to the table, teach him that this is what you do for mealtime, and make sure there aren’t any distractions. Of course, there is a learning curve to this–you have to be consistent and he will eventually get it. 🙂

  2. My 3 year old son has stopped eating he will litteraly only eat 3 chips all day or a hotdog in 2 days …i made dinner and he only picked the spinach out that was all he would eat that day he hasnt gain weight since last year and im worried cuz i can see his spin and back of his hip bones …i try not to pressure him into eatting but i dont know what to do at this point.

    1. It’s concerning that he hasn’t gained weight in a year…It’s good you’re not pressuring him to eat, but my sense is there may be something more going on. Have you discussed with your doctor? Not eating and not gaining weight isn’t good for your son–I would urge you to get him evaluated and find out why he’s not eating.

  3. My daughter is 4 yr old she drop a lot of weight when she was 3 she was really big an out of no where she stop eating an it’s hard for us we sit down to eat with her but she won’t eat she hardly eats we try everything she only weights 38 pounds what can i do to help her out?

  4. Hello;

    Our 15 month old son has completely stopped eating. We have tried to foster good eating habits by putting him in the chair with no distractions and feeding him small bites or allowing him to pick up the foods. But it seems that his appetite seems to be going down. However, if he is allowed to run around and play and if we chase him, he will eat then; the same goes for tv. Obviously, we don’t want to continue this behavior and have chosen to just keep him in the chair without distraction. After one or two bites he says “done” and wants to get out.

    Any assistance would be great. It’s been a while now since he has reduced his intake and we are afraid that if we keep trying to enforce good behaviorism it may compromise his growth.

  5. Hi Jill!
    My daughter is 15 months old and eating is always a fight.
    When she sees the spoon, or we put on the bib, or we sit her down on her high chair she starts screaming. After the first bite (which is always a struggle) she stops yelling and almost always finishes everything but spits everything out (like a professional spitter, long range) but is seems as it’s just like a nasty habit and I ignore it a continue feeding her.
    She is pretty skinny for her age, 8kilos – 15 months but her height and head are ok.
    But the spitting is driving me crazy, the tantrums, the yelling. Eating has become a drama and I worry too much that she is underweight and not eating.
    My pediatrician said that she is a very smart kid and picks up on everything. That I should teach her that when she spits, I remove the plate and let her be without that meal.
    I’m really stressed and don’t know what to do!!

    1. Hi Maria,
      Yes, feeding little ones can be very challenging. Assuming your pediatrician has ruled out any issues with swallowing or esophageal problems, one thing to think about is to not have ANY reaction to her behavior, whether it is good or bad. Just be very neutral. Also, make sure you are letting her self-feed. Sometimes young children are ready to go down this path before their parents are! And, last, you’ll want to make sure you’re being positive and methodical about feeding–i go into that in depth in my e-guide Try New Food. If all else fails, it’s time for professional, one-on-one help, especially to ensure good growth and get over this hump.

  6. My son is 1 year old and he doesn’t hardly eat anything I can get him to eat popcorn chicken or fish sticks or steak fingers or cheese and he likes cereal but that is basically all when he was younger he used to eat everything I would make a three-course meal and he would be fine but since he has turned a year old he doesn’t want to eat and he will eat weenies and this is all I don’t know what to do I’m really worried that he’s not getting enough sometimes he will take a bite or to and then stop eating I don’t know what else to do I tried everything.

  7. Hello
    My 3 y/o granddaughter who lives with will eat only a few foods. When she was at the stage to learn new foods her mother was in jail and her dad let her eat whatever she wanted. Now she only eats cheese flavored crackers, saltines, apple sauce, and likes milk, mostly chocolate. No protein! Can’t get her try anything new. She’ll let it sit on the table all day. Not sure what to do. If we insist she just gets upset.

  8. My daughter used to eat so well. Meat fish veg potatoes …pretty much anything i gave her.all be it it was mashed as she was only 1. This summer she turned 2 and has completely changed. Its all the same food but she wont eat. I have tried giving it more solid and mashed but nothing. Before with some effort to get her eat first spoon then she would eat it. Now she puts hand over her mouth and refuses everything. She has been like this for weeks but is not loosing weight as she loves her milk, cereal, bananas yoghurts and cheese. I know this is not enough and she needs to eat more and properly. In creche she eats nothing only what i have mentioned. I used to try push her to eat and i know we should not do that so i have stopped. I make her choose foods and i give her lots of homemade choices but nothing.im at the end of my tether. She hasnt eat pot veg eggs or meat in weeks! Any suggestions would be helpful. Thanks

    1. It’s pretty typical for eating habits and willingness to eat new foods changes in the second year–I would feed her the usual stuff, include some new foods, and give her the independence to eat on her own. Save the drinks for last to encourage her to eat solids first. Stay on a structured time schedule for meals/snacks. If she doesn’t eat at meal or snack time, then try the next time. Be sure to offer water between meals/snacks (kids can fill up on milk between then not be hungry at eating times).

  9. Our 2 1/2 year old likes veggies, but will go for the starchy food on the plate first, and then won’t go “back” to the veggies. She does the same with milk. Sometimes we place only her veggies on the plate first, wait until she’s eaten a good portion of them, and then dole out the pasta or fish sticks, for example. I try to do this with milk as well (“forgetting” to get her milk cup until she asks for it, or she’s eaten a good portion of her meal). Are these acceptable practices?

    1. Hey Sarah,
      Families use many different strategies to feed their children. Obviously the overall goal is to encourage your girl to eat a variety of food groups at mealtime and it probably doesn’t matter the order in which they are offered. The important thing is to make sure you’re not “holding out” food–ie, making her eat veggies before she can eat anything else. This could end up making her dislike veggies more, as she may see them as an obstacle to getting what she really wants. I think it’s pretty normal for kids to go for the carbs, but I would gently encourage her to eat all the food groups you offer and explore the different flavors. Without pressure, she may surprise you and get around to eating everything you offer!