Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched your toddler push away a plate of food or stare distractedly instead of eating. Most parents can relate to this mealtime scenario. While common, it can be frustrating — and even worrisome — for parents.
Here’s the good news: Pediatric nutrition experts say it’s typically no cause for panic. “The very first thing I say to a parent if their toddler is not eating is that, in all likelihood, this is perfectly normal,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Roberts, child feeding specialist and author of Help! My Toddler Is Not Eating. In fact, toddlers’ style of intuitive eating might even inspire their parents.
“On the whole, toddlers are really good at regulating their energy needs, more so than many adults. I absolutely love toddlers for this,” Roberts explains. “Adults could learn a lot from how toddlers eat.”
That is, toddlers generally eat when they’re hungry — to get the fuel they need for their activity level and growth — and not because of social conditioning or visual cues.
Kacie Barnes, a pediatric registered dietitian who works exclusively with children under 5, underscores toddlers’ innate competence to eat intuitively. “Toddlers do a great job of listening to their internal hunger and fullness cues. They are not going to eat just because it’s mealtime if their body doesn’t need the fuel.”
Still, the issue can confound and exasperate parents at mealtime. Here, experts explain more about why toddlers don’t eat and offer actionable tips to help parents cope.
Why is my toddler not eating?
Kids go through a “neophobic” stage — meaning fear of the new — and that’s perfectly normal for this part of child development starting around two years old, Roberts explains. Put simply, kids may be suspicious of new and unfamiliar foods.
And while this may be inconvenient at mealtime, it’s also an important protective tool. “It prevents young children, who are just starting to explore the world on their own two feet, from ingesting substances that are potentially harmful until they have learned what is safe to eat,” Roberts explains. “Your toddler is primed to be wary of changes that signify a potential threat in the environment. This has kept children safe for hundreds of years.”
Further, Barnes notes that many toddlers are calorie front loaders, “meaning they eat more of their daily needs in the first half of the day. That may frustrate parents come dinnertime, but it’s actually a practical way for growing kids to eat, she says. “As a dietitian, I don’t mind them eating this way because their body needs fuel for the physical and mental activity that’s to come. It’s better for them than waiting to fuel an empty tank after the fact.”
Or perhaps your toddler is going through a “food jag,” suggests registered dietician Maggy Doherty, owner of the nutrition private practice Doherty Nutrition. This is “when a child likes one specific food and eats that food for an extended period of time,” eschewing all others.
What parents can do when a toddler isn’t eating
Parents can help smooth toddlers’ paths through these phases and patterns. Here are 13 expert-recommended approaches to try at home.
1. Play it cool. If you freak out, they’ll sense it and follow the lead.
2. Don’t pressure them. “Bribing, cajoling, begging, or coaxing” don’t work, Roberts says. Barnes adds, “It’s your job to serve the meal. It’s their job to decide if they want to eat it and how much. If we try to pressure them, it overrides their internal cues, and can also stress them out, leading to losing their appetite.”
3. Don’t make substitutes or special meals. This only rewards and reinforces the behavior of refusing food. “The problem here is that then they learn that they can turn down dinner in favor of something better coming after,” Barnes says.
4. Don’t let your toddler go hungry. “They don’t eat better if they are made to go hungry”, Roberts says. “Try instead to schedule three meals and at least two snacks. That way you and your toddler know that nutrition is on its way.”
5. Discourage grazing between meals. “If they are snacking too much, they will not have much of an appetite at meals,” Barnes says, recommending two to three snacks a day. “Toddlers typically do not need to eat any more frequently than every two to three hours. When they do graze throughout the day, it may feel like they’re eating nothing because you never really see them eat a full meal.”
6. Don’t make toddlers sit at the table until they’re finished. “It doesn’t make them eat any better and can start to make mealtimes unpleasurable,” Roberts says. “Generally 20 to 30 minutes is enough for a meal.”
7. Serve from the middle of the table. This way, your toddler can help themselves to dishes served family-style “and gets to feel like a grown-up,” Roberts says. “Being involved in the mealtime and having a sense of control can be helpful.”
8. Expose them to new tastes and textures. “Toddlers often have to experience a taste or texture on several occasions before it goes in the ‘like’ category,” Roberts says. “They have fewer food experiences than us and fewer memories and reference points than adults. They’re still learning about the wonderful world of food!”
9. Demonstrate that food is safe and good to eat. You’re their most important role model and they’re watching how you respond to food. “This is why family meals are so important,” Robers says. “They’re your child’s chance to learn about food and how to eat. Role modeling has been shown to be one of the most important factors influencing dietary intake in young children. Chances are if you don’t eat it, your child won’t either.”
10. Play with food. Roberts says you can help your toddler get used to the different sensory properties of food and learn what to expect through (yes, that’s right) playing with food. Try creating a picture with spaghetti shapes, lentils, or couscous; making shapes out of fruits and vegetables and using them as stamps with paint; painting with yogurt using a paint brush or fingers; or sorting foods into different shapes or colors.
11. Create a routine. Kids generally thrive on structure, and “establishing a daily pattern for meals provides the toddler with consistency and a sense of routine when it comes to eating,” Doherty says.
12. Mind their posture. No, this isn’t just an etiquette issue: Children must be seated comfortably with their upper body straight and their hips, knees, and feet aligned at 90 degrees in order to comfortably eat. “If a child is not well supported in their seat, all their energy goes to improving that posture and distracts them from their goal of eating during mealtime,” explains Dina Totosegis, pediatric dietician and founder of Sprouting Foodies.
13. Establish and model a positive mindset around food. “Keep the atmosphere during mealtime pleasant without specific focus on the child’s eating,” Totosegis explains. “This will not trigger their adrenaline system, which usually suppresses appetite, shuts down digestion, and shifts the child’s state from learning to reacting.”
When to call the doctor
While it’s normal for toddlers to resist eating, parents can look for some indicators that professional assistance might be needed. Some children are more sensitive to sensory stimuli, and if this is getting in the way of eating, you might enlist the help of an occupational therapist.
Very rarely, a child might have a problem with swallowing, Roberts says. Look out for signs like coughing before or after swallowing, a runny nose or sneezing or eye-watering during or after a meal, complaining of the feeling that something is caught in the throat, a gurgly voice during or after eating or drinking, and throat clearing after a meal.
“If you have any concerns that your child might have an underlying medical condition that is affecting his or her food intake, or you suspect your child has any problems with swallowing, then you must arrange for your child to see a pediatrician or other medical professional,” Roberts says.
Overall, trust your gut: If you notice weight loss or suspect your child isn’t getting enough nutrition, Doherty says, “the best thing to do is ask your pediatrician or see a dietitian in order to rule out any nutritional risks.”