When Your Toddler Doesn't Want to Eat


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How much should my child eat?

How much your child eats may be very different from how much another child eats. Don't worry if it seems that your child doesn't eat enough at one meal. Children often make up for a small meal or a missed meal at the next mealtime.

If your child has plenty of energy and is growing, he or she is most likely healthy. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about how your child is growing or if you are concerned that picky eating is slowing your child's growth.

What if my child is a picky eater?

Many toddlers are picky eaters. Being picky about food is a normal behavior for many toddlers. There may be times when your child wants to eat a particular food again and again for a while, and then not want to eat it at all. Offer your child a variety of nutritious foods and let him or her choose what to eat. You may want to serve something you know your child likes along with another new nutritious food. But try to let your child explore new foods on his or her own. Don’t force your child to taste new foods. You may need to offer a new food several times before your child tries it.

You may need to be flexible with the meals you prepare to make sure your child gets a balanced diet. For example, if you're making beef stew for dinner and your child will only eat potatoes and carrots, you may need to cook some of these vegetables separate from the stew so that your child will eat them.

You may want to make a list of foods that you know your child likes so you can make sure he or she eats a balanced diet. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Web site, ChooseMyPlate.gov, offers good information about nutrition for children and adults.

Setting a good example for your child can also help. If your child sees you eating a variety of healthy foods, he or she will be more likely to give them a try.

How can I make sure my child is getting enough to eat?

Offer your child food that is tasty and looks good, and offer the right amount. A good rule of thumb is to offer 1 tablespoon of each kind of food for each year of your child's age. If your child is still hungry, you can serve more. Don't force your child to clean his or her plate. Once he or she is no longer hungry, your child should be allowed to stop eating.

Try not to bribe your child to eat (such as offering dessert as a reward). Threats or punishments aren't good ideas, either. If your child doesn't want to eat, accept his or her refusal. Even though you may be concerned, don't show your child that you are upset by this refusal to eat. If your child is seeking attention, your disapproval fills that need, and he or she may try to gain your attention in the same way another time.

What about snacks?

Your child should have 3 meals and 2 snacks a day. Toddlers usually don’t eat enough in one meal to remain full until the next mealtime. Offer your child small, healthy snacks in between meals. Some examples of healthy snacks include low-fat string cheese, yogurt cups, apple slices or strawberry halves, slices of lean turkey or whole-grain crackers with peanut butter.

Try not to offer your child snacks close to mealtimes. If the next meal is several hours away, it’s okay to serve a snack. If the meal is in the next hour, avoid offering your child a snack. If your child comes to the table hungry, he or she is more likely to eat the meal.

If your child doesn't eat at one mealtime, you can offer a nutritious snack a few hours later. If your child doesn't eat the snack, offer food again at the next mealtime. A child will usually eat at the second meal. With this approach, you can be sure that your child won't go hungry for too long or have other problems associated with a poor diet.

How can I make mealtimes easier?

You may want to try the following suggestions to make mealtimes easier and more enjoyable:

  • Give your child a heads up. Ten to 15 minutes before mealtime, tell your child that it will be time to eat soon. Children may be so tired or excited from play activities that they don't feel like eating. Letting your child know that it is almost time for a meal will give him or her a chance to settle down before eating.
  • Establish a routine. Children are more comfortable with routines and predictability, so set regular mealtimes, have people use the same seats at the table or create a tradition to have each person talk about something fun or interesting that happened to them during the day.
  • Reserve mealtimes for eating and for spending quality time with your family. Don't let your child play with toys during mealtimes. Reading books or watching television shouldn't be allowed during mealtimes either. Explain to your child how good it is to eat together and ask him or her to stay at the table until everyone has eaten.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant. If mealtimes are pleasant, there is a good chance that your child will begin to look forward to eating with other family members. Try to avoid arguments during mealtime.
  • Manage your expectations. Don't expect manners that are too difficult for your child. For example, don't expect a child who is 3 years old to eat with the proper utensil. For many children, a spoon is much easier to handle than a fork.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/10
Created: 06/94

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