When Your Toddler Doesn’t Want to Eat

When it comes to eating habits, toddlers can be hard to predict. Some days they may not eat much. Other days it seems like they’re eating all day long. They may want one food every day for weeks, and then suddenly not like it anymore. And how much your child eats may be very different from how much another child eats. But don’t worry. Your toddler’s strange eating habits are anything but strange.

Picky eating is typical toddler behavior. If your child shows any of the following behaviors, he or she is completely normal.

  • Refusing a food based on color or texture.
  • Choosing a few foods and eating nothing but those.
  • Being unwilling to try anything new.
  • Losing interest in a food they used to love.
  • Only wanting to feed themselves with a spoon or fork.

Most toddlers are picky eaters. This is one area of their life where they can exert some control. By refusing to eat, your child is practicing his or her independence. It’s your job as a parent to provide healthy food choices and teach good eating habits. If you are doing that and your child has energy and is growing, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

Path to improved well being

You can’t force your child to eat. But you can encourage healthy eating habits and pleasant mealtimes.

Healthy eating habits

  • Let your child choose how much to eat. A good rule of thumb is to offer 1 tablespoon of each kind of food for each year of your child’s age. Serve small portions and give them the chance to ask for more.
  • Be patient. Offer new foods many times. You may have to offer a new food 10 to 15 times before your child will try it.
  • Let your child help. Let him or her choose foods in the grocery store. Find a way they can help prepare the meal, or set the table. If they participate in the different parts of mealtime, they are more likely to eat.
  • Make things fun. Cut food into shapes with cookie cutters. Display the food in a creative way on your child’s plate. Have your child come up with special names for their favorite foods.
  • Offer choices. Instead of just serving a vegetable to your toddler, let them choose between two. “Would you like broccoli or cauliflower at dinner?”
  • Mix new with old. Serve new foods with foods your child already likes. This makes the change a little less intimidating.
  • Let them dip. Provide healthy dips to encourage your child to try new fruits or vegetables. These could include hummus, yogurt, or low-fat salad dressings.
  • Set a good example. If your child sees you eating a variety of healthy foods, he or she will be more likely to try 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) website ChooseMyPlate.gov offers good information about nutrition for children and adults.

Pleasant mealtimes

  • 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 transition into mealtime.
  • Establish a routine.Children are more comfortable with routines and predictability. Set regular mealtimes. Have everyone sit in the same place for every meal. Keep things as much the same as you can.
  • Reserve mealtimes for eating and 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. Ask him or her to stay at the table until everyone has eaten.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant. If mealtimes are pleasant, your child is more likely to look forward to eating. Try to avoid arguments or negativity 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.

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
  • 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.

Things to consider

There are many things you can do to encourage your child to eat. But there are things you should not do, as well.

  • 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. Making them eat when they’re not hungry can interfere with their natural internal cues that tell them when they’ve had enough. It doesn’t help their self-esteem and can make the picky behavior worse. Allowing them to choose when to stop eating teaches them how to listen to their body and make healthy food choices.
  • Don’t negotiate with or bribe your child. Threats, punishments, and rewards aren’t good ideas, either. They create power struggles between you and your child. Avoid making deals. (Don’t tell them that if they eat 3 more bites, they can have dessert.) It teaches them to make deals to get rewards for other things. This can lead to more power struggles down the road. In addition, making dessert a reward gives it higher value in the child’s mind. This can lead to unhealthy attitudes toward sweets and treats.

Even if you are concerned that your toddler is refusing to eat, don’t let it show. If he or she is seeking attention, your disapproval fills that need. They may try to gain your attention in the same way another time.

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.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How much should my toddler eat each day?
  • Should I be concerned if my child doesn’t eat much for several days in a row?
  • Should I give my child supplements like protein drinks to make sure she’s getting enough nutrients?
  • When will my toddler outgrow this kind of pickiness?


U.S. National Library of Medicine, Toddler Nutrition

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), ChooseMyPlate.gov