This blog post has been in the works for a while because I wanted to cast a large net to help as many of you as possible while staying specific enough to actually be helpful.
Food refusal is one of the most frustrating things kids can do. If your toddler ever rejected a whole meal you know how helpless and scared it can make you feel.
I know because I have been in this boat many moons ago with my first child. And now food refusal is one of the main reasons parents reach out to me as a pediatric dietitian. So I feel it is definitely time to tackle this topic.
Here are the main reasons why your toddler may be refusing food and what you can do about it.
Spoiler alert: most of the strategies I discuss show how to help your child listen to her own hunger and satiety and allow her to eat in response to them.
Reason 1: Slower growth=lower appetite
After they turn 1, kids switch to a much slower growth mode, so they simply need fewer calories. It seems unfair because this is when they are more mobile than babies and, at the same time, seem to be surviving on thin air. But, believe me, it’s just normal to eat close to nothing at this age.
You may notice more appetite during some parts of the day than others. Typically, dinners take the biggest hit and get skipped the most.
Read more about frustrating but normal eating behaviors in toddlers
Read about feeding milestones for babies and toddlers
Read about how super snacks in the afternoon can help with meal skipping
Read about what my toddler eats a day
What you can do:
Switch to the responsive feeding approach in these few steps.
1. Trust your child to eat as much as he needs. Kids are the masters of self-regulating and know better than you or I how much they are hungry for.
2. Establish a routine of meals and snacks with 2-3 hours between eating opportunities and sick to it.
Read about How often your child needs to eat.
3. Control your own anxiety. When kids do not eat, it triggers a primal instinct in us that makes us worry about their survival. Relax. Unlike your prehistoric ancestors, you know that the next meal is coming in just a few hours so your child will be fine.
4. Always serve 1 or 2 things you know your child will eat when hungry and offer them alongside less popular options. Eat together as much as possible.
5. Limit all distractions at mealtimes including books and screens.
Read here about why distractions often come to the rescue at mealtimes.
6. Encourage self-feeding and allow your toddler to get messy with food.
Read about the benefits and practicalities of family meals.
Read about how to deconstruct meals.
Reason 2: Your toddler responds to pressure by refusing food
It is easy to be misguided by the popular myth that food needs to be pushed on kids, otherwise, they just won’t eat or will eat only the wrong type of things.
But more pressure translates to lower appetite and, in some kids, can trigger anxiety which will make eating plain impossible.
If you just switched to the responsive and child-centered feeding approach I described above and your child is still eating very little, hang in here. For some children, who are especially sensitive to pressure, it can take weeks or months before you see the results.
Read about how to help anxious kids eat better.
Read about why and how to stop micromanaging meals with your child.
And if you have been worried about your child’s eating and pressuring him to eat for some time, he will need to relearn eating in response to his hunger, instead of mindlessly taking the mandated number of bites.
What you can do:
Switch to the responsive feeding approach – see the steps above.
Look into the reasons behind your concerns. Why have you started pressuring the child in the first place? Is her growth ok? Is she getting enough nutrition? You will need to be 100% confident that your child will be ok in order for you to drop your mealtime demands.
Hint: you may need professional support at this point, so make sure to talk to a doctor or dietitian about it.
Reason 3: Snacks galore
This one makes total sense: if kids get the calories they need via fun snacks, why would they sit down to a boring “grown-up” style meal full of mixed dishes and other less-favorite options?
And guess what happens if they skip the meal? They get even more snacks because we get worried that they are going to starve otherwise.
It is not a fun cycle to find yourself in with a stubborn and independent toddler who is a pro at throwing the meal you cooked on the floor and begging for snacks 15 minutes after.
What you can do:
A solid routine of meals and snacks will be your rock in the stormy sea of unpredictable toddlerhood.
Read about how often kids need to eat and see sample schedules.
I like to call all the meals and snacks “eating opportunities” and recommend parents to mix snack foods with regular dishes at each of them.
This way, you can make snacks less alluring and meals more attractive.
Your toddler’s favorite snacks are pretzels and yogurt. You made chicken and green beans for dinner and you are positive he is going to skip it. To mix things up, serve some pretzels alongside the dinner options and include a few pieces of chicken on toothpicks at the bedtime snack.
Note: milk is very calorically dense so if your toddler likes to guzzle it between scheduled meals and snacks, his appetite is bound to go down.
Read here about how much dairy kids need.
Reason 4: Eating hurts or is very uncomfortable
A small percentage of kids have underlying issues interfering with their ability to eat. The most common of them include:
- Sensory difficulties, when certain sensory properties of food or mealtime environment can be too overwhelming.
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing.
- Gastrointestinal issues, including constipation, reflux, motility disorders or gastritis.
What you can do:
Most of the parents whose kids struggle with underlying issues just know that there is something wrong with their child beyond the typical pickiness. If this is your case, trust your instinct and check with your doctor or dietitian and get a referral to a specialist or a group of specialists if needed.
Toddlers are notorious for surviving on very little food. To help them get the calories and nutrition they need, establish a responsive feeding style and a meal and snack routine so they stay attuned to their hunger and satiety.
Those kids who are very sensitive to pressure may refuse to eat altogether when they are stressed. A small percentage of toddlers have underlying conditions that make eating uncomfortable or painful.