toddler eating

You shouldn’t worry too much if your toddler won’t eat. And if they are extremely picky and selective? This is also very normal and every parent will go through it. I’m going through it right now.

My son is almost 3. And for the past year, he would do more talking and playing than eating during meal time. And when he ate anything, it would only be a limited selection of basic plain foods that he’d accept. At least he would stay in his seat, most of the time.

This was strange, I thought. I’m not picky at all when it comes to food and I love trying new things all the time. Are we not feeding him correctly? I thought I was a good dad.

But after extension research and talking to other parents, we were assured that this is typical for toddlers.

We tried a few different methods to encourage eating. Some worked and some didn’t. We are starting to see some improvement on the food intake. But what’s more meaningful is that we have gotten rid of all our concerns and are enjoying every meal with our child. This makes it easier for creating meal plans.

Here are some suggestions that were helpful us.  

Why Won’t My Toddler Eat?

You first need to understand why your child isn’t eating. The main reason is simply because they are not hungry. As they move into the toddler phase, there are many changes happening to their bodies. The growth rate has slowed down considerably compared to the baby phase, so they won’t need to eat as often as before. Toddlers aren’t able to communicate effectively yet and not eating or playing with their food is their way of telling you that they don’t need to eat at the moment.

Their meal and snack times might also be too close together, instead of the recommended 2 to 3 hours in between eating sessions. Maybe they’re filling their stomachs with too much snacks or liquids throughout the day. Or maybe they want something better if they know they can just get snacks from the pantry whenever they want. Food neophobia is typical for picky eaters, which is a fear of trying new foods. It could be related to how something tastes or what the texture is like. You should pay attention to see if there is a pattern to what they reject.

They are also learning and experiencing many new things at this stage and may not have the patience to sit down for an entire meal. A lack of physical exercise can contribute to a lack of appetite. Or they might not be feeling well. Maybe they have an upset stomach or maybe they are teething. Or perhaps they are just tired.

Whatever it is, just know that this is completely normal and that it’s ok for your child to skip or delay a meal. They will come back to it when they are hungry.

toddler eating

Change Your Perspective

It’s important to have patience with little eaters. These interactions can often become stressful for both the parents and the child, which could affect their overall love for food at some point. Focus on providing healthy options without any pressures instead. Don’t force or bribe them to eat anything they don’t want.

Rewarding them for eating is a common practice. However, it’s your child and not your pet, and this ultimately creates a power struggle. Some parents like to hide healthy ingredients inside a food that they like, but eventually you may lose their trust. And it might be tempting to make sure they finish their plates before leaving the table, but give them space to choose what appeals to them.

You shouldn’t take it personally if your child refuses the meal that you’ve put a lot of effort into cooking. If they eat some of it with minimal complaints, you should enjoy these moments with your child and consider it a success.

But what if they’re not eating enough? The best way to gauge this is to look over their food intake from the whole week and not just daily. They may eat nothing one day and then go to town the next. Overall, you’ve done a good job if they’re covering all the basic food groups of vegetables/fruits, grains, dairy, protein on a regular basis. They eating habits will evolve as they grow.

Encourage Independence

Toddlers are at a stage where they want to do everything on their own. If they want to feed themselves, let them do it. Sure, they’ll make a mess but they’ll also get better. And your hands will be free to eat your own meal.

Present them with a choice on what food to eat. Do you want blueberries or grapes? Spaghetti or scramble eggs? I typically give 2 choices, so it’s not too overwhelming. By allowing them to decide on the meal prior, they will more likely eat it. But avoid getting up during the meal to get foods at their request. They are smarter than you think and will figure out how hard to push to get what they want. So accommodate but don’t cater to them.

It’s also important to give them enough time to eat. If they’re willing to stay seated, chances are they are still interested in eating. Sometimes I put out the remaining food on a plate out near where he’s playing and he will pick at it for a little while. Respect your child’s view on being fullness and don’t encourage them to eat past that point. They know how much their body needs.

toddler cooking

Get Them Involved

What’s worked really well for me has been including our child in the process. Bring your kids to the grocery shop and ask them to pick the vegetables and meats they want to eat. They will love sitting in the shopping cart and directing your purchases. When you get home, have them help you with the preparations and cooking. Some of the simple tasks like washing or stirring are exciting for the little ones.

Being involved helps with their concerns about what’s for dinner. And in the end, they feel proud of it and are more likely to eat what they made. It may take longer, but you’ll have fun also. Trust me.

Make it Fun

Keeping it interesting and unpredictable is always a key to get your toddler to eat. You can experiment with shapes, color, and textures. Maybe arrange the food to look like a face or a recognizable shape. Cookie cutters are useful for cutting fruits and vegetables into stars or moons. You can give silly names to foods like little trees for broccoli or the leaves for spinach.

For presentation, I like to use plates that have multiple compartments like a bento box style to help them navigate through the food. This will be a hit when the other kids see your toddler’s lunch at daycare. You’re basically trying to make it more appealing to them. A change in environment sometimes works. Take it outside for a patio meal or a picnic. Fresh air can be a motivating factor.

You want to eliminate any distractions during meals though. So no televisions or phones. And keep a positive vibe throughout the meal. If they sense any kind of stress or argument around the dining table, they are not likely to eat well. Establishing a fun and pressure-free environment is key for mealtime for kids.

toddler eating

Eat Together

Your child loves to eat with you. They will likely be more willing to eat something if they see their parents eating it. So be a good influence on them. When the whole family sits together regularly for meals, kids feel more relaxed and it establishes a routine that they can become familiar with.

Have meals with friends or family of similar age. Seeing their peers eat will sometimes encourage them even more than the parents can. Food is a social event and teaching your child this will make it more enjoyable to them.

Keep Trying

If your child is not eating something they usually like, see this as an opportunity to introduce something new to them. Keep offering new foods to them even though it’s difficult to get them to accept. It can take 20 exposures before their willing to taste it, but if you don’t try they will never get to try. A good way to do this is to pair a new item with a favorite. This allows them to chose something they’re comfortable with if they don’t want anything new.

Also, don’t write off any rejected food forever. You can try preparing or present them in a different way, but it’s important to keep offering. Their palate will expand as they grow and someday, they will eat everything, hopefully.

Enjoy Your Meal

Eating is one of the few areas where toddlers have some control. This can be a difficult phase for you guys to go through. But hopefully some of the suggestions above can help you smile through the process. Be patience and enjoy these meals with your children.

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