Is your toddler not eating? Although it can be frustrating, it’s a normal part of toddler development. A helpful approach is for you to decide what food to offer your child, and where and when to offer it. It’s up to your child to decide how much food to eat.
Toddler not eating – or not eating enough?
Many parents worry about whether their toddler is eating enough healthy food. It’s common for toddlers to eat only very small amounts, to be fussy about what they eat and to refuse to eat at all.
There are a few reasons for this:
- Because of growth spurts and variations in activity, toddlers’ appetites vary constantly. Toddlers aren’t growing as fast as babies, so they need less food.
- Toddlers have very small stomachs.
- Because toddlers are so interested in the world around them, they can have short attention spans when it comes to food.
- Toddlers might want to feed themselves, which takes longer than being spoon fed.
- Toddlers might not be able to sit still for a whole meal or they might want to go off to play.
It can be a real challenge coping with the ups and downs of young children’s appetites and tastes. Liking a food one day and refusing it the next is common toddler behaviour, though. It’s one of the ways that toddlers explore the world and show how independent they are.
Appetite ups and downs: how to handle them
If your toddler won’t eat or won’t eat a whole meal, you could try reducing the amount you’re giving your child to eat. The normal variations in toddler appetites mean your child needs only small servings at mealtimes.
Between meals, offer healthy snacks such as fruit or vegetables sticks to keep your child going.
If your toddler won’t finish a meal, or refuses to eat at all, trying to force her to finish everything on the plate can make mealtimes more stressful. Instead, praise your child for trying a spoonful or having a sip of water, if that’s all she wants.
It can help to judge your toddler’s appetite over a week, rather than over a single day. It’s OK if he eats less today – he might be hungrier tomorrow.
As long as you offer healthy food, try not to worry if your child doesn’t eat very much sometimes. Your child won’t starve. Children are actually very good at judging how much food they need. Healthy children will eat when they’re hungry and usually not before. They’ll also usually ask for more of anything they really want.
In some cases, a child’s appetite might be affected by a health issue. If your child consistently refuses food or you’re concerned about your child’s growth or overall nutrition, see your health professional.
Trying new foods: tips
You might believe your toddler is fussy and will eat only one or two particular foods.
But sometimes toddlers will try new foods if you just keep trying. If you assume your child will like new foods, you might find a whole new world of discovery opens up for both of you!
Creating a positive eating environment
- Offer new foods when you and your child are relaxed and your child isn’t too tired.
- Offer new foods without too many distractions around. Turn off the TV and other screens and take toys away from the table.
- Make it a family occasion – sit together to eat with your child whenever possible.
Serving new foods
- Serve your toddler the same foods as the rest of the family. Your child will get the nutritional benefits of a wide range of foods, and accept new tastes and textures as ‘normal’.
- Offer new foods with foods that your child already knows and likes.
- Keep offering new foods. It can take several goes for children to accept and enjoy new foods.
- If your child refuses something, offer it again in a week or so. Your child might gobble it up and even ask for more – a toddler’s interest in food can fluctuate wildly.
Following your child’s lead
Let your child touch and play with food, and allow for some mess as she learns to eat.
- Let your child feed himself and give him some help if he needs it.
- If your child loses interest, or seems tired, cranky or unwell, take the food away.
Once you’ve found something your toddler actually eats, it can be tempting to keep on serving it up. But your toddler needs to eat a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients necessary for growth and development. So keep offering new things.
If your child refuses to eat the healthy food you offer, it might be also be tempting to give her something less healthy instead. Avoid this if you can. Children quickly learn to refuse healthy options if they know something else is on the menu.