Toddler not eating – or not eating enough?
Many parents worry about whether their toddlers are eating enough food. It’s common for toddlers to eat only very small amounts, be fussy about what they eat, and refuse to eat at all.
There are a few reasons for this:
- Toddler appetites vary constantly because of growth spurts and changing activity levels.
- Growth slows down in the toddler years, so toddlers don’t eat as much as they did when they were babies.
- Toddlers have small stomachs.
- Toddlers are very interested in the world around them, so they have short attention spans for food.
- Toddlers want to push boundaries and show how independent they can be.
Liking a food one day and refusing it the next is common toddler behaviour. It’s one of the ways that toddlers show how independent they are. It can help to think of it this way: you provide healthy food options for your toddler, and your toddler decides how much food to eat – or not eat.
Appetite ups and downs: how to handle them
Keep offering healthy meals at regular times through the day.
If your toddler won’t eat or won’t eat whole meals, you could try reducing the amount you’re offering. Your toddler can always ask for more if they’re still hungry after the first serve.
Avoid trying to force your toddler to finish everything on the plate, because this can make mealtimes stressful. And try not to comment on what your toddler is and isn’t eating.
At regular times between meals, you can offer your toddler nutritious snacks like fruit or vegetable sticks. This will give your toddler extra energy if they’re eating only small amounts at main meals.
Try not to worry if your toddler doesn’t eat very much sometimes. It’s common for toddlers to need only small servings at mealtimes, and children are very good at judging how much food they need. And if you encourage your toddler to trust their own appetite, you’re setting them up for healthy eating later in life.
It can help to judge your toddler’s food intake over a week or more rather than over a single meal or single day. It’s OK if your toddler eats less today or this week – they might be hungrier tomorrow or next week.
Trying new foods: tips
It’s common for toddlers to refuse or avoid trying new foods. Here are ideas that might help.
Creating a positive eating environment
- Make mealtimes a happy, regular and social family occasion. Sit together to eat with your toddler whenever you can.
- Show your toddler how much you enjoy eating the food you’ve prepared.
- Get your toddler involved in helping to prepare and cook family meals.
- Offer new foods when you and your toddler are relaxed and your toddler isn’t too tired or distracted by other things.
- Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for a meal. If your toddler hasn’t eaten the food, calmly take it away. Don’t offer an alternative snack or meal. Just offer regular drinks of water until the next snack or mealtime.
- Avoid bribing your toddler with treats just so they’ll eat some healthy food. This can make your toddler more interested in treats than healthy food and sends the message that eating healthy food is a chore.
Serving new foods
- Keep offering a new food. It can take 10-15 tries (or even more) for children to become familiar with, accept and enjoy new foods.
- Serve your toddler the same foods as the rest of the family. If your toddler sees you eating the food, they’re more likely to try it. They’ll also get the nutritional benefits of a wide range of foods, and accept new tastes and textures as part of your family’s eating routine.
- Offer new foods with foods that your toddler already knows and likes.
Following your child’s lead
- Let your toddler touch, lick and play with food, and expect some messy eating as they learn.
- Let your toddler feed themselves, and give them some help if needed.
- If you think your toddler isn’t eating because they’re unwell, watch them carefully and take them to the GP if necessary.
Once you’ve found something your toddler eats and enjoys, it can be tempting to keep serving it up. But your toddler needs to eat a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients they need for growth and development.
Offer a variety of nutritious foods from the 5 food groups at each family meal. Go for variety yourself – show your toddler that you’re willing to try new foods and that you enjoy them too. Healthy family food and an eating environment that encourages a positive attitude to healthy food make a great start for your toddler.
Signs toddlers might need help with food and eating
If your toddler is generally healthy, is growing well and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, they’re probably eating enough.
- eats only a very small range of foods
- won’t eat entire food groups for longer than a few weeks
- consistently refuses food.