Toddler not eating – or not eating enough?
Many parents worry about whether their toddlers are 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:
- Toddler appetites vary constantly because of growth spurts and variations in activity.
- Toddlers aren’t growing as fast as babies, so they need less food.
- 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 child, and your child decides how much food to eat – or not eat.
Appetite ups and downs: how to handle them
If your child won’t eat or won’t eat whole meals, you could try reducing the amount you’re offering. It’s normal for toddlers to need only small servings at mealtimes.
Also, avoid trying to force your child to finish everything on the plate, because this can make mealtimes stressful. Instead, praise your child for trying a spoonful or having a sip of water, if that’s all they want.
At regular times between meals, you can offer your child healthy snacks like fruit or vegetable sticks. This should keep your child going if they’re eating only small amounts at main meals.
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.
It can help to judge your child’s appetite over a week, rather than over a single day. It’s OK if your child eats less today – they might be hungrier tomorrow.
Trying new foods: tips
You might think your child is fussy and will eat only one or two particular foods.
But sometimes toddlers will try new foods if you just keep trying. Here are some ideas that might help.
Creating a positive eating environment
- Make mealtimes a happy, regular and social family occasion. Sit together to eat with your child whenever you can.
- Show your child how much you enjoy eating the food you’ve prepared.
- Get your child involved in helping to prepare and cook family meals.
- Offer new foods when you and your child are relaxed, and your child isn’t too tired or distracted by other things.
- Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for a meal. If your child hasn’t eaten the food, take it away and don’t offer an alternative snack or meal.
- Avoid punishing your child for refusing to try new foods. This can turn tasting new foods into a negative thing.
- Avoid bribing your child with treats just so they’ll eat some healthy food. This can make your child more interested in treats than healthy food and sends the message that eating healthy food is a chore.
Serving new foods
- Keep offering new foods. It can take 10-15 tries for children to accept and enjoy new foods.
- Serve your child 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.
- If your child refuses something, offer it again in a week or so. Your child might gobble it up and even ask for more – toddler interest in food can fluctuate wildly.
Following your child’s lead
- Let your child touch, lick and play with food, and expect some mess as they learn to eat.
- Let your child feed themselves, and give your child some help if needed.
- If your child loses interest, or seems tired, cranky or unwell, take the food away.
Once you’ve found something your child eats and enjoys, it can be tempting to keep serving it up. But your child needs to eat a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients they need for growth and development. So it’s important to keep offering your child lots of different foods.
Offer a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups at each family meal. Go for variety yourself – show your child 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 child.
Signs toddlers might need help with food and eating
If your child is generally healthy and growing well, and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, your child is probably eating enough.
- your child only eats a very small range of foods
- your child won’t eat entire food groups for a time
- your child consistently refuses food
- you’re concerned about your child’s growth or overall nutrition.