You've spent all this time preparing a nutritious meal and your toddler won't eat it! You're frustrated and worried that they're not getting the nutrients they need to grow.
Before you start thinking your child is turning into a picky eater, here are some top reasons why they might turn down food and what you can do as a parent to use these opportunities to teach healthy eating habits.
I want to start off by asking you a question. Hold onto your answer.
What do you do when your child refuses to eat?
A. Offer something else that they love soon after
B. Serve more at next eating time
C. _______ (fill in the blank)
D. none of the above
Picky eating in toddlers
When your toddler says no to the food you so lovingly prepared, it can leave you feeling frustrated, anxious, worried, confused, helpless...So many thoughts and emotions run through your mind.
And so often we turn to ourselves and start the self-blame game. It's because I'm not a good cook. I cooked the food for too long. I served too much (or too little). And on and on.
But please please hear me when I say, your toddler not eating is not always because of the food. Your toddler may refuse to eat for a lot of different reasons. Let's dive into them right now and learn what you can do to help your child to become mindful, joyous eaters.
Top reasons why your toddler won't eat
Simply not hungry
Think about your own appetite and how it fluctuates. This holds true for toddlers as well. We also must consider the fact that after the age of two, their growth slows down drastically, which may further decrease their desire to eat.
To put into perspective, during the first year, babies triple their birth weights. During toddlerhood, average weight gain is around 4.5- 6.5 pounds and 2.5-3.5 inches per year. So it's not as exponential but it is steady.
Here's my advice. Don’t take it personally. It’s discouraging to see food that you put so much thought and effort into getting pushed away, but you have to honor their innate ability to self-regulate.
And please don’t worry! Say what? I know. It’s so hard. We so much want them to be well-fed and the idea of letting them go for several hours without eating doesn’t sit well with us, protective mamas! But hear me out. I can’t emphasize this enough.
They should be allowed to respond to their own hunger cues. Believe it or not, they are REALLY good at responding to their feelings of hunger and fullness, and eating as much as they need for growth and energy. Think about it this way. How would you feel if someone forces you to eat when you have absolutely no appetite?
Once upon a time, you had a baby who was super happy and eager to follow your lead. Now you have a toddler who thrives on testing boundaries, wants to do everything their way, all the while screaming NO to everything. So of course, saying no to eating is bound to happen. It’s a NORMAL part of development.
So if they decide to skip a meal, then you gently remind them that the kitchen will be closed until the next snack/mealtime. This is difficult for us as parents who were raised to clean our plates and not waste food.
However, consider this as a great learning opportunity. They need to learn the consequences of choosing not to eat. They need to learn what it feels like to be hungry.
Bottom line: we need to trust and honor their choices. If they start misbehaving at the table, you can give a gentle warning that the meal will end soon if they continue. You can be positive, yet firm and caring.
Used to getting their favorite snack/food
Don’t offer something else if the food you served gets rejected. Why? Because that just reinforces the behavior, and you’ll quickly find yourself taking on the role of a short order cook. Not to mention, it will diminish their appetite, which will further decrease their willingness to try new/disliked foods.
While you can’t get your child to eat (that’s not your job!), you can set boundaries and structure.
I know. The temptation to say YES is so strong bc let’s face it! We just want our kids to be happy! Catering may seem effective in the moment. Your child gets fed and meltdowns are avoided. However, think about the long-term consequences.
By doing so, you end up encouraging picky eating and your child’s health suffers. It may even hurt the mother/father-child relationship in the long run. Remember, you can love your child and say NO to their food requests.
What I highly encourage you to do at every mealtime is serve foods that they enjoy with new/disliked food. That way, even if your child eats just the food(s) they love, they're still getting some sort of nutrition AND exposure to the food they haven't quite opened up to, YET.
If your toddler is struggling with vegetables, try these different cooking methods.
They're constantly grazing, or snacking randomly throughout the day. That means less appetite during the actual mealtimes. Again, this is why having a mealtime structure is so important!
If this is your toddler, here are specific tips to take control of snack times.
Physically, when the body is under stress, it shifts into the fight or flight mode, producing hormones that shut down appetite. And then there’s the emotional and mental component. Your toddler may turn to various coping strategies to help minimize anxiety, such as whining or crying, refusing to eat, acting out at the table, unable to sit still, etc.
Here's my advice. Keep your emotions in check. Make sure you don’t come to the table feeling anxious or displaying any negative energy. Don’t pressure, or force, your child to eat in any way.
Perhaps you find yourself saying, “just another bite, eat that, finish that.” Or you’re watching their every move like a hawk, pushing the food closer, trying to spoon-feed. These are all forms of pressure.
Instead, fall back on the Division of Responsibility. You, as the parent, are in charge of what, when, and where. Your child is responsible for how much and whether or not they will eat. That means once the food is on the table, you’ve done your part. It’s time to sit back and let your child take the reins.
And try to take the focus away from the food. Don't talk about what's being eaten and what's not. Instead, focus on enjoying the time together at the table.
Fear of new foods
There's actually a term for this - food neophobia. All of us experience this to some extent but it really peaks between 2-6 years. This is actually a protective mechanism (just like gagging in babies when they first start solids) to prevent children from consuming toxic or unsafe foods.
So yes, food neophobia is innate but this behavior can be overcome through repeated exposure to new foods! So what's the best thing you can do to encourage your child to give the "scary" food a try? Regardless of whether or not the food gets eaten, don't give up! Keep offering a variety of foods over and over again. Even if it doesn't get touched, that's exposure
Every time your child sees the food, it takes the newness out, which leads to familiarity, which leads to acceptance. Repeated exposure to foods for babies and toddlers is EVERYTHING!
Not feeling well
Focus on hydration! Continue offering foods you’d normally serve but don’t push them. Fluids are most important. If your child is experiencing digestive issues, perhaps extra fiber or probiotics may help.
Your child is too tired. Totally understandable! I mean I can barely keep up with my toddler. Again, stick to the mealtime structure. Your child will find a sense of security in knowing that there will be another opportunity to eat soon.
If it’s happening regularly, then perhaps it’s time to adjust the daily schedule. I know it can be especially concerning if your child constantly skips dinner, specifically. Should you offer a snack? Do you worry that they won't make it through the night?
Here's everything you need to know about why and what to do when your child won't eat dinner.
The main takeaways:
Let's answer the question I posed at the very beginning. Correct answer is D!
If your child eats very little or skips a meal all together for whatever reason, that’s ok! This is when having structured meals and snack times come into play. Stay consistent. Your child will find it reassuring to know when to expect the next one.
It will also be a great learning experience to know what it feels like to be hungry. Simply offer food again at the next meal or snack time. You don’t need to “make up” for the skipped meal with extra food later. Follow your child’s lead.
Remember to consider their eating habits on a weekly and monthly basis rather than daily. It will all even out. As long as your child is growing along their growth curve and has normal energy level, you don't need to worry!