Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat, According to 2 Pediatricians
It’s a tale as old as time: the battle between parents and their picky-eating toddlers. While it’s common for toddlers to have an ebb and flow in food preferences – to shy away from vegetables one day, to go on a pasta strike the next – having a toddler who won’t eat can be worrisome and irritating for parents. Some toddlers won’t eat anything but snacks; some toddlers won’t eat dinner but will chug milk instead; some toddlers won’t eat at all.
Thankfully, understanding the reasons behind these toddler food strikes and having some tested and effective strategies on tap can help alleviate the worry and pave the way for a smoother dining experience for all. We asked experts and parents why toddlers sometimes won’t eat and how to make sure they’re getting the nutrients they need.
Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat
Sometimes it feels like doctors blame everything toddlers do on “developmental milestones” – but they often are the reason for toddlers’ behavior. And toddlers refusing food or only eating snacks isn’t an exception.
“They call them the terrible 2s for a reason, and picky eating, restrictive diets, and changing diets are to be expected,” says James Treadway Jr., MD, a board-certified pediatrician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.
The change often seems abrupt – and drastic, he adds: “Children who ate all the different foods moms and dads offered in the first year of life suddenly turn around and only eat a few things, like chicken nuggets, fries, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, and macaroni.”
The sudden switch can throw parents for a loop, but it’s not necessarily a sign that anything’s wrong. Again, this is a pretty common developmental stage, says Rachel Schlueter, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, NE. “As toddlers, our children seek control in their day-to-day lives, and one of the few things they can control is what they put in their body,” Dr. Schlueter tells POPSUGAR.
Many parents have ideas about how they’ll handle picky eating, but when they’re actually confronted with the problem, it can be surprisingly stressful. “As our toddlers’ taste becomes more restricted along, we continually worry if they are growing along their curve, getting all necessary nutrients to thrive, or will experience any mental or physical detriment to our approach to feeding them,” Dr. Schlueter says.
How to Handle a Toddler Who Won’t Eat
So, how do we get toddlers to try new foods and be open to eating their old favorites again? Here are some tried-and-true tips from medical experts and parents.
Continue to Offer New Food Options
While it may seem counterintuitive to offer food that you’re not sure your toddler is going to eat, it’s best to expose your little one to various options. That means avoiding offering up the same meals your toddler used to love, or the few dishes they currently tolerate, and expanding your recipe repertoire. “Continually offering new food choices, even just a few pieces on a plate, can help them get used to more varied foods,” Dr. Treadway says.
Dr. Schlueter recommends pairing new foods with some neutral information about how it affects the body. “Carrots have lots of vitamins to help our eyes. That chicken nugget has protein to help your muscles. This yogurt is helping my bones stay strong,” she explains. It’s a principle of intuitive eating you can help bring to your kids.
Lead By Example
“Trying new foods [parents] might not even regularly eat themselves” can help encourage toddlers to try something new, Dr. Treadway says. Dr. Schlueter agrees: “Model healthy eating habits to increase your kids’ acceptance of new foods.”
That might mean actually steering clear of a family-favorite snack for a while, if it’s become the only thing your kid asks for at every mealtime. It doesn’t matter if the food is “healthy” or not – the goal is to make sure your toddler is comfortable eating different foods regularly, so if that means taking baby carrots off the menu for everyone for a few weeks, so be it.
Eat As a Family
“Sitting down with the family, at the family table, at regular meal times throughout the day has shown time and time again to help with children’s physical and emotional well-being,” Dr. Treadway says. “Eating as a family together also means parents [and] siblings can work together to tackle any food problems in younger children and set a good example of healthy eating habits.”
Let Them Help With Cooking and Cleanup
Involving your toddler in meal prep and cleanup can help them be more open to trying different foods, Dr. Schlueter says. This is especially true if your toddler has a hard time getting settled enough to sit through a meal. Having them help set the table or mix ingredients gets them in the right frame of mind, and because they feel pride and ownership over the meal, they’ll be more willing to taste test what’s on the table.
Be Mindful About Snacking
Parents often say that their toddlers won’t eat anything but snacks. This can create a difficult cycle to break, where parents, afraid that their picky little ones aren’t getting enough nourishment during meals, have a hard time saying no to snacks. But then the toddlers, full on snacks, are more empowered to say no to meals, Dr. Treadway says.
This doesn’t mean you have to do away with all snacks. Just get more strategic about when and what you’re offering. Experiment with cutting back on snacking windows and see how that affects their mealtime appetite. Also keep cut-up fruits and vegetables on hand to encourage your kids to reach for nutritious snacks, to alleviate some of the pressure you might feel around their nutrition, Dr. Treadway suggests.
Make It Fun
That age-old adage that you shouldn’t play with your food might not be the best rule to follow with toddlers who won’t eat. Making mealtimes fun can help encourage your kids to try something new, Dr. Schlueter says.
“Kids are much more likely to eat broccoli when it is served as pretend trees on a hill of mashed potatoes and dino nuggets,” she says. “Pretend and play. The first step in exploring new foods is through our other senses: sight, touch, smell, sound, and then eventually taste!”
Let Go of Control
Dr. Schlueter says that trying to control how much your toddler eats may not work, but letting go of control can. Enforce your boundaries or your usual house rules, but understand their limits. So you might decide what you’re cooking and when you eat, but your toddler gets to decide how much to eat – and you can let go of the “one more bite” battle, she says.
Dr. Treadway agrees, adding that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. “They don’t eat all their different vegetables, but they do eat carrots and occasionally some peas – great, that’ll work,” he says. “Rounding out a picky diet with a daily children’s multivitamin with iron can ensure a child is getting all the vitamins and minerals they need.”
Speak With the Pros
All that said, if your attempts to encourage your toddler to eat their dinner aren’t going well, it’s never a bad idea to check in with their pediatrician. While rare, their food strike could be the sign of health issue like GI upset or ARFID.
“Food and eating issues can happen at any time, and parents should always contact their pediatrician if ever there is a concern,” Dr. Treadway suggests. “Also, discussing a child’s dietary habits is a routine conversation at every well-child checkup.”