Toddler Not Eating: What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

March 25, 2016 Updated April 5, 2021

Young mother feeding a toddler boy with a spoon and dog looking on it
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Toddlers are fun, sure — but they’re also weird. Case in point: When your toddler won’t eat. This obviously begs the question, Why? Don’t they know how delicious and soothing food can be? Anyway. It’s pretty common for kiddos not to eat from about the time they’re 12 months old to about three years old, and sometimes even longer (TBH, some adults are still fussy eaters). Even if it’s common, though, your toddler not eating yet another meal becomes frustrating after a while. You might wonder if you’re really that horrible of a cook, or worry that there’s something going on with your child. Thankfully, most of the time your toddler’s refusal to eat is nothing major.

Toddlers are funny little humans and sometimes they do strange things, like refuse to eat their dinner. We know they would love to eat fruit snacks and pizza all day, but as a mother, that isn’t an option. Instead of holding your little one down to eat their peas, there’s a better way to encourage them to try new things. Still, your kid clearly has to be hungry enough to eat again at some point, right? So, if you’re wondering what to do about your toddler not eating, here’s a bit of insight and advice.

Need more help managing your terrific toddler? Check out our advice pages on dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers and toddle sleep regression. 

Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat

The reasons for your toddler not eating are more common than you might think. The following may explain your little one’s finicky food habits.

  • Their appetites vary because of growth spurts and how inactive or active they are throughout the day.
  • They’re typically reluctant to try something new (they like what they like!).
  • They want to eat what they want to eat because, again, they like what they like.
  • They aren’t growing as fast or consistently as babies do, so they need less food now.
  • They have small stomachs — if they say they’re full, they probably are.
  • They’re easily distracted by their surroundings, so they have a short attention span for food.
  • They like to push boundaries and exert their independence, which means saying “no” a lot.
  • They might not be feeling well with a sore throat or stomach ache.
  • They’re just having an “off” day (which happens to the best of us, right?).

While it’s common for a toddler not to eat, it’s also important to keep a careful watch on other signs and symptoms that might signal something more serious. Your child could be experiencing problems related to food allergies; pain-related issues like bloating, gas, diarrhea, toothache, or acid reflux; or something more rare, like having a sensory issue when it comes to certain food smells and textures. If your toddler refusing food becomes a regular thing that doesn’t seem like typical “toddler” behavior, start a food diary. It can be helpful to have a record of the foods they’re having trouble with and going over your concerns with their pediatrician.

How to Get Your Toddler to Eat

Getting a child to eat when they refuse is not for the faint of heart. It takes motivation and strategy, not to mention the patience of a saint. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Make mealtimes a regular special occasion.

Toddlers work well on a schedule, and they’re also big on special occasions. Any excuse to celebrate is their motto. Having a regular sit-down meal with them, including one with the family at dinnertime, signals to them that eating is an enjoyable activity that they want to be a part of. It’s also a good idea to show your toddler how much you enjoy eating. As far as toddlers go, the old “monkey see, monkey do” technique is still pretty legit.

Get creative with different foods.

If you’re trying to introduce your toddler to new foods, it’s a good idea to make it fun for them. Try using cookie cutters to create interesting shapes, or compromise and go with a twist on a food that you know they like. For example, maybe you want your kid to eat broccoli but know they love mashed potatoes. The solution? Mash some broccoli into the mashed potatoes.

Serve them food they like.

This seems like a no-brainer, and yet it’s easy to overlook in the face of a stubborn eater. But if your toddler is really having a hard time eating anything new, continue serving them the food they actually like. If you don’t want to serve up crackers and cookies as a full-out meal, try to incorporate their favorite snacks into your meals.

Let your kids get messy.

Toddlers are messy eaters. Hey, that’s fine as long as they’re actually eating! While it’s a bit annoying to clean up afterward, sometimes a toddler just needs to get really messy with their food. This not only helps them learn how to eat but also to enjoy it — and you want them to enjoy their food, right?

Don’t punish your toddler for not eating.

It’s frustrating when your toddler doesn’t eat, but punishing them for it will not change their behavior. If they refuse to eat a new food and you punish them for it, they might associate new foods with discipline. That doesn’t help anyone. Instead, simply take their plate away and keep trying.

Give your kid options.

OK, we know this sounds like a lot of work, but no one is saying to cook two meals. The choices can be as simple as chicken or beans or broccoli or spinach. When presenting your kid with choices, they don’t have to be incredibly different. By allowing your child to “choose” what they want to for dinner, they may be more inclined to eat it. So, let your kid pick two meals out of the week.

Let them help make meals.

Having a kid in the kitchen is sometimes a really cute activity. Other times it can slow you down and be very frustrating (woosah, Mama). However, if your little one helps you prepare the meal, not only will they be proud of their creation, but they’ll want to eat what they’ve made.

Tell them that dinner is soon.

As odd as it may sound, giving your kids a 15-minute warning before dinner can make a difference. Believe it or not, your toddler is a busy baby and sometimes kids refuse to sit down and eat because they feel interrupted. By letting them know dinner is happening soon, it gives them time to process they’re going to have to stop playing in a bit.

Avoid the dessert bribe.

It’s not the worse thing a parent can do, but it’s a short-term solution to get your kid to eat. When you promise dessert, your child may continue to expect a reward for eating, which isn’t realistic for you or a great attitude for them to have about dinner.

Be a good example.

Encourage the rest of the family to set a good example too and finish their food. And after your partner or your other child cleans their plate, pack on the praise and approval. This might encourage your baby to finish their food because they want the same recognition.

Eliminate distractions.

If you want your toddler to focus on their meal, turn off all devices that may interrupt your dinner. You can’t expect your toddler to eat their peas when there’s a commercial about delicious cookies in the background. 

What age does picky eating start?

Children between the ages of one and five usually have wonky preferences when it comes to food. That’s because they’re discovering new flavors and textures and determining which foods are their favorites. It’s part of their development. However, picky eating usually starts between the ages of 18 months to three years old.