Mealtime can be a point of stress when you have a toddler who absolutely refuses to eat. When it’s time for dinner, the world’s pickiest kid appears and you can’t get them to sit still and just eat already. There is a lot of screaming, persuading, and tears (theirs and yours). If you’re like me, you initially try to avoid these mealtime battles by making chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and corn, ANYTHING that will convince your toddler to take more than two bites. Am I right? But then you feel guilty for not providing a healthy and well-balanced meal. What are you to do?
This blog post will provide tips on how to end those mealtime battles and enjoy meals as a family again.
Note: There may be circumstances where there is an underlying cause for not eating. If you have any concerns about your child’s eating habits or health, please consult your pediatrician. This blog post is not meant to diagnose, treat, or prevent any medical illness.
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Why does picky eating in toddlers happen?
Toddlerhood is a trying time, for both the child and the parent. From the toddler’s perspective, there are a lot of things they can’t do on their own – either because of rules for their own safety or because they just physically can’t. For example, going to the potty independently is not very easy as a toddler because of the coordination needed to step up to the toilet, pull down underwear, get toilet paper, etc.
One way for your toddler to have some sense of independence and control is by saying their all-time favorite word: “NO!” They also can exert control by making the decision of what does or does not go into their mouth at mealtime.
Instead of getting frustrated at your toddler when they resist eating, take a step back and remember they are feeling so many big emotions in such a tiny little body. Keep in mind that they have not yet developed the cognitive ability to deal with such feelings and they don’t have the skills needed to express themselves.
TIPS FOR WHEN YOUR TODDLER REFUSES TO EAT
1. Even if they are picky eaters, your kid is not starving
Most likely. Again, if you have concerns that something deeper is happening than just picky eating, please see your doctor to have your child checked out. More than likely, your toddler is getting the necessary nutrients from their current diet.
I listed this as Tip #1 because knowing that our children are not starving takes the pressure off from us as parents. Once I talked with my son’s pediatrician and she reassured me that he is growing just fine and he’s meeting all of his milestones, I felt at ease. Knowing this, I approached each mealtime with a more calm mindset as I didn’t feel the pressure to force-feed Remy. I believe Remy picked up on my relaxed mood and now we are just able to enjoy our quality time together at the dining table, whether we’re eating or just talking about our days.
2. Set a Routine for Meals
The majority of people, toddlers most of all, thrive on a routine. They like to know what’s coming next and take comfort in that. Mealtimes are no exceptions. Set a routine for when and where you are going to eat and stick with it. This way, your toddler knows that the dinner table is where meals take place. Not the couch, not next to where the dog eats, and definitely not us running behind them as they play, pleading with them to take a bite. (These are all true stories, by the way ????)
Consider getting a booster seat for your toddler so they are the right height for the dinner table. This will make your toddler more comfortable and willing to sit still!
3. Eat meals as a family
Part of the routine aspect is to eat meals as a family. Similar to baby led weaning, toddlers learn best by example. If the whole family is at the table, enjoying their food, trying new things, and having great conversation, your little one doesn’t want to miss out on all the fun! (FOMO is multiplied at this stage.) Having quality time while eating together reinforces the social aspect of meals! On that note, keep the dining table a distraction-free zone. That means, no electronics, toys, books, etc.
4. Start with 10-15 minutes at a time
Let’s be real: no toddler can sit still anywhere for 30 minutes, much less a dinner table. Thus, you may have to reset your expectations. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes for your toddler to sit for meals. Once those 10-15 minutes are up and they say they are all done, let them get down and play. Gradually increase the time by 5 minute increments.
5. Try again later
If you offer a meal to your toddler and they have no interest in eating, take a break and try offering the same meal in 20-30 minutes. I find that sometimes, our son just isn’t that hungry yet, but will eat after he gets all the extra wiggles out! Offering the food later eliminates the mealtime battle because you don’t spend those 20-30 minutes trying to cajole or force your toddler to eat.
I would recommend NOT negotiating or bribing your child to eat. Doing so can lead to power struggles and teaches your toddlers that they can make deals to get rewards for other things.
6. Pair new foods with favorite foods
Your title is “mom”. NOT “short order cook”. You know you’re a short order cook when you slave over the hot stove to cook a delicious new recipe, only to have your toddler flat out refuse to even try a bite. Then, in an attempt to get some food in those little bodies, you end up making a box of mac and cheese. Doing this sets the precedence that your toddler will continue to refuse any food unless it’s their favorite Dino nuggets.
Encourage adventurous eaters by pairing new foods with something you know your toddler will like and eat. For example, serve that new Garlic Parmesan Kale Pasta with their all-time favorite fruit. Keep in mind that you may have to serve the same new food a few times (upwards of 10-15 times) before your little one even tries it.
7. Don’t overload plate
Toddlers are very visual beings. If their dinner plate is piled high with an adult-sized portion, they may get overwhelmed and become less interested in eating. Also, remember that toddlers have such tiny stomachs. To encourage eating, place just a few spoonfuls of the main dish and sides on their plates. You can offer your toddler 1 tablespoon of each food for each year of age. For example, if your child is 2 years old, serve 2 tablespoons of each food. Once they finish something, they can always ask for more!
On this note, don’t force your toddler to clean their plate. Once they say they are done and full, allow them to stop eating. Forcing them to continue eating will interfere with their natural cues that tell them when they’re full. Let them listen to their bodies!
These are our favorite dinner plates for our toddler son. The three separate compartments are proportioned so you can serve a variety of healthy foods at mealtime.
8. Asses your snack time
While snacks can help curb those hangry toddler outbursts, they can derail the next meal. This is not to say to never serve snacks – I’m not crazy. This just means to assess the timing and amount of snacks. Have a snack “cut off” time at least one hour before meals and offer healthy options, such as low-fat string cheese, yogurt, apple slices, or whole grain crackers with nut butter. When you serve the snack, portion it out in a separate container. Toddlers are notorious grazers and would snack here and there if an open bag of crackers was left open.
With all of these tips, mealtime does not have to be a battle between parent and toddler (where the toddler wins, more often than not). Patience is key when implementing these tips, so take your time and try the tips that work best for your family. The main takeaway from this post is that your job is to provide a balanced and healthy meal while their job is to eat. I would love to hear what tips you will/have tried or any that you want to add! Comment below and let’s chat!