Parenthood is filled with many joys and challenges. One of the most common struggles a parent faces is dealing with a toddler who refuses to eat. It can be a source of worry and frustration when your little one goes on a food strike, but rest assured, this is a completely normal phase for many toddlers. Let’s explore why it happens, ways you can help, and how to make mealtimes enjoyable.
Toddlerhood is a time of big transitions. Kids are exploring and learning so many new things at once. They’re figuring out the world around them and their place in it, which can often bring out that strong will and independence that toddlers are famous for. It makes sense that this behavior would also extend to their eating habits. Next time your little one starts to get fussy at mealtime, here are a few things that may be going on in their minds and bodies:
Growth has slowed
While infants grow at a rapid pace, a toddler will typically only gain around 4 or 5 pounds each year.1 Since they aren’t growing as quickly, they don’t need as many calories as before.
Growth may slow down in general, but there will likely be some growth spurts along the way as well as normal developmental milestones like teething and increased mobility. Your little one’s appetite will fluctuate during these changes. One day they may eat everything in sight and the next day very little.
Short attention spans
Toddlers are very busy learning, playing, running, and having fun. With so many exciting things going on, it’s easy for them to get distracted and temporarily lose interest in eating.
As they’re exploring new things, toddlers are also discovering new tastes and preferences, which can result in them rejecting food they previously enjoyed. This exploration is a normal part of their development but can sometimes lead to table tantrums because they don’t always have the words to communicate that their preferences have changed.
Desire for independence
Mealtime battles often arise when toddlers realize they have some control over what they eat. They may want to feed themselves or change their mind about what type of food they eat simply because they want to assert their independence.
Tips to Entice Toddlers to Eat
A toddler needs between 1,000 to 1,400 calories per day to get the nutrition needed for energy and growth.2 This can be spread out over three square meals and a couple of snacks throughout the day. But because a toddler’s eating habits can be unpredictable, it won’t always look like that. The best thing a parent can do when their child’s eating becomes erratic is to be patient. Don’t make a big deal about it, and your little one likely won’t either. Some things you can do to help keep your cool during a food strike are:
Establish a routine
Set regular meal and snack times to provide structure and help your toddler anticipate mealtime. You can aim for those three meals and healthy snacks, but don’t force it. They’ll eat when they’re hungry, even if you’re on the go.
Offer a variety of foods
Provide a range of nutritious foods from different food groups to ensure your child receives a well-rounded diet. Include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and dairy products. Without forcing anything, continue offering options even if your little one refuses them. It can take approximately 8 to 10 times being exposed to a new food before a child will accept it.3
Be a role model
Toddlers learn by imitation, so make sure to eat a variety of healthy foods yourself. Seeing you or other family members enjoy different foods can encourage them to try new things.
Get creative with presentation
Toddlers are often drawn to visually appealing foods. Experiment with different shapes, colors, and textures to make meals more exciting. Use cookie cutters or arrange food in fun shapes to spark their interest.
Involve your toddler in meal prep
Including your child in meal planning and preparation can get them more excited about eating. Take them grocery shopping with you and let them help pick out fruits and vegetables to put in the cart. At home, let them assist with simple tasks like washing vegetables, stirring ingredients, or setting the table.
Make mealtimes pleasant
Create a calm and positive environment during meals. Put away distractions like screens or toys and focus on engaging with your child. Encourage conversation with the entire family and provide gentle encouragement without pressuring them to eat.
Making Eating Fun
Serve finger foods
Toddlers often enjoy the independence of feeding themselves. Offer bite-sized portions of nutritious foods that are easy for them to handle, such as small pieces of fruit, cooked vegetables, or whole grain crackers.
Use dips and sauces
Introduce healthy dips like hummus, yogurt, or nut butters to make vegetables or whole grain snacks more appealing. Presenting them in toddler-sized containers that make it easy for little fingers can add an element of play and encourage your toddler to try new foods.
Arrange food creatively
Create edible artwork by arranging foods into shapes or making smiley faces using different ingredients. A colorful plate can make mealtimes more exciting and encourage your child to eat.
Offer choices within limits
Toddlers often enjoy having some control. Give them fun cups and plates to make them feel special. And offer options within a reasonable range to help them feel empowered. For example, ask if they would prefer either broccoli or carrots with their meal.
Dealing with a toddler on a food strike can be challenging but remember that this is a passing phase. By understanding the reasons behind their behavior and implementing some simple tips and tricks, you can help your little one develop healthy eating habits and make mealtimes enjoyable. Remember to stay patient, be a positive role model, and consult with your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s nutrition. Happy eating!