Help...My Child Won't Eat!

Family"If you clean your plate, you can watch TV."

"No dessert until you eat your vegetables."

"You will sit here all night until you finish that broccoli."

Sound familiar?

No doubt you heard threats like this as a child. But food should be used to nourish, not punish. And mealtime should be a peaceful time, not an ongoing battle about food.

What's a Parent to Do?

It can be normal for kids to have weird eating habits. They may go on food binges one day and refuse to eat then next. They may also use food to test their independence. Sometimes the issue is not food. The issue is who is boss. You are the boss. Do not get into battles you cannot win.

Growth and Eating Changes in Toddlers

During the first year and a half of life, babies and toddlers grow very fast. They eat a lot due to their fast growth rate. However, after that time their growth tends to taper off. At this time toddlers are not as hungry. Their food behaviors may be frustrating. Here are some helpful steps:

  • Do not expect your toddler to eat as they did when they were babies.
  • Do not give toddlers adult-sized portions.
  • Make sure your toddler is growing normally. Take them to the doctor regularly.
  • Give the toddler a variety of foods.
  • Know that the toddler's hunger may vary from week to week. They may swing from not being hungry to being very hungry.

Maybe your child snacks often but does not finish meals. Children have small stomachs and short attention spans. Try offering your child 6 small meals a day instead. Your child will be less overwhelmed by the smaller portions.

Common Eating Patterns in Toddlers and Young Children

Eating a Few Favorite Foods

Your child eats only 2 or 3 foods, meal after meal. The food of choice is usually something healthy—milk, yogurt, raisins, or eggs. It is okay to let your child do this. But continue to offer other foods at each meal as well. After a few days or weeks, they will likely try some of the other foods you offer.

Refusal to Eat

Your child refuses to eat what is served. This is most often a way to get attention. Should you get up and prepare something better? No. Your best solution is to sit down and relax. Instead, always have foods ready that your child likes (bread, rolls, vegetable sticks, or fruit). Be supportive, but set some limits.

Whining and Complaining

"I hate chicken!" whines your child, throwing it to the floor. This is inappropriate behavior. Suggest that your child eat the other foods on the table. If the child does not behave well or refuses to eat, they should leave the table. Do not give them food to take with them. Also, do not let them return for dessert. Make them wait until the next planned snack time. This should be in an hour or so. Use this method on an ongoing basis. It will teach the child what is expected of them.

White Food Diet

What if your child eats only bread, potatoes, pasta, and milk? If they are growing normally, you may need to adapt. Here are some tips:

  • Do not pressure them to eat other foods.
  • Continue to offer a variety of foods. Choose lots of bright colored foods such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Ask the child's doctor about a vitamin supplement.
  • Have the doctor check the child's iron levels.

Try not to worry. Most children will outgrow their odd eating habits.

Fear of New Foods

Your child refuses to try anything that they have not eaten before. This is pretty normal. The child may need to see a new food many times before they want to taste it. They may need to taste it many more times before liking it. Do not force the issue. Just offer the food again some other time.

Eat Better, Argue Less

Here are some tips to helping your child eat better:

  1. Prepare children for meals. Give them a 5-minute warning before mealtime. This lets them calm down, wash their hands, and get ready to eat.
  2. Buy only the foods you want your child to eat.
  3. Do not worry if your child skips a meal.
  4. Let children make their own food choices—from the good choices you provide.
  5. Serve regular meals and snacks.
  6. Make mealtimes pleasant.
  7. Teach good manners at the table.

Try to make mealtimes happy. This helps children develop sensible eating habits for the future. Handle food and eating situations calmly. Be positive and encourage healthy food choices. This helps create a warm, trusting home environment.

RESOURCES:

My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
https://www.myplate.gov

International Food Information Council Foundation
http://www.foodinsight.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
https://www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Iron deficiency anemia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/iron-deficiency-anemia-in-children, Accessed November 1, 2021.

Nutrition guide for toddlers. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/toddler-food.html. Accessed November 1, 2021.

Toddlers. My Plate—US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.myplate.gov/life-stages/toddlers. Accessed November 1, 2021.

Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board   Last Updated: 11/1/2021