I am blessed with a toddler who eats really well – L’s appetite is legendary! Part of that is just her, she likes her food, but she went through a phase of refusing to eat when she was about two. It didn’t last too long and she’s now three and eats pretty much everything, so I thought I’d share the techniques we used to get her there.
There is no immediate fix for how to get a toddler to eat, but it can be done!
A quick note on eating
We all know that childhood obesity levels are on the rise, so the goal isn’t so much to get toddlers to eat, as to get them to eat healthily and to have a positive relationship with food.
Too many of us ‘comfort eat’, ‘stress eat’, eat because we’re tired or bored or because the clock tells us it’s time. We have forgotten how to listen to our own bodies and appetites and we need to break that cycle for our children if we want them to grow up in a healthier society than our current one.
Toddlers need to be able to listen to their appetites and follow the cues their bodies are giving them.
I couldn’t find much research on how to get toddlers to eat, but there does seem to be some support for ‘modelling’ – basically children copy what they see their parents doing. It’s not always easy for us to eat with our toddlers or to eat a healthy diet, but them seeing us do this can make a difference.
Stop telling your toddler to eat
I know, I know, you want your toddler to eat and they won’t and it’s stressing you out and now here I am telling you to stop telling them to eat.
It may seem crazy but you need to stop. Stop telling them to eat, stop bargaining (“if you eat three bites of broccoli then you can have dessert”), stop trying to get them to eat more, just stop.
Why? Toddlers love attention. More than anything. And, bizarrely, they’re not actually that bothered about whether it’s negative attention. So you getting annoyed at them, telling them to eat, bribing them… in the long run it will have the opposite effect.
The more sensitive child may even become anxious anticipating upcoming meal-time battles with you, which doesn’t help their appetite either.
So what should you do? Simple. Serve up a meal, put it in front of your toddler, tell them what any unfamiliar foods are and then act normally. Chat to your kids about their day, eat your own food (if you’re eating with your child) and don’t talk about your child’s eating.
Think of how you would feel if your partner served up your dinner and then sat beside you telling you to eat more. Or if you finished eating and your partner told you to take three more bites or no dessert. Or if every time you took a bite your partner said “well done, that’s so good, I’m so pleased with you.” It’s annoying and it doesn’t make you want to eat more.
So take the pressure off. If your child takes one bite and then says they’re full say ‘OK, that’s fine’. If they say they don’t want dinner or they aren’t hungry: ‘that’s fine, you don’t need to eat it’.
Make mealtimes relaxed and happy.
Let them eat what they want
A healthy child without an eating disorder will not let themselves starve. Let them eat what they want and give them back control over their diet.
Like adults, kids like choices. No-one wants to be told what to do all the time. So give your toddler options. This doesn’t mean becoming a slave to them and making multiple meals. Serve up dinner for the family. If you can, put different foods on the table and let your child choose what to put on their plate or even serve themselves (what amount of potatoes, chicken and peas for example).
If you are putting food on your child’s plate, give small amounts so they can ask for more if they want it. There’s a guide to the ‘ideal’ food portions and daily intake for toddlers here.
If your child doesn’t want any of the meal, offer a couple of simple alternatives – for us it’s a slice of toast, rice-cakes, fruit or vegetable sticks. Let your child choose from a few options that are acceptable to you at main meal times if they refuse the meal that you’ve made for the family.
What about dessert? Won’t they just eat junk food?
This very much depends on what food is on offer. I remember the first play-date L ever went on, I picked her up and the other girl’s mum told me that it had all gone well but ‘I couldn’t work out what L kept saying at tea-time and then I realised it was ‘next course please”!
I was mildly embarrassed but right from when she could speak coherently to now L has had two ‘courses’ – a main and dessert. During her picky eating phase she sometimes didn’t eat any of her main meal and just had dessert. Sometimes she had dessert halfway through her main meal. I’m fine with this, because dessert is yoghurt or fruit.
We don’t keep junk food in the house (OK truthfully I may have a secret chocolate stash but as far as L knows there is no junk food in the house!). Drinks on offer are milk and water and she can snack as often as she likes during the day as the only things on offer are foods I’m happy for her to have – cheese, oatcakes, rice-cakes, fruit, vegetable sticks, hummus, etc.
People say that toddlers won’t eat healthy foods, but actually if they’re hungry and these things are available they will usually eat at least some of them.
But not if they know there’s a ‘better option’ available – if your toddler knows you have crisps, sweets, ice cream or chocolate then they will want that. And many of them will rage or refuse to eat until you get desperate enough to give it to them.
If you really want your toddler to eat healthily, lead by example and get rid of the junk food in your house (or get really good at hiding it!).
Having said all that, equally I don’t think it’s a great idea to deprive toddlers of junk food all the time. If we’re out of the house and L asks for an ice-cream from the ice-cream van at the park or a biscuit at her friend’s house, or chips at a restaurant, then that’s fine with me too.
The toddlers I’ve seen who are completely banned from junk food seem to lose control when confronted with it – eating 6 biscuits or drinking 3 fruit-shoots because they can. We want our kids to learn self-control and that’s difficult without allowing them to practice this skill.
By all means let your toddler have treats, but not every day and ideally out of the house so they aren’t expecting them at home.
What if they still won’t eat?
If your toddlers are refusing to eat a meal, accept it. Don’t make a big deal of it, take their plate away and tell them to let you know later if they’re hungry.
If they ask for a snack half an hour later then offer a couple of healthy options and/or the meal they previously refused (if it doesn’t need reheated and you’ve kept it in the fridge, e.g. a sandwich). Yes it’s annoying if they’ve refused a meal and now want a snack, but as long as their snack options are balanced and healthy then does it really matter?
If they don’t ask then assume your toddlers aren’t hungry. Sometimes I don’t want dinner if I had a big lunch or I’m too tired or I’m just not hungry. It’s OK for them to not want to eat sometimes. Try again at the next meal. Let them listen to their appetite and learn to eat when they are hungry.
Try to involve them in their food – let them choose what they want from the supermarket, help pick fruit or veg if you’re lucky enough to grow your own, help with preparation – tossing salad or mashing potatoes.
Expose them to new foods, but be aware that most toddlers are quite suspicious and reluctant to try new things. Don’t put pressure on them, serve up something new with other familiar foods, explain what it is and let your toddler try it if they want to. Serve up the new food(s) regularly so that it becomes familiar. Most toddlers need many exposures to something new before they will try it.
I’ve tried all that and my toddler still isn’t eating
Some toddlers have a different eating pattern – L eats the most enormous breakfasts (sometimes two breakfasts), a morning snack, a medium lunch, an afternoon snack and a fairly small dinner most days.
She just isn’t that hungry by dinner time, she’s tired and ready for bed. Some nights she might have a bite or two of dinner and declare she’s finished. Some nights she doesn’t eat anything. Other nights she eats everything on her plate and asks for more.
If your child’s weight is steady and she sometimes misses meals or even has a day or two when she won’t eat, then relax and try not to worry about it.
If, however, your child goes more than a day or two without eating anything at all, stops drinking fluids, is losing weight, has a longstanding restricted diet (for example she’s only eaten cheese sandwiches and toast for two weeks) or you’re concerned about her health, then see a health professional for assessment and support.
When in doubt
Assuming that none of the above health concerns apply, if you’re worried about your toddler’s eating and not sure what to do then ask yourself ‘how would I want to be treated if this was me?’
Use that as your rule of thumb, because whilst toddlers shouldn’t get to dictate their meals (in the same way that I can’t turn up to a friend’s house for dinner and announce that she has to make me macaroni cheese because that’s all I want to eat that day), they should be allowed their preferences (I don’t like cauliflower so I’ll eat the rest of what my friend made for dinner and leave the cauliflower on my plate).
Treat your toddler the way you want to be treated when it comes to food and you’ll probably find in a couple of days that they surprise you with their eating. If nothing else, meal-times will be much more pleasant for all of you.
I hope that you’ve found these tips for how to get a toddler to eat helpful. Let me know what you think below – any other tips? Or are you of the ‘sit until you clear your plate and no excuses’ school of thought? Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
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