What To Do When Your Toddler Refuses to Eat

parenting May 05, 2021
What To Do When Your Toddler Refuses to Eat

Ever tried convincing your toddler that spinach will make them super strong like Popeye? Or maybe you’ve had to resort to the good old airplane flying trick — complete with whooshing sound effects?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone in this! Millions of parents wrestle with the age-old dilemma of a toddler who simply refuses to eat what’s on their plate.

It seems like there’s always that one food (or maybe a list) that our toddler won’t eat. Selective eating is a real and extremely common phase toddlers go through — and it’s tough when it coincides with the terrible tantrum twos.

Today, we’ll be going through a few do’s and don’ts to help you get your kid to eat better and to keep your mealtimes a happy, positive experience — for both you and your toddler.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do If Your Toddler Refuses To Eat

When your toddler doesn’t want to eat, it’s easy to resort to measures that you think might help — but they can sometimes do more harm than good. So, let’s start with some of the things you should avoid doing if your toddler doesn’t want to eat the food in front of them.

Don’t Make Separate Meals

It may seem like the easiest solution, but it’s a bad one. If your little one gets used to getting something different if they refuse their meal, you will be stuck making multiple meals every time — which sets the expectation that they always get what they want. You’ll only be encouraging bad habits and creating a picky eater.  Stay strong and stick to one meal for the entire family.

Don’t Bribe Your Toddler

Say it with me: bribes are bad — no matter the context. Whether it’s to get your kid to eat veggies or to sleep on time, never resort to bribing kids. Yes, it’s tempting and yes, it might work, but just like with cooking separate meals, this will only lead to bad habits. Bribery can lower your child’s intrinsic motivation and even encourage manipulative behavior in the future.

Don’t Force Your Toddler To Eat

It’s natural for you to worry that your kid isn’t getting enough nutrition, but if your toddler refuses a meal or certain food, don’t force them to eat it. Kids are pretty intuitive when it comes to their overall eating habits. Like babies, they’ll eat or look for food if they’re hungry and stop if they aren’t. Forcing your toddler to eat can create negative associations with food and mealtime — potentially leading to resentment and an unhealthy relationship with food in the long run.

Don’t Punish Your Child

It’s normal for toddlers to be picky, so don’t punish them for trying to figure out their likes and dislikes. Additionally, punishment in general doesn’t always give you the result you want. Instead, try communicating with your kid and understanding why they don’t want to eat something and going from there. Remember: kids are always learning and they learn best from positive reinforcement.

Don’t Make Them Sit There Until Finished

This won’t encourage your kid to eat. Instead, they may become resentful of food and mealtimes, especially if it keeps them from playing or watching a show. Don’t keep your toddler at the table after everyone’s done — you’re just wasting your time and theirs. You can keep the food in the fridge to try again later but let your kid get up and leave the table together with you and other family members.

5 Things You Can Do To Encourage Toddlers To Eat

Now, onto the five things you can and should do to help your little ones eat better — whether it’s more veggies, more fruits, or just more food in general.

Offer Choices

One easy way to encourage kids to eat is by offering them choices — just make sure you’ll be happy with whatever they pick. Ask them if they want carrots or broccoli with their chicken or if they prefer red sauce or cheese sauce on their pasta. By giving your toddler two options, they feel like they have more control over what they’re doing.

Change the Color, Texture, and Shapes

Try making mealtimes fun by changing up the color, texture, and shapes of foods. You’d be surprised at how often changing up these things can get your kid to eat something they might have refused before. For example, cut fruits or veggies into fun shapes with cookie cutters. You can also mash veggies or blend and turn them into creamy soup or smoothies.

Offer Bite-size Amounts

Sometimes, the problem might not be the type of food but rather how much you’re giving your little one. If they feel overwhelmed by a large amount of food on their plate, they may refuse to eat anything at all. Try offering small, bite-size amounts and let the toddler ask for more if they want it. This tip is particularly helpful if you’re introducing new foods.

Get Your Kid Involved in Making Food

Toddlers love to explore and play, and they also love to be part of what’s happening around them or what you’re doing. So, why not let your toddler in the kitchen while you’re preparing meals? Let your kid help with small tasks like washing fruits, mixing ingredients, pouring batter, and other simple tasks. Getting your child involved in making food (or even growing it) can make them more excited about eating it once it’s on the table.

Let Your Kid Play With Food

Yes, you read that right! It’s okay to let young toddlers play with their food during mealtimes. Just maybe not in public, though. Playing with food can be a great way to encourage toddlers to eat. Fill a separate plate with different types of foods and let your little one explore them at their own pace. You can also consider preparing food that they can play with, like veggie stick trains, or let your kid decorate a pancake themselves.

Keeping Meals Happy and Light

Try not to judge your toddlers after just one meal. Rather, observe your child first and see how they eat for several days — then you can try something different. And remember not to begrudge your kids for snacking rather than eating big meals — as long as they’re snacking on healthy food, they are still getting the nutrition their bodies need.

When it comes to toddlers and their eating habits, always keep in mind that they are still learning and exploring their preferences. With a few helpful and encouraging nudges, you can steer your toddler in the right direction.

Watch the "What To Do When Your Toddler Refuses to Eat" video here:

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