You know your toddler must be hungry — they haven’t eaten enough for a bird.
And they’ve been running in nonstop circles around the house since they woke at 5 a.m. But no matter what food you offer them, they react with a violent “NO!” and possibly a tantrum.
If you’re starting to wonder if your toddler is living off of air and goldfish crumbs they found under the couch, don’t panic. Chances are they’re eating more than you think. Here’s how to survive a toddler who won’t eat without losing your menu or your mind.
Are They Really Starving?
You may be convinced your toddler just isn’t eating enough to survive, but sometimes, it could be that your perception is off. If you’re used to the frequent feeding schedule of a baby, a toddler’s ability to go for hours (or even most of a day) without food can come as a shock. But because toddlers grow in fits and starts, it’s normal for their eating patterns to vary a lot, too.
Instead of stressing about the fact that they’ve refused every meal you’ve offered today, look at the overall pattern of what they eat over the course of a week. If they ate a big dinner last night but aren’t interested in food this morning, they’re probably fine. As long as they’re growing and don’t look overly skinny, they’re probably eating what they need.
Rather than pushing them to eat more or letting mealtime turn into a battle, just keep offering food at regular intervals. If they keep refusing a variety of foods, chances are they’re really not hungry.
What About Healthy Food?
Often, when you feel like your toddler isn’t eating, it’s not that they won’t eat anything. It’s just that they have no interest in the healthy food you keep trying to offer.
Maybe they’re turning their nose up at the chicken and broccoli you lovingly prepared, and then begging for a cookie at bedtime. This is especially frustrating if they used to be a good eater and suddenly became pickier.
But it’s actually normal for toddlers to become pickier eaters as they grow. As your toddler becomes more independent in their eating habits, they also become more cautious about new foods. You can help them build good eating habits by continuing to offer healthy foods — even if they’ve refused them several times.
Are You Setting an Example?
Kids adapt the eating habits of their parents. So if you’re worried your toddler will never eat well, the best thing you can do is clean up your own meals. Even when your toddler is resistant to new or healthy foods, keep cooking well for yourself.
Sit down with your toddler for meals when possible. This gives you a chance to model both healthy eating and table manners. It may feel like your example is having no effect, but over time, your toddler will become more interested in what you’re eating.
You can also try making a variety of healthy foods available. Toddlers love choices. Try putting a plate of veggies and dip out on a low table where your toddler can grab a handful as they’re running by. They may eat a lot more than you expect over the course of a day!
When to Be Concerned
What if your toddler truly isn’t eating enough?
You should talk with your doctor if you’re concerned that they really aren’t getting their nutritional needs met. If growth is slowing down, that isn’t necessarily a reason to worry. But if their growth curve decreases by a significant amount, you should talk with your doctor.
It’s also okay if they don’t gain weight for a while, since toddlers frequently stop gaining when they become very active. During the second year of life, weight gain is about 2.3 kg (5 pounds) and gain in length is about 12 cm (4.8 inches). The weight gain between 2 and 5 years of age is about 1 kg (2.2 pounds) to 2 kg (4.4 pounds) per year and the gain in length is between 6 cm (2.4 inches) to 8 cm (3.2 inches) per year. But if they’re losing weight, or if they don’t gain weight over a long period of time, then you should talk with your doctor about your concerns.
Getting your toddler to eat well may feel like an unending battle, but it doesn’t have to be. With a few simple changes, you can end the mealtime battles and help your toddler learn good eating habits over time.