Get real solutions for when a toddler refuses to eat that you can start using today, and learn about why toddler eating habits matter. You’ll also find food ideas for picky toddlers inside!
Terrified. Overwhelmed. Confused. When you’ve placed another meal in front of your toddler and they’ve refused to eat it again, you’re likely feeling all of these different emotions. Those feelings only intensify when you’re around another toddler that’s eating well. You can’t help but wonder why your toddler won’t eat.
As an occupational therapist that specializes in feeding, I’ve worked with a lot families that have a toddler refusing to eat and I know often times the next thought is that you’ve done something wrong.
This is almost NEVER the case. Unfortunately, the idea that you should’ve done something differently or are doing something wrong now is often only innocently perpetuated by friends, family, and possibly even their doctor. When toddlers don’t eat, people get confused, and naturally want to place the blame somewhere.
If you’re currently blaming yourself or feeling guilty in any way, let’s put an end to that now, because I’m going to let you in on what a lot of parents and professionals don’t know and that’s why toddlers refuse to eat and how to help them!
Toddler Eating Habits
First, we’ve got to talk about the nature of a toddler because this absolutely plays a role in their eating.
Once babies become toddlers at one year old, their growth slows down from the insanely accelerated pace as a baby and that means they actually need less calories. It is completely normal for toddlers to eat less or seemingly to not eat a lot. You can check out more in Toddler Portion Sizes.
On top of their need for less calories, toddlers are often new walkers and want to explore their environment. They’re interested in everything and curious. While they’re absolutely adorable at this age, it’s also an exhausting time for parents. You’re moving every knick-knack in your home, table tops are bare, and safety gates are in place because they’re into everything.
Many toddlers can’t be bothered with sitting because of this need to explore, and that includes when it’s time to eat!
To make it even more challenging for toddlers to eat a full meal, their attention span leaves a lot to be desired. They’re easily distracted (which can be used to your advantage), but for some toddlers, this can create the perfect storm to refuse to eat.
That means that a toddler’s eating habits are often:
- Quick – They don’t want to be seated for long. Or, they may have a hard time sitting to eat at all. They usually don’t eat a lot, which is normal.
- Exploratory! – They may like to get messy or squish their food.
- Picky – If something looks new or different, they’re likely to avoid it. This often results in throwing food on the floor. Head to Stop Throwing Food on the Floor for some specific tips!
Why A Toddler Refuses to Eat
It’s 100% normal for a toddler to refuse to eat – sometimes. This happens because of those normal toddler eating habits, it’s part of the stage they’re in, despite how annoying and worrisome it is to their Momma’s.
But, some toddlers refuse to eat ANYTHING or mostly anything. Ever. This is a different situation, and is likely caused by some other factors – none of which are your fault:
1. Difficulty learning to eat table foods – More babies than most people realize don’t make a smooth transition to eating real food after their baby food. Some get stuck on purees or even refuse those as well and continue to rely on their milk or formula. If a toddler never learned how to eat, they likely have no desire to do so at this point.
The good news is that you can still teach a toddler to eat table and finger foods. It takes some time and patience, but I’ve got a step by step guide for you over at How to Transition Your Toddler to Table Foods.
2. Sensitivity to textures – Some toddlers are so sensitive to different textures that they’re either very limited in what they’ll accept (i.e. only crunchy foods) or just won’t take anything because the texture is so overwhelming to them. This can be difficult for us to relate to, after all, the texture of eggs seems just fine to you.
But, their brain is telling them that it looks, feels, or tastes yucky.
Other signs that your child is sensitive to textures is that they don’t like getting messy or will gag when they smell/see/touch/taste foods. Often, they’ll also not like to have their hands dirty. Learn more in Sensory Issues with Food.
3. Can’t chew well – It’s quite easy to overlook, because chewing is something we take for granted. But, some toddlers never learned to chew well or can’t move the food around in their mouth. When toddlers are struggling with this, or their oral-motor skills, they’ll often have food fall out of their mouth, gag after chewing, or lose track of the food in their mouth.
4. Grazing – Because of the toddler eating habits we talked about above, letting your toddler graze on food throughout the day seems like a good solution, and you may have no other choice right now. However, constantly eating a bite or two of food throughout the day never allows them to get hungry and they don’t learn to eat a new food.
I know it can seem like the only option sometimes, but breaking this habit is important for teaching your toddler how to eat at meals.
5. Underlying medical – If none of the above reasons feels like what is going on with your child, it’s possible there’s some underlying medical reason they aren’t wanting to eat. While it’s usually the last thing I consider, unless there’s obvious signs, it’s worth considering if your toddler has silent reflux, allergies, or possibly some other medical reason for refusing to eat.
Reflux and allergies can greatly affect appetite or make it painful to eat, and there are lots of other medical possibilities, as well. To get to the bottom of it, check with your child’s pediatrician, or schedule an appointment directly with a pediatric gastroenterologist.. You can find some additional recommendations for spotting food allergies in kids from Healthy Children.
*If your child is 3 years old or older, check out 5 Reasons Kid’s Refuse to Eat for additional details.
Are they just being a picky eater toddler?
After hearing these deeper causes of a toddler refusing to eat, you might be asking yourself, “What if my child is just being a plain old picky eater toddler?” And, the answer is maybe.
The reality is that most toddlers are picky eaters. It’s a normal part of development that starts between 1 and 2 years old and lasts through age 3-5 (sorry to be the bearer of bad news!) Being a picky eater toddler means that they refuse some foods and have other favorite foods that they prefer and usually eat well. It does not mean that they always refuse food. If you’re here because you’re toddler almost never eats, it’s more likely one of the reasons from the previous section is in play.
How to Help the Toddler Refusing to Eat
Okay, let’s get to the nitty gritty. I want to share with you some of my best and most impactful feeding expert tips, one’s that you can start using today.
One caveat though: be patient.
That may be the hardest advice to hear because you may be at the end of your rope with your toddler refusing to eat. I get that, but making the effort to dig a little deeper and not only be patient with them, but be patient in waiting for these tips to take hold, will get you on the path to your toddler eating!
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Here’s the tips for the toddler that refuses to eat:
- Get them on a schedule – Where they only have milk with their meals or shortly after. Pop over to How Much Milk Does My Toddler Need, if you aren’t sure how much they should be drinking in a day. And, if you’d like a sample, I have a sample Feeding Schedule for 1 Year Olds.
- Schedule meals so that they’re 2-3 hours apart – Avoid grazing on snacks or other foods in between so they’re really hungry when they sit down. It only takes a few cheerios for a toddler to refuse their next meal.
- Give small portions and try to stick to foods that they seem to like – If you have no idea, think crunchy, this is low texture and actually easier to chew, if it’s a meltable crunchy food. Puffs, graham crackers, and cheese curls, are all good starters.
- Choose a spot to have most of your meals, the consistency of eating in the same place will help them adjust to the routine – Ideally, this is in a high chair or strapped booster seat. If you’re child has a total meltdown sitting at the table, then Check out How to Keep Your Child Seated at Meals.
- Let them get messy! – Yes, this is super important, albeit annoying to tired mom’s, because toddlers need to explore. And, it’s even more important if your toddler seems to not want to get messy. Remember how we talked about being sensitive to textures, this will help them NOT be sensitive. The more they play in and touch different textures, the better. An excellent way to do this either through specific messy play or sensory bins.
- Eat together – Even if they’re currently refusing to eat, sit down and eat while they sit there, if only for a few minutes. Focus on the meal simply being a positive experience, even if your just chatting with your toddler for a few minutes while they have some food on their tray.
- If you think your child is having trouble chewing or swallowing food check out my Oral Motor Skill Activities – Blowing whistles, bubbles, or chewing on teethers may be just what your child needs to strengthen these skills.
- Change something unexpectedly to grab their interest – When you’re toddler refuses to eat the food you put in front of them, one of my favorite tricks to pull out and take advantage of their short attention span is to change something up. I may get out a different utensil that’s more colorful, and say “Oh, did you want the airplane fork?” And, then I’ll stick their food on it, lay it on their tray, and act like I don’t care what happens next.
- Or, I might cut it differently, saying “Oh, here’s a little piece” . – This doesn’t always work, but it does more often than you’d think and is worth a try. Get creative in changing up some small aspect of the meal to shift their focus from refusing or crying to at least acknowledging their food!
- Use a divided plate – Picky eaters and toddlers get worried that their food is going to be ruined if it touches something else. In part because mixed textures taste different and can be more difficult to chew, but also because they’re worried it may taste different. The divided plate you see in the pictures above is from Target, but we use these one’s too and I love them!
Foods for Picky Toddlers Refusing to Eat
While every toddler is unique and has their own food choices, there are some foods that may be more likely to be eaten that others. When I’m working on feeding as a therapist, these are some of the specific foods I’ll focus on as we make progress. But, if your toddler never ate table foods, you’ll want to start with those meltable crunchy foods.
Or, if your child has a few foods they do eat, you’ll want to build off of them, introducing foods that are similar. This is a popular feeding technique that’s often referred to as food chaining. You can learn more about this powerful picky eating tip here.
So, generally speaking, here are some specific food ideas for picky toddlers:
- Thin apple slices
- Frozen peas
- Thin and crispy chicken nuggets (I personally love the Dino Nugget brand, they peak toddlers interest because of the shape and are low texture with the bread crumbs and amount of chicken inside)
- No-hull popcorn
- Garlic bread (not to heavy on the garlic)
- Toast with butter
- Plain noodles
- Bacon crumbles
- Pan fried quesadillas (start with just a little bit of mild tasting cheese in a tortilla and make it a little bit crispy)
And, if you want to get even more inspiration for toddler meals, check out these lists:
- The Essential One-Stop Guide for Easy Toddler Meals
- The Ultimate List of Baby/Toddler Meal Ideas
- The Greatest Toddler Breakfast Ideas, Easy + Healthy
- The Most Awesome Toddler Lunch Ideas You Can Find!
I know the food is what most parents focus on and I get it, so I made this quick little video just explaining in some more detail how to find the best foods to feed your toddler, whether they’re picky or flat out refusing to eat. It’s important to find out which of the two categories your toddler falls into…
Need More Help for When a Toddler Refuses to Eat?
As I already mentioned, a lot of toddlers that never learned to eat table foods now seemingly refuse to eat all foods. If that’s the case with your child, grab our free printable pack: Teach Your Child to Eat Table Foods. I’ll deliver the simple steps you need to take right to your inbox.
And, if your child is hardly eating anything and you’re concerned about their growth and nutrition, I highly recommend talking to your doctor and/or looking into feeding therapy for you toddler.
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If this guide on toddlers refusing to eat has been helpful, pin it to your toddler or parenting board. It’s packed with lots of info and you may want to find it again!
Citations and References for this Article:
Teaching Chewing: A Structured Approach Nicholas Eckman, Keith E. Williams, Katherine Riegel, and Candace Paul (The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 2015) https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1867108
Learning to eat: birth to age 2 y Leann L. Birch and Allison E. Doub (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2014) https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/3/723S/457749
Parental Influence on Eating Behavior, Conception to Adolescence Jennifer S. Savage, Jennifer Orlet Fisher, and Leann L. Birch (US National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health, 2008) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet Cheri Fraker, CCC-SLP, CLC, Mark Fishbein, MD, Sibly Cox, RD, LD, CLC, Laura Walbert, CCC-SLP, CLC (Da Capo Press 2007)
Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges! Lori Ernsperger, Ph.D. and Tania Stegen-Hanson (Future Horizons, Inc 2004)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.