I hear from so many parents that their toddler won’t eat. It seems to be a familiar refrain with a lot of families, and a cause of concern for so many. There can be a lot of reasons for toddler eating habits like this, so let’s address them!
The importance of understanding toddler development
When your child is under 1, and sometimes even for a bit longer, they oftentimes have a large appetite. They are exploring, learning about food, and generally enjoying themselves and open to trying things. They are also growing at an incredibly fast rate, and tend to have high caloric needs for their body size. All of these mean that they eat more than many parents expect!
Toddler growth slows at one
But all of this changes once they hit one. At one, their bodies slow down. They are simply not growing as fast, and they don’t need as many calories. If you expect your baby to still eat the same amount, it can definitely be worrisome. Toddlers simply have lower needs than babies, not more!
Toddlers become independent!
Right around one, again give or take depending on your child, kids discover that they are their own person. They have a choice! They get to decide if they want to eat something or not, and it’s one of the few things that they can control. Because no matter how hard you try, at the end of the day they are the ones that determine what ultimately goes in their mouth.
That in and of itself is the root of so many battles of control with parents and kids at mealtimes. Parents are used to babies who are malleable and will do what the parent wants. Then all of the sudden that changes, and parents aren’t ready for it, or even expecting it.
What to do when your toddler doesn’t eat much
My first question to parents is always to clarify exactly what “doesn’t eat” means. Are they literally not eating a single bite all day? Or are they just eating less than you would expect or want to see from them? If it’s the former, then after a few days of this I’d head to your doctor’s office.
But if it’s more of a case of them eating only a handful of bites, or just less than you would expect in general, then read on.
The division of responsibility is key!
The division of responsibility, created by Ellyn Satter, is really the gold standard when it comes to feeding. In it, the parent and the child both have certain responsibilities. The parent’s job is to decide what will be offered to eat, when it will be offered, and where it will be offered. The child’s job is to decide if they will eat the food offered, and how much of it they will eat. Crossing these feeding responsibilities is when trouble starts to arise.
Focus on what you can control!
When it comes to your toddler’s eating habits, there are several things that are in your control. You will do both you and your toddler a world of good by only focusing on those things. You get to decide what is on the table. That means you get to put a variety of nutrient dense foods on the table. It’s also your job to serve that food at reliable times throughout the day. It isn’t your job to cater to them and only serve food that you know they will eat. That is them doing your job for you, and another way problems crop up.
Their job is to decide whether to eat a food, and how much of it to eat. As hard as it can be to step back and let them lead this part of feeding, it is vital. It instills a trust between you and them, takes the pressure off, and gives them the control to listen to their body and when it tells them if they are hungry or full.
How to serve foods at a meal
You can still aim to serve at least one thing at meal times that they will reliably eat (think bread, pasta, a fruit, anything really) to help them get in the calories that they need, but the rest is up to them. I go in depth into this concept and how to apply it in this blog post! The goal is not to be vindictive and tell them that they either eat something or starve. But it is to set up structures around mealtimes, and establish that you are the parent and it is your job to decide what is for a meal. You can take into consideration what they like and dislike, absolutely! But that doesn’t mean catering purely to their likes when your toddler won’t eat anything at meals.
Strategies to help improve toddler eating habits
Beyond the division of responsibility, there are several other strategies to try. Especially if your toddler has dwindled the food they will eat down to only a handful of items. For more details on what I’ve talked about in this article, as well as specific strategies and things you can implement to help improve meals when your toddler won’t eat, check out my Just EAT! Podcast episode 3. You can listen to it on your favorite podcast player (like Apple Podcasts or Spotify), or straight from this website.
The bottom line
The bottom line when it comes to dealing with toddlers who won’t eat is to make sure your expectations are realistic. How much are they really eating at the end of the day? Are they just eating less than they were as a baby? Are you putting pressure on them to eat, resulting in them exerting their independence? It’s never an easy answer, but simply having an understanding of what is normal and typical for toddler development can help improve things a lot!