Toddlers can be picky eaters. Meal time can be a challenge for parents, especially when the kids refuse to eat.
No, mom. I hate broccoli. I want pizza.
Sometimes, we give in to temptation after a long, stressful day. Some days, we stand our ground and win the fight to eat healthier meals.
Is there a better way to make meal time less stressful? Yes. There are ways to get your toddler to eat better. But first, you need to understand why many kids refuse to eat.
Table of Contents
- Why Do Toddlers Refuse to Eat?
- How to Cope When Your Toddler Doesn’t Want to Eat
- 7 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Eat Better
Why Do Toddlers Refuse to Eat?
Why is your 3/5 year old not eating? There are a number of reasons why your little one is refusing to sit down and dinner.
There may be a medical reason why your child isn’t eating. In children with chronic medical conditions, poor appetite may be well-known and the obvious cause. But in children who are otherwise healthy, the medical issue may be subtler.
Constipation and acid reflux are two common medical reasons why toddlers refuse to eat.
Acid reflux is common in babies, but it can also affect older children. Some children may not know how to express the feelings they’re experiencing, or they have felt this way for so long that they do not even realize something is wrong.
Constipation is another common cause of children refusing to eat. Keep an eye on your child’s bathroom habits. Upping your toddler’s fiber intake can help relieve constipation.
Stomach issues may be the cause of your child’s refusal to eat, or it could be something else entirely.
If a particular food feels “gross” in a child’s mouth or hands, he may refuse to eat it. In some cases, when kids don’t like certain textures in their mouths or they chew/bite everything but food, it may be a sign that something is wrong with their oral sensory system.
If your child is squirming, gagging or even frightened by the sight or smell of a particular food, sensory issues may be to blame.
Sensory is typically the culprit behind a child’s “picky” eating habits.
In some cases, children may not know how to eat a particular food. They may be afraid that they will choke, gag or throw up while trying to eat certain foods.
Kids who fit into this category will often stick to a limited diet of foods they know they can eat safely.
Improving your child’s oral-motor skills can go a long way in improving his palate and eating normally.
Lack of Routine
Do you normally eat at the same time every night in your home? What does your meal time routine look like?
If you let your kids pick out their own food some days, eat in front of the TV other days and give your kids free reign of the kitchen, they may refuse to eat because it’s not on their terms.
Exposure to a variety of foods at a very early age and setting a regular mealtime routine can help prevent issues.
Sometimes, we have to fight tooth and nail just to get our kids to eat something. Do not feel guilty for making these decisions in times of desperation.
If routine is the problem, slow exposure to new foods and establishing an eating routine can help change things around.
How to Cope When Your Toddler Doesn’t Want to Eat
How do you cope when your toddler refuses to eat? You may feel frustrated, angry and overwhelmed. Staying calm and keeping your cool will help you better deal with the situation and find a productive solution.
First and foremost, be patient. Easier said than done, I know. But your child is not deliberately trying to aggravate you. He has his own reasons in his own mind why he isn’t eating.
He may be trying to get his way. Kicking, screaming and throwing fits works for many kids when they want to eat certain foods.
He may have a legitimate medical reason for not wanting to eat. Or he may just be going through a picky phase.
Whatever the case may be, practice patience. Know that keeping your cool will help you get through the situation better than you would if you gave in to anger.
Know that Change Takes Time
Changes won’t happen overnight. You’ll need to establish a routine and work with your child slowly over time. Small changes add up to big ones over time.
Consistency is the name of the game. Once you set a routine and rules for mealtime, stick to them.
Be consistent with your food choices, too. If your goal is to have your child eat healthier and you tell him he cannot have ice cream, buying ice cream once in a while sends him mixed signals. I’m not advocating for eliminating certain foods, but if you’re going to set rules, stick to them and do not make exceptions.
7 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Eat Better
As parents, it’s our goal to ensure that our children develop healthy habits that will follow them into adulthood. Healthy eating habits will help kids maintain a healthy weight and avoid many diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.
If your toddler is refusing to eat better, these seven tips can help.
1. Give Your Child Some Control
Give your child some control by offering a variety of foods and allowing him to choose the amount of food he wants to eat.
Serve small portions, about a tablespoon of each food for each year of your child’s age.
Instead of just forcing your toddler to eat broccoli or spinach, give him a choice. Let him choose between two or three vegetables, so he feels that he has a say in what he eats.
2. Make Eating Fun
Make food more interesting and fun for your toddler. Cut vegetables into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Display the food in cute and creative ways.
Remember that sight plays a role in eating as well. If the food looks pleasant, your child will be more likely to give it a try.
If mealtimes are always a challenge and visibly frustrating for you, your child may start associating eating with negative feelings and experiences. Making the experience more positive and fun can make meals go much more smoothly.
3. Let Your Child Help
Make your child a part of the cooking and grocery shopping experience. Allow your toddler to choose foods in the grocery store. Find ways to have him help prepare meals, even if that just means stirring the pot with a spoon.
Participating in different aspects of mealtimes will make your child more likely to want to eat.
4. Make it Familiar
When introducing new foods to your toddler, mix them up with foods he already knows and loves.
Mixing new foods with familiar, loved foods makes it less intimidating to try something new. It may also boost the chances of your child enjoying the new food because he’ll associate it with something he likes.
5. Be the Example
Toddlers, and kids in general, typically pick up their eating habits from their parents. If they see you eating healthy foods, they will want to eat healthy foods, too.
Exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables at an early age will also help toddlers develop a taste and love for healthier foods.
6. Make Mealtime Family Time
Positive, pleasant mealtime experiences will make children look forward to eating. Create a pleasant experience for your child each time you sit down for a meal.
Make meals family time. Talk, laugh, and enjoy your meal together. Try to avoid having arguments or talking about negative things while eating.
7. Don’t Force or Negotiate
Don’t force your toddler to eat all of the food on his plate. If he’s no longer hungry, allow him to stop eating. Forcing him to eat all of his food may instill unhealthy habits and make it more difficult for him to discern when he is full.
Allowing your child to choose when he stops eating teaches him how to listen to his body’s signal that he’s full.
Never bribe or negotiate with your child when it comes to food. Rewards, threats and punishments never go over well. Even if they work, you’re instilling bad habits and food associations in your toddler.
Telling your child that he can have dessert if he takes three more bites teaches him that he can make deals to get what he wants. It also makes dessert more important in his mind, which can teach him to develop an unhealthy attitude towards treats and sweets.