What to do when your toddler won't eat

Have a fussy eater on your hands? Here's how to cope when your little one isn't digging in at dinnertime.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

From the time he was 12 months old, Lachlan been going through food strikes on and off that have left his parents worried and a little exasperated. “Some days I don’t know how he has the energy to do everything he does,” says his dad, Chris Bodnar. “It’s a struggle because you want your kid to eat all that healthy, amazing food you’re buying and preparing, and it’s frustrating when he won’t.”

Toddlers are notoriously temperamental dinner companions. Anything from an illness to a change in routine, like starting daycare, can lead to a loss of appetite. Plus, declaring preferences about what and how much they eat is a natural part of asserting their independence at this stage. “Whatever the reason for a toddler’s disinterest in food, it usually only lasts a few days or weeks, and rarely results in any health problems,” says Nishta Saxena, a registered dietitian in Toronto. Ultimately, young kids don’t need as much food as parents often think, and making a big deal out of a mini hunger strike can contribute to bigger problems down the road, including picky eating and a pattern of food-related power struggles that can be difficult to break.

But is a parent really supposed to sit back and watch their kid subsist on virtually nothing? In short, yes. The Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society both encourage parents to trust their kid’s appetite, even when it wanes. According to the guidelines from both organizations, it’s up to kids to determine how much—or even if—they eat at any given meal. “The parents’ job is to offer a variety of nutrient-dense foods at meals and role model good eating habits,” says Saxena. That means sitting down to meals at the table together, in a relaxed setting minus screens and toys, which can be distracting to pint-size diners. It also means never bribing, cajoling or pushing your little one to finish a meal—no matter how tempting it may be to shove a spoonful in his mouth, or to tell him to eat “just three more bites” before he can leave the table. These tactics can prevent toddlers from understanding their body’s natural satiety cues and can create anxiety around eating. Toddlers may even reject foods they would otherwise try, just to take a stand against mom and dad, a dangerous pattern that can spiral into picky eating.

“As long as your child is growing, developing and meeting all of her developmental milestones, as confirmed at wellness visits with the doctor, there’s probably not a reason to worry,” says Saxena. On the other hand, if your kid is losing or not gaining weight, or not meeting milestones, it’s time to talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a dietitian for an assessment of what might be causing the eating difficulties and to get strategies to help.

Ideally, toddlers should be consuming four servings of fruits and veggies, three servings of grains, two servings of dairy and one meat or meat alternative daily. Keep in mind that child-size portions are much smaller: half a piece of fruit, a quarter of a cup of veggies and half a slice of bread each count as one portion. “But don’t get caught up in the number of servings or specific sizes—assess what they’re eating over several days or a week instead,” says Saxena.

The best way to encourage little ones to eat more—and a variety of foods—is to just keep offering. “It can take 10 to 15 times to get kids to finally try something new,” says Saxena. Empower them to make decisions about what you serve, like choosing between two green veggies, and how they’re prepared. When you introduce something new, experiment with different textures and shapes—some kids might refuse mashed sweet potato but love sweet potato “fries” that are oven-roasted in sticks, for example. You can also use little cookie cutters to create interesting shapes. “Kids are very visual, so sometimes that can be enough to grab their attention,” says Saxena.

Bodnar says they haven’t gotten creative with shapes of food, but they have tried plates and bowls in different sizes and patterns to pique Lachlan’s attention, a technique that helps some days. “Lately he has just started to try some new things, including cherry tomatoes and mini meatballs,” says Bodnar. “I don’t know if it’s related to a growth spurt or just a newfound curiosity about food, but I hope we’re turning a corner into more adventurous eating,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”

Did you know?
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, kids experience a natural dip in appetite at age two, when rapid growth starts to slow down.

Read more:
How to get your toddler to eat more protein
6 tips to help your picky eater
Are vegetable and fruit pouches healthy

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