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My Toddler Isn’t Eating Much. What’s Normal and What’s Not?

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Inside: Toddler not eating much? It’s a worry that a lot of parents have. I’ll walk you through the top 8 reasons that cause toddlers to eat less food and what you can do about it.

Maybe your baby was a “great eater,” one of those babies that ate everything and lots of it. Maybe your baby wasn’t, and just ate enough to get by. In either case, you’re stuck now wondering what happened. Because now your baby is a toddler and your toddler is not eating much. In fact, some days you wonder, “How are they still alive? Aren’t they hungry?”

Let’s talk through the top 8 reasons that your toddler isn’t eating food.

Related: BetterBites – The Picky Eating Solution For Families

Your Toddler is Not Eating Much Because Their Growth Has Slowed Down

The top reason that your toddler is not eating much now than when they started out is because their growth has slowed down. In the first year of life, babies often triple their birth weight, which requires a lot of energy! That means your baby may have been eating a lot of food to maintain their growth.

Then when toddlerhood starts around one, your child’s growth slows way down. They grow some inches and gain some weight, but it doesn’t come close to how much they grew in that first year of life. The slowed growth means that they need less energy to grow, so many toddlers start eating way less food or eating sporadically as they need it.

Note, some kids keep eating the same amount of food and that’s fine too. Every kid is different in terms of how much energy they need to grow and thrive.

Toddlers Do Not Eat Much When They Are Fed Too Often

Toddlers do not need to eat every hour. In fact, feeding toddlers too often is a common reasons that toddlers do not eat much. Toddler’s do have small stomachs, so they usually need to eat more often than adults. That said, they can be fed every 2-3 hours.

I suggest feeding toddlers breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Depending on your family’s schedule, you may need a second afternoon snack if there is a very long time between lunch and dinner. Your family may need a bedtime snack if there is a long time between dinner and bedtime. Whatever your family’s situation, your toddler should have no more than 6 eating opportunities in a day total (a before bed nursing/bottle also counts as an eating opportunity).

Sample meal schedule if your toddler is not eating much with a breakfast, AM snack, Lunch, PM snack, Dinner & Bedtime Snack all a few hours a part throughout the day

Read more: The Eating Routine That Will End Your Food Battles

When They Don’t have a Safe Food, Toddlers Do Not Eat Much

Around the age of 1, toddlers often develop the fear of new foods and next thing you know you have a two-year-old picky eater. Picky toddlers do not eat much and it can be so stressful for you as the parent to watch that happen.

When feeding toddlers, I recommend not catering to a picky child. Instead, serve one family meal and leave it at that. At the same time, it’s very important that your child have a food at that meal that is “safe” for them. A “safe food” is a food that they usually like (‘cause we all know that toddler tastes can change from day to day), and that they can eat as much as they want of.

That way, you don’t have to worry about them starving at a meal because there was nothing liked. I always recommend letting a child decide whether to eat and how much.

Read more: Real Easy Weekdays – a meal system for the whole family

Your Toddler’s Not Eating Much Because They Are A Picky Eater

It’s common for all toddlers to experience some fear of new foods. Some toddlers start heavily restricting the number of foods they will eat and may even end up with a list of 5 foods.

For extremely picky eaters, it’s especially important that they not be pressured to eat, and also that they not be catered to. Wondering what to feed a picky toddler can be especially stressful.

Signs that you have a very picky eater are:

  • having a small list of foods
  • having a much harder time at mealtime than other families that you know
  • your child never ever trying a new food
  • your child never adding foods back onto their list of foods they will eat.

Seeking additional support for extremely picky eaters can be an important part of helping your child remain healthy and helping to keep your stress levels down.

Related: Reverse picky eating with our Picky Eater Food Guides

If a toddler is not eating much new foods can be scary to them, this image shows how adding a fun food pick to a new food makes it fun

FREE child feeding guide: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind

Your Toddler Is Not Eating Much Because There is a Weak Mealtime Structure

Toddlers eat best in an environment where the parents are in charge of mealtime, and the child is in charge of their body. Without this structure Toddlers do not eat much. This means that your child should decide whether to eat and how much. It means that you, as the parent, decide where meals are served, when meals are served, and what food is served for meals.

Meals are served in specific eating places without distractions. Parents are also in charge of the meal routine and when meals and snacks are served. Going back to the safe food idea, parents need to plan and serve meals that are balanced and always include a safe food, but also don’t cater to a picky child.

Image showing adult portions of chicken, quinoa and rainbow carrots to show that if a toddler's not eat much they may not be wasting food, you may be serving them too much.

Read more: But What About Food Waste?

The Wrong Chair Can Cause Toddlers To Not Eat Much

Although it seems silly, most toddlers will eat more food if their body is properly supported. What does that mean?

It means that they have a foot support so that their knees are at about a 90 degree angle. It also means that they can sit up high enough that their elbows can be at about a 90 degree angle. Additionally, they have back support. Once kids are fully supported, they can use their energy and focus to think about their food.

If you need a recommendation for a chair, here’s the one that we use for our kids. A stack of books or boxes work too! You don’t have to buy a new chair – you can work around whatever chair you have to get your child the support that they need.

Toddlers Do Not Eat Much When They are Sick

Finally, your child may be under the weather. It’s common for toddlers to eat less when they are sick, have a cold, or are teething. Give them space to be sick and eat less. Feed them hydrating food when they are sick.

Toddlers are usually great at making up for whatever food they lost when they were sick. That means your toddler may not eat much right now, but then they will eat a lot for the next few weeks when they feel better.

If your toddler is sick and you are concerned about hydration or weight loss, it’s a good idea to call your pediatrician and check in with them.

Read more: The Most Important Thing to Feed Your Child When They Are Sick

Toddlers do not eat much for a variety of reasons. Which one do you think describes your situation?

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Karla

    Is there a diet for extremely picky eaters with ADHD? My 3 year old only eats fruit, bread and cheese. We limit the fruit intake, because of the sugar, but he refuses to eat anything else. He is very thin. 😞

    1. Emma Ward

      I hope you get an answer. Fruit sugars are very healthy so I wouldn’t limit them especially if he’s very picky and doesn’t eat vegetables. Fruit had been give a bad reputation.

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