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Inside: If you’re toddler’s not eating or you have a picky eater, you are likely feeling worried! Here you’ll find the most helpful step-by-step guide to improving your toddler’s eating and reducing stress around mealtime.
“I’m so worried about my toddler – she just isn’t eating! Is picky eating a ‘phase’? She won’t even eat food if she asks for something and I make exactly what she wants! Help!”
I got this desperate message from a mom who felt so defeated during every mealtime, she dreads them now! Mealtime stress has taken over and she’s worried that her toddler isn’t getting enough.
Feeding kids is tricky, but you don’t have to continue to have defeating and frustrating meals. I’ll show you step-by-step how to help your child learn to eat better over time and reduce your mealtime stress in the process by following 5 steps.
Step 1: Take the Pressure Off Your Toddler Who Is Not Eating
It seems to make sense to make a toddler “take 2 more bites” or push them to eat food. In fact, many of us grew up with a lot of rules about how much we had to eat at every meal. Rules like:
- You have to eat two more bites to get down
- You have to finish your plate
- You have to try everything on your plate
- No dessert unless you eat a good dinner
When your child is not eating, you can help by ending all pressure during meals.
If you want a summary of this article and even more, you can download my free toddler feeding guide From Stress to Success: 4 Ways To Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind
Toddlers Know How Much They Need to Eat
The thing is, most toddlers actually know how much they need to eat, just like babies know how much they need to eat. All bodies have internal cues which tell us things like “I’m hungry!” and “I’m full!” Over time, a lot of us lose the ability to listen to our internal cues, but toddlers are usually really good at listening to them.
What does that look like in practice? It means that the toddler may take 2 bites of food and realize that they are full and stop eating. It also means that the next day, they may be more hungry (because 2 bites the day before wasn’t a lot) and they may eat as much as you. This is typical toddler eating behavior and it’s okay.
Say it with me, “It’s okay if my toddler eats 2 bites of food.”
I know, it’s hard. It’s hard to see your toddler eat 2 bites of food and be okay with that.
It’s also hard to watch your toddler eat 3 helpings of dinner or snack, and be okay with that too.
Both are okay, both are helping to nurture and nourish your child.
Allowing Your Toddler to Not Eat Is a Gift
Now we’re gonna talk about something that is even harder! Ready?
When you’re feeding toddlers, let them decide whether or not to eat. Yep, I’m totally serious. Some meals or snacks your toddler is just not going to be hungry and your toddler will choose not to eat. And believe it or not, that is okay! They are learning to listen to their internal cues.
Food waste can be a big concern at this point. If that’s you, you may find the article But What About Food Waste helpful.
Is that it? Are we just going to let our toddlers run the eating show? Nope, not at all. You’re the parent and I’ll show you how to be in charge of food in your house.
Step 2: When Your Toddler is Not Eating, You Need to Provide Structure
Like I said before, we’re not going to let toddlers run the show in the house. Although sometimes I wonder if they would love it if they could. Maybe we’d all get to eat mac ‘n’ cheese every day….maybe that would be delicious.
Truth though, mac ‘n’ cheese is fun, but it’s not a 3-times-a-day every day type of food. Toddlers don’t know that, parents do. That’s why you and me, we’re in charge of food in the house.
Let’s talk about what it looks like to be in charge of food in the house.
Parents Choose When Meals Are Served
It’s your job as the parent to decide when meals are served. Meals need to be served on a routine basis so that you and your child know when food is coming. When your toddler is eating every hour or so, also called “grazing”, it may cause your toddler not to eat.
Grazing leads toddlers to lose touch with their internal cues. It leads to toddlers either eating too much for their body or too little for their body, because they can’t really hear what their body is saying.
As parents, it’s our job to help teach our child to listen to their body. We do that by spacing out meals and formal snacks with water in between. Toddlers learn to eat at meals and snacks and to wait in between. This waiting is good because it helps kids learn to feel the sensation of hunger, then they eat as much as they want during a meal or snack and they feel full.
Parents Decide Where Meals Are Served
It’s also your job as the parent to decide where meals are served. Meals should be served in a designated eating place. Maybe it’s the kitchen table. Maybe it’s a blanket on the floor. Maybe it’s on a picnic table. Wherever it is, it’s important that parents decide where meals are served and only serve them there.
It’s also important to provide a distraction-free environment. This means no toys, books, or screens at the table. I know, it’s a big ask. Especially when we see our toddlers eating more when they are distracted! The problem is, they are eating more, but they are not learning to listen to their body or learning to actually like and be comfortable with the food they are eating. This can increase picky eating.
There are other frustrations that go along with the table too, like food throwing. Check out my Ultimate Guide to End Toddler Throwing Food if you’re looking for help with that one.
Related: Getting Your Toddler to Eat: The 1 Most Important Thing
Parents Choose What Food Is Served
It may be a toddler’s dream to just eat mac ‘n’ cheese, but that’s not what they need. So, you, as the parent, are in charge of what to serve for meals. This means no more short-order cooking.
So, what DO you make at meals? Serve food that you would like your family to eat and make sure that your toddler has at least one food at that meal that you know they like. Let them choose whether to eat and how much from what is available at the meal. And yes, that means they are allowed to eat as much of their liked foods as they want (if everyone has had their fair share, and more is actually available).
Here are some more articles that will be so helpful in making meals that your toddler will eat:
- 5 Secrets for Turning Any Meal into a Meal Your Toddler Will Eat
- What to Feed a Picky Toddler
- Complete Guide to Disposable Lunches for School and Daycare
- The Most Important Thing to Feed Your Child When They Are Sick
- Sandwiches Beyond the Deli Meat
If you’re feeling stressed about planning meals and you just want easy family meals to make on the weekdays, Real Easy Weekdays is a meal system for busy families with kids ages 1+ (already eating table food) who want to serve a variety of foods.
Step 3: If Your Toddler Is Not Eating, Check For Picky Eating
Some toddlers do not eat because they actually have some challenges they are working through. They may need additional support. While most children only have minor picky eating and it doesn’t really affect them, some children will go on to become more picky and have more issues later causing them not to eat.
Before we talk more about picky eating, it’s important to know that if your child is truly picky, it’s not your fault. Kids are picky for many reasons including genetics, sensory challenges, autism, fear of new foods, medical challenges, and more.
How do you know if your child is picky? Here are 3 questions we can ask.
- Is my child dropping foods off the list of foods they will eat and never bringing them back on?
- Is my child eating less than 20 foods (assuming they have been exposed to more than 20 foods)
- Is eating in your home MUCH more stressful than other families you know?
Maybe you’ve thought some of these things:
“I’ve tried all the things that other parents have tried and nothing seems to work for me!”
“Something seems different with my child compared to all the other children we know, I just feel like something is wrong with how eating is going.”
“Meal time is like World War 3 in our house.”
“I feel defeated trying to feed my child.”
“I dread mealtimes so much. I know that it’s not going to end well.”
If you’ve answered “yes” to several of these things, then it’s time to look for more support for your child. I created the Kids Eat in Color BetterBites Program just for families like yours.
If you want to read even more, you can get my free child feeding guide: From Stress to Success: 4 Ways To Feed Your Child Better Without Losing Your Mind. It’s 14 pages and chock full of helpful ways to improve feeding with your child.