Inside this post: practical, real life tips for what to do when your toddler won’t eat. How to handle picky eating, toddler dinnertime battles, plus how much a toddler really needs to eat.
Hi, have we met? I’m Marla, and I am 100% solutions-oriented. If you come to me with your problems, I will listen.
But I won’t be one of those friends who simply nods and says, “oh wow, that sounds hard.” I will come up with solutions to fix your problem until I am blue in the face. It’s simply my personality, hence this website of mine.
So tell me, does this situation sound familiar?
You spend an hour making dinner. Your toddler takes one bite and announces they are done. Or worse. They won’t even take a bite. They are done before they ever sat at the table.
Later that night after bath and bedtime, you sit on the couch and Google “what to do when toddler won’t eat” – and you discover something amazing.
You are not alone.
And that’s the funny thing about parenting. We may *feel* alone, but ultimately, whatever you are going through, there is ALWAYS another mom out there somewhere, experiencing the same exact thing. Just ask Google 😉
Toddlers are funny that way. One quick trip down the Google Rabbit Hole and you quickly learn that toddlers everywhere are pulling from the same playbook.
So whether your toddler won’t nap or won’t poop in the potty, or in this case won’t eat – sometimes toddler’s just won’t. And that’s okay. I often have to stop and remind myself that “just won’t” is practically in a toddler’s job description.
And this is where, as parents, we have to get creative and sort of let go of our own preconceived notions of what our toddlers should do, and more specifically, when and how they should do it.
Now, because this topic is so broad, and there are so many factors that can go into the “why” in “why won’t my toddler eat?” I’ll be sharing many possible solutions for all of your various mealtime woes.
Before we dive in, here are two very important things we need to do as parents:
- We need to adjust our expectations of what we consider substantial or “enough” food for a toddler.
- We need to learn to trust their intuition regarding their hunger.
Scary, I know. But we can do this.
Related: What I Fed My Kids This Week
How Much Food Should My Toddler Eat?
While little kids do often seem like bottomless pits when it comes to certain foods, in reality, a serving size for toddlers is very small.
Different kids have different needs, and there are a variety of things that factor in to a toddler’s hunger:
- Activity level
- Growth spurt
- Mental leap/milestone
- Sleep Regression
- Big life change (moving, starting or changing schools, etc.)
With that knowledge in mind, let’s look at what MyPlate considers to be an appropriate amount of food for a 2 year old in a day:
- 3 oz of grains (1 oz is a slice of bread, or half a cup of cooked oatmeal, rice or pasta)
- 1 cup of vegetables (5-6 broccoli florets or 4-5 bell pepper strips)
- 1 cup of fruit (½ a banana or 4-5 strawberries)
- 2 oz of protein (1 oz is an egg or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter)
- 2 cups of dairy (or dairy alternative)
Now remember, these serving suggestions are for an entire day! So you may be surprised to learn that your toddler is actually eating enough, and maybe even more – which is okay!
The key term here is also “suggestion” – there’s no need to break out the measuring cups and weigh or measure everything your child eats. And unless instructed by your pediatrician, there’s no need to restrict eating. I shared these figures so that hopefully they could provide some relief in terms of how much your toddler should be eating.
According to Choose My Plate: “Your preschooler may not eat the exact amounts suggested every day. Try to balance the amounts over a few days or a week.”
On a good day you may find that your little one can eat half a tub of hummus and maybe even an entire cup of crackers plus some cucumber sticks and a slice of cheese in one sitting. And on a “bad” day, well, just looking at that hummus might make them full. And that’s okay.
Don’t Force Eating, Let Your Toddler Determine their Hunger
Have you ever heard the phrase, “a baby who sleeps, sleeps”? Well, following that line of reasoning “a toddler who’s hungry, eats.”
Understandably, because a toddler’s eating habits can be so inconsistent, it can be tricky for us to sort of hand over the reins when it comes to eating.
That being said, your toddler is the best judge of their own hunger. As mentioned earlier, we cannot control how much food they eat; however, we can to a certain extent control what food they eat.
We go more in depth with this topic in the Picky Eater Challenge, but I feel it’s important to touch on it briefly here.
Whoever is primarily in charge of grocery shopping and meal planning in your home essentially sets the tone for your family’s food values.
Take a moment to think about the following questions through your toddler’s eyes:
- What types of food does my family eat?
- What foods are healthy and good for me?
- What types of snacks does my mom let me have?
- What is a “special treat” and how often do I get to have one?
Your family’s food values are your child’s foundation for healthy eating. A child who loves fruits and vegetables is a child who is served fruits and vegetables at every opportunity (without force-feeding, pushing, nagging, or drawing attention to the matter in any unusual way).
According to BabyCenter:
“Your child needs some encouragement and structure from you when it comes to mealtimes (such as regular meals and healthy choices), but not much more. William Sears, noted pediatrician and author of 23 books on childcare, says whether and how much your child eats should ultimately be up to her. “Your child may eat well one day and eat practically nothing the next,” says Dr. Sears, who co-authored The Family Nutrition Book with his wife, Martha.
Rather than get hung up on the fact that your child has refused everything you put in front of her today, consider what she’s eaten over the course of one week. Parents are often surprised to find that their child’s food intake balances out. Something must be fueling all that energy!
Rest assured: As long as your child is growing and gaining weight accordingly, you can be confident that your toddler is getting enough to eat. If you’re concerned, ask your child’s doctor to go over your child’s growth chart. You may be relieved to find out you don’t have anything to worry about!”
When your toddler does decide to eat, what foods are on offer?
Without judgement, we have all, without a doubt, resorted to some form of bribery just to get our toddler to eat something. Out of desperation, it may seem like offering junk food or sweets is the only way to get your toddler to eat.
You may feel some relief to know that this isn’t necessary. We provide the structure, food values, and nutritious choices. Our children decide what to eat (from what’s offered) and how much.
Time for a real word reality check…
What happens when you’ve been offering a variety of nutritious foods throughout the day, but when it comes to dinner, your toddler is just too silly, crazy, overtired, __________ (insert emotion here), and they just won’t eat dinner. There’s that “just won’t” again…
Here are some practical tips to help get things back on track —>
What To Do When Your Toddler is Too Crazy to Eat Dinner
Behavior vs. Appetite. Which one will win?
Follow-up question. Have you ever dealt with an overtired, cranky toddler?
Behavior wins over appetite. Every.Single.Time.
But wait! I thought you said “a hungry toddler eats!” – and yes, I wholeheartedly believe this to be true, except where extreme behaviors get in the way.
The trouble with dinnertime is that it naturally falls within the sort of witching hour period that begins around 3 PM (and often goes downhill from there). Of course all kids’ temperaments are different, but by the end of the day, my 3.5 year old, who doesn’t nap anymore, is pretty much done.
On a normal day, she can sit and eat dinner just fine, but when she’s feeling very tired (which also brings along silly, cranky, whiny, etc.), her absolute favorite meal could be on the table, but her overtired silliness (or worse), will win out over her hunger.
On days when I can feel the overtired meltdown brewing, I make her dinner at a time I know she’ll eat it. This may be as early as 4 or 4:30 PM, but at least she’ll eat.
If you’re worried your toddler will be hungry by bedtime, you can always offer a filling snack such as a banana or some crackers & peanut butter. Nothing super exciting, just something simple and filling.
There’s no rule that says your toddler has to hold out until family dinnertime. Remember, their bellies are little and it’s good for a toddler to eat frequent, small meals or nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day. There’s nothing wrong with an (extra) early-bird dinner for toddlers.
There’s also no rule that says every dinner you make has to be challenging, exotic, or Pinterest Perfect. If my older daughter (3.5) hasn’t eaten a good dinner in a few nights, I know that if I make pasta with turkey meatballs (and serve it to her before the crazy sets in) she will ask for seconds.
What To Do When Your Toddler is a Picky Eater (and refuses most foods)
If you’re dealing with extreme picky eating, you’ll definitely want to check out this extensive resource on how to teach your toddler to love healthy foods.
Practical Solutions for Dinnertime Battles
I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some practical solutions in this post for those times when you’re feeling like a parenting warrior and want to be proactive when your toddler won’t eat.
But First, A Quick Recap:
- Let your toddler be in charge of their hunger
- Offer regular snack & mealtimes
- Provide healthy + nutritious (and yummy!) choices
- Serve an early dinner (to combat the evening crazies)
If You’re Looking to be Proactive….
Involve your toddler in meal planning! Why should mom get to have all the meal planning fun?
- Buy a kid’s cookbook and sit down together to pick out meal ideas
- Use a cheat sheet of easy meal ideas and have your toddler choose! (pictured below)
Of course a younger toddler, such as an 18 month old, can’t really help meal plan, however, most toddlers that age are good eaters anyway, and are still willing to try most foods. The best thing you can do with toddlers under 2 is continue to offer a variety of foods from all of the food groups.
When picky eating rears its ugly head (and it always does in some form), don’t change a thing! Continue to feed your toddler as you always have.
One Final Thought…
It’s time to take all the pressure off of dinnertime. While dinner used to be considered the main bulk of nutrition for the day, we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket, so to say. Depending on your toddler’s end of the day mood, dinner may not be the time to try new foods. It’s important to include protein, healthy fats, grains, fruits and vegetables at every meal, not just dinner (since dinner may be the meal your toddler skips).
Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. You can read our full Disclosure Policy, here. This article is for informational purposes only. I am not a pediatrician, dietitian, nutritionist or any sort of professional. Please consult your child’s pediatrician with any concerns you may have.