Is there any realm of life with your toddler that just works? Because lately, I’m feeling like parenting my two year old is just one big mind f*ck. Whether it’s sleep, getting dressed, or buckling the dang car seat, there’s a power struggle to be had. But today, let’s focus on one area where I was having some serious frustration, but actually found some things that are working! Food. My toddler won’t eat. My 2 year old won’t eat vegetables. My toddler is suddenly a picky eater. Yes, yes, and yes. All common themes we’ve been experiencing over here too. But as a mama who loves food and emphasizes a balanced plate and family meals, I tried and tried some more. And guess what? My 2 year old is eating so much more!
I’m learning how to play “the game” with her at meal times, and I feel like I’m actually winning. Let’s take back the family dinner, and get that toddler of yours eating something other than cheese and their fourth banana of the day (no, just my kid?).
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My Toddler Won’t Eat! 5 Tips for Picky Toddlers
1. Work with What They Do Eat
This tip is number one for good reason. I’ve had a lot of success with my 2 year old to eat a greater variety by adding and hiding veggies, proteins, and healthy fats in foods she already loves.
Foods for Picky Toddlers
Quesadillas: easy to add a new type of meat, bean, or even very finely diced veggies
Soups: There’s nothing N loves more than soup. Will she eat a steamed carrot or sautéed spinach on her own? No chance. But in a soup, she’ll eat just about any veggie. Colors and textures not cutting it? Try a pureed soup. My daughter especially loves the part where you drink straight from the bowl, no spoon required.
Smoothies: The possibilities here are endless. Add greens, carrots, and cucumbers easily to banana, fruit and yogurt smoothies. Add nut butters for added fats and calorie content. You might even freeze them with some popsicle molds, and they’ll think it’s dessert.
Dips: I’ll elaborate more below, but my 2 year old LOVES hummus. I capitalize on this by making other dips that contains beans or veggies and just tell her it’s a new kind of hummus. Do what you gotta do, right?
Yogurt: Yogurt is something you can jazz up with all kinds of good stuff to really make it a meal, but it’s still yogurt. We love adding raw oats, ground flax, frozen blueberries, and honey. I’ve even done savory yogurt with cucumber and a dash of olive oil.
Pasta: take advantage of the fact that pasta almost always has a sauce, or present the sauce as a ‘dip’. Red sauce can hide other veggies really well. So can cheese sauce with some broccoli added in. My toddler even started eating pesto when she got to make it with me (see tip 4) so then I started cutting the pesto with kale and other greens.
Baked Goods: There are so many great recipes out there that hide veggies in quick breads, pancakes and muffins. Think zucchini, carrot, banana, apple, and even some greens!
2. Switch up the presentation
This plays on the fact that your toddler is seeking control and power. Involve them in choosing their plate color or fork. Ask them if they’d like it in a bowl or a plate. Colorful divided plates are always a win in our house. And so are plate sets with favorite characters.
Another way to switch it up? The way you cut or present the actual food. Maybe try doing strips instead of individual bites.
If you’re feeling extra patient? Sit with your child and help them cut each bite, like the way an adult would eat. We got N a set of “real” silverware, but in a toddler-size that she loves.
My daughter will eat 5+ consecutive bites of chicken or steak when she can cut it ‘herself’(or with my help). Ideal for every meal? No. But it’s worth it some nights.
3. Dip Away!
Adding a dip or ‘spread’ option to the meal just changed meal time into an activity. For us this started with hummus (for like every veggie) but now we even give her a little side of salad dressing and she’ll sometimes eat raw veggies or meat dipped in that. She loves ketchup, and you know what, if it means she’ll eat the eggs, I’m okay with that for now.
Other Dip Ideas:
- Yogurt as a dip for fruit
- Peanut Butter as a dip for fruit
- Ketchup (where appropriate)
- Salad dressing as a dip for meats
- Red Sauce or Meat Sauce as a ‘dip’ for the pasta (also a great place to hide veggies!)
4. Involve Them in the Process
This has been another game changer in terms of getting my 2 year old to eat a greater variety. If she got to help make the meal, she is so much more likely to at least give it a try. And I know in our house that’s half the battle. Once she’s tried the food, she usually realizes we’re not actually giving her poison and are recommending it because it’s delicious.
Our learning tower makes involving her so much easier than a regular step stool or chair. She can climb in on her own and is really secure. It seriously makes my life so much easier at meal prep times when I can give her a job and she is at counter height.
How Can They Help:
- Baking is an easy project to involve them with
- Combining ingredients for a salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, etc.
- Washing veggies that will go in a stir fry or soup
- Putting ingredients into the blender for a smoothie, or maybe you want to keep it a secret what’s in that smoothie, your call here 😉
Another way of involving them in the process is to give them choice. We aim for a fruit, veggie, grain, and protein at each meal. But I usually try to let my verbal toddler pick (when possible). I find that providing two choices only, when I’m prepping her plate, does the trick. For your fruit do you want raspberries or orange? Suddenly she’s given the control she desires, but I’m still getting her to eat a fruit.
Your toddler might also benefit from tasks like setting the table and clearing the table. N loves putting a napkin and fork at each person’s place and helping bring things to the table. She LOVES to serve everyone too, which isn’t always possible or ideal, but if it gets her to eat then it’s worth it.
5. Take Them to the Source
We’re so lucky to live in an area with lots of farms, and we belong to a CSA (farm share) where we pick up veggies every week and get to pick our own for a variety of crops. My daughter eats so many more veggies because of this. Things she wouldn’t eat prior, but then when she sees the plant it came off of, and can try it in the field, it’s way cooler.
I realize this isn’t possible for everyone or for every food. But even just going picking once for apples, blueberries etc., or going out of your way to visit a farm or friend’s garden will help them make the connection.
Even involving them in the grocery store will help. I see this making a difference for us too. I let N be involved in finding the apples that look good, or the grapes that aren’t brown. I talk about the beautiful colors and how delicious they are going to be. I say how excited I am to take the specific food home and eat it. Keep it positive and exciting.
My Toddler Won’t Eat: Save Yourself Some Stress and Struggle
Getting your toddler to eat during a meal, and even utilizing some of these strategies definitely takes a lot of energy and patience. I know this because I’m doing it too! Coming to a mutual agreement over what plate she’ll be eating off of can feel like negotiating foreign policy.
There is one suggestion I have that’s 100% for YOU, Mama. Start doing some meal prep. We prep our dinners in bulk for 14 days at a time using Kelly’s Complete Freezer Cooking Bundle. All I have to do is defrost and pop it in the crockpot, oven, or on the grill. This resource makes it so easy and actually possible to achieve. I always felt so overwhelmed by bulk meal prepping before I started using these recipe lists. And with the dinner already done, you can focus all of your energy on getting your toddler to actually eat it.
My Toddler Won’t Eat: Health Reasons Your Toddler Won’t Eat
A very common reason that your child could be cutting back on their food intake could be hidden food allergies. This is a scary proposition. Most parents would read that and immediately pass over it because they don’t see a clear reaction like a throat closing or the child breaking out into hives, but not all food allergies look the same. There are symptoms you should be on the lookout for that are less obvious, and ones you may have attributed to things other than the food they’re eating. The areas of a child’s body that can be affected by allergies are their heart, skin, breathing, and intestines. Anywhere from minutes to an hour after eating, their allergy symptoms will appear.
Respiratory and Cold symptoms like a runny nose, cough, sneezing, wheezing, trouble breathing, shortness of breath, and congestion can occur post meal. Intestinal, flu like symptoms can occur such as diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, and lightheadedness can occur as food allergy symptoms. These are not noticed immediately or directly attributed to food allergies, typically. More commonly recognized food allergy symptoms are skin issues like hives such as red bumps on skin or eczema such as itchy red rashes on skin can both occur, as well as swelling of lips, tongue and face.
If the first set occur that do not appear on the skin. Begin to take inventory of what a child has been eating and then get to a doctor in order to diagnose the allergy. The most common foods that cause allergy triggers to watch out for are nuts, milk, eggs, seafood, soy, and wheat. Be educated and vigilant of what you children say after eating and what they eat. Many times children will know before you do that these foods have harmed their bodies and be turned off to them.
Sensitivity to Texture
Texture is an important factor to kiddos, and understandably so. Whenever children struggle with eating, this is always a potential reason. Foods that are mushy, slippery, wet, or smell strange, may get a bad sensory sensation for the kids, and they in turn will avoid them completely. When your child does have a texture sensitivity, they tend to eat very bland foods. Things that don’t look strange, white foods, foods without seasoning and sauces. The way food looks and smells are huge factors, and those two factors paired with the texture issue really limit the diets of these children. Try giving them new foods with nutritional value that are not oddly textured.
This may seem like a funny issue, but the consequences can be quite serious. Is your child eating the same exact foods daily? Do they only like a few foods? In this situation, there is not a ton to worry about. It just means they are not eating a variety of foods you want them to eat, but they are eating. This is actually a fairly normal development stage for them to walk through at some point. Try to incorporate new foods if possible.
Disordered eating is another big issue for children who do not want to eat. With young children, especially toddlers, it may seem very strange for this to be a potential issue, but it could very well be. Having body dissatisfaction is a person thing. Just because it is more common at a younger age does not mean it doesn’t happen younger. My younger brother at a very young age believed he was fat and was very sensitive about it, even though he was extremely lean. It is possible that peers see things at home, on TV or around other kids and then pass it on to your child. Talk to your child and dig a little deeper, even at the toddler age. See what they think about themselves and what other kids have said to them.
Growth is Slowing
If you have become fearful about your child’s appetite, because it has gone from hearty and diminished to less and less, you may not need to be. After the first year, into years two and three, the growth begins to slow for a toddler and they pick up a steady appetite instead. It could be concerning for you but actually be very normal for the age. Definitely talk to your doctor and get wise counsel, but don’t jump to unhealthy conclusions.
Sensitive Taste Buds
Similar to the sensitivity to texture, sensitive taste buds are a thing as well. Your child may have more taste buds on their tongue, or they may taste bitterness our sour foods in a more intense way. This sensitivity can lead to extremely selective eating, and most severely with veggies. This may simply mean your child wants to eat more plain foods, so it’s good to be aware of this. Forcing and pressuring will really only make it worse. If you want to add more nutrition into their diet, give them new foods to try until they find some alternatives that are not hard on their taste buds.
As you well know if you are a parent, once children, especially toddlers “hit a wall”, it can be nearly impossible to get them to anything at all, even if it is good for them. As adults, we know we need to push through and do much harder things than simply eat when tired, but at the very least, we take care of our bodies if we’re starving. For children, once they are exhausted, all their needs and things that are good for them get pushed aside. They may not even realize they are hungry because of the tiredness. The signs of this that you need to watch for are pretty simple: fussiness, crying, rubbing eyes, and other things of this nature.
If around dinner time, after a long day of daycare or preschool, plus extra activities, they may just be too tired to eat. Some ways to fix this is by encouraging them to fill their tummies before resting. Remind them that they will be hungry all night until the morning because the food will be put away. And if this is a regular occurrence, more naps or an adjustment to the nap schedule (lengthening it) may be needed. Also remember that earlier dinner times are better for kiddos!
More Specific Woes Related to ‘My Toddler Won’t Eat’?
Toddler Won’t Eat Meat
Try offering meat in meals that they already know and love. For example, add diced ham to mac and cheese, add some chicken to their pasta with butter and Parmesan, try a soup with meat in it, or put meat in a quesadilla or grilled cheese.
You can also try the tips I mentioned above like letting them cut off their own bites, or giving them something to dip their meat into.
Toddler Won’t Eat and Only Drinks Milk
I don’t think there is a super fast or easy solution to this, but my toddler definitely has days like this. I started giving her half the amount of milk I typically do and then offering water after that. It takes a day or two to catch up, but the lack of calories from milk will have her making up for it at meal and snack times.
I also save milk until after meals so she isn’t filling up before or during a meal with milk. During, before and in between meals, try to start a water only, or OJ (diluted heavily with water) in the morning. I may or may not have utilized some white-lying about being out of milk, or the milk being ‘closed’ to get her out of the habit of wanting milk all the time.
My Toddler Won’t Eat Toddler Suddenly Picky Eater
Give Them Some Sense of Control
Remember that so much with your toddler is based around power, limit testing, and control. They may not actually dislike the food they used to gobble, but rather are letting us know that they want more choice and control over their meals.
Try to find ways to incorporate choice and control as much as possible with things like plate/bowl color, fork or spoon, which fruit, which veg, etc.
Give Them Greater Independence/Tasks at Meal Times
Foster independence at meals, another thing toddlers crave. “I do it all by myself!” sound familiar? Incorporating independent tasks like table setting, clearing, cleaning, and prepping may make them more willing to eat the meal that you “are in control of” (which is often how they perceive it).
I’ve mentioned a few times what a difference it makes when I let N cut her own food. Other things like spreading, serving, and stirring also let her feel more independent and successful.
Rule out Physiological Possibilities
Is something causing them pain or discomfort? Sometimes we as parents can be so quick to blame the developmental stage that we overlook the basics. Some possibilities:
- Molars coming in that make it uncomfortable to eat
- Sore throat making it difficult to swallow
- Lactose Intolerance or other allergy giving them an upset stomach or other discomfort
It’s definitely a good idea to evaluate these possibilities, and possibly bring them up with your pediatrician if you are seriously concerned. Especially in the event of a food intolerance or allergy.
Don’t Give up if Your Toddler Won’t Eat!
We totally still have days where all my 2 year eats are goldfish and yogurt. But with consistency and patience it is getting better over here. All of the tips on this list are things that are really making a difference at our house. Tailor them to your family’s diet, time restraints and tolerance and your toddler will be eating again!
Don’t forget to be patient, and don’t beat yourself up when you throw in the towel and give them the banana (guilty), and above all be a healthy eating role model for your kid. That’s probably the most important thing above all.
Have another tip to add to the list? Comment below! I’d love to learn anything that will help 🙂
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