#14: Toddler Refuses to Eat?

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What should you do if your toddler refuses to eat? Or you don’t know how to tell if they are actually full and want to make sure they get enough to eat?

There’s a lot of things you know better for your kids than them…but how much food they need to fill their bellies at a meal is actually one thing that they will always know better than you. 

Today we’re diving into how to know when your child really is full, how to make sure they always get enough to eat, and what about eating too much? Will they do that, and can you prevent it?

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This is the Feeding Toddlers Made Easy podcast for busy parents who want real life tips to get your kids to eat healthy and make feeding them easier. I’m Kacie Barnes, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I work exclusively with babies and young children, and I have two kids myself so I know firsthand all the daily struggles that endlessly pop up. I offer online resources that really will simplify your time in the kitchen while helping your kids eat and enjoy healthy foods. 

You can leave me a question for the podcast anytime on the podcast voicemail line at 469-552-5527. Or, in the question box here (scroll down to the bottom of the page!).

Question: how to know when a child is really full if they only eat a few bites?

Liza sent in this question:

My 2 year old will tell me “all done” after just a couple of bites of a meal. How do I know if she actually had enough to eat? What do I do if she refuses to eat any more?

How to know if they’re full (even if your toddler refuses to eat)

Here are helpful signs that they are done eating:

  • Throwing food

Once they start throwing their food and you can tell they don’t care about eating any, that’s a good sign that they are done eating. This counts even if they didn’t really eat anything to begin with! They won’t always be hungry at a meal, that is normal.

If food throwing is a struggle, this is how to make it stop!

  • Playing with food and not eating any

Playing with food can be completely normal and just part of the meal experience. (For more info on food play go here.) But, if they are playing with the food and not bringing any to their mouth, it’s a sign that they are not hungry.

  • Asked for more food… and then didn’t eat any of it

Sometimes they will use sign language for more or tell you more, and then you bring them more, and they don’t eat any of it. They are still learning and they might not realize until you bring more that they aren’t hungry anymore. Very frustrating when you now feel like you wasted the food! But it’s not necessary to ask them to eat it if they aren’t interested anymore. 

  • They just aren’t really eating anything

Let’s say you’ve offered more than one food, and included something they usually eat and like. But they are still in food refusal mode. You can trust that they will likely eat at the next meal and just aren’t that hungry right now.

What if you offer a favorite food after they refuse their meal and they DO eat it? Don’t take that as an automatic confirmation that they were still hungry. Young children, just like adults, will usually accept their very favorite foods even when not hungry. I don’t like to do this because it sets the stage for them to refuse meals regularly in hopes that you will bring out something else they like better. And that paves the way for becoming a picky toddler!

How to know if they had enough to meet their needs

This is where trust and Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility comes in! The Division of Responsibility for parents and children says this:

The PARENT is responsible for WHAT is served and WHEN

The CHILD is responsible for IF they eat and HOW MUCH

That’s a really simplified definition, but it has the heart of what you need to know. Kids, even very young ones, are able to listen to their body to know if they are hungry or not. You will offer food, aim for a balanced diet, and include a variety of foods.

But the only person who truly knows if they had enough, is them! Only your child is in their body. Just like I couldn’t look at you eating a meal and think, “oh she didn’t eat enough today!” We also don’t know what their exact needs are at that moment. It changes daily and from meal to meal. 

How to ensure they get enough to eat

Keep a consistent daily routine of meals and snacks. Aim for no more than 3-3.5 hours in between eating opportunities.

I have a sample schedule post and a free download with a daily visual schedule that you can use for your toddler.

Portions:

Start with small portions to avoid overwhelming them. They can always have more. But often we overestimate how much is appropriate for them. Then, you may feel like they didn’t eat much because there is still food on the plate. 

A good place to start is 1 Tbsp of each food per year of age. For example, a 2 year old would get 2 Tbsp chicken, 2 Tbsp corn, and 2 Tbsp rice. You can refill their plate, even if they only ate the rice or the corn and ask for more of that.

Safe foods and how they fit in

Especially with picky eaters, you may worry that when they refuse to eat it’s because they don’t like the meal. For some kids, who are very picky, they won’t eat even if they are hungry, if there are no foods available that they like.

The way to solve this problem is to always offer a safe food – a food they regularly eat and like. That way you can be sure that they have something to eat, even if they are not eating the same meal as the rest of the family. 

For more picky eating help, check out these posts:

Will they eat past fullness? Will they ever eat too much?

H2 Will they eat past fullness? Will they ever eat too much?

What about the opposite scenario? Sometimes they may refuse food, but what about eating too much?

Rarely, a medical issue may cause them to routinely eat past fullness. Discuss with the pediatrician if you notice extreme, excessive weight gain or routinely eating to the point of vomiting.

In general, all people eat past fullness sometimes, regardless of age. This serves as a helpful learning experience for our kids if we can help them understand and tune into the hunger scale

Tuning into their fullness will also help them connect the dots to a bellyache caused by too much food. 

Does this go along with intuitive eating?

If you’re interested to learn more about intuitive eating, check out one of my favorite RD friends, Colleen Christensen. She’s @no.food.rules on instagram. Colleen is great to follow if you want some insight into how intuitive eating actually works. 

It’s essentially what our babies and toddlers are born doing, but as we get older we get messed up with diet culture and food rules. And the accumulation of that over time is what shapes our opinions about what “eating too much” even means, and how we put a value judgment on that. 

It’s very different to notice for yourself, “hm I ate past fullness at this meal. I’m kind of uncomfortable. I’m not going to be hungry for awhile.” MUCH different from the self-talk we often go to of “ugh I’m so mad that I ate so much, I always do this, I’m so disgusted with myself, I’m never going to lose weight if I do this.” 

Young kids listen to their body

For a toddler, they are still really great at listening to their body and they naturally will eat less later if they ate more than they needed at a meal. They don’t have any of those negative feelings about themselves that we often have, and that’s a BEAUTIFUL thing. We want to nurture and protect that for them. Allowing them to tune into their body’s hunger and fullness cues is what will allow them to have a healthy relationship with food, and to maintain a good healthy weight for their body.

What should you do to help:

  • Never comment on the amount they are eating
    • Avoid, “Wow that’s a lot,” or, “Really you want more?”
    • Also avoid, “You need to eat more,” or, “You haven’t eaten enough.”
    • You HAVE to leave the “how much” up to them!
  • Don’t micromanage their portions
    • Allow them to have more of a food if they ask for seconds or thirds as long as it’s available and not a food that’s going to cause GI issues.

If you notice frustration pop up when they just want more plain noodles and absolutely nothing else, you can acknowledge that feeling. And, recognize that is the result of years of hearing that carbs are bad! So your gut reaction is that this is unhealthy for your child. Or, there’s a problem because they like carbs so much, or you feel like a crappy parent because you have a kid who just LOVES carbs. 

Guess what? None of that stuff is true. All foods are okay. There are no foods that I’m like OMG NEVER FEED THAT TO YOUR CHILD EVER. 

Because really, this is what happens when they eat less nutrient dense foods. They still get calories, they still get macronutrients (carbs, protein, or fat). They just get less of the other things like vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. 

So while we don’t want them to just eat plain macaroni all day every day, when they have that at one meal of the day it’s really not a problem.

RESOURCES

Food Throwing

Episode 13 – Playing with Food

1 Year Old Feeding Schedule

Daily Visual Schedule

Teddy Bear – Hunger Scale

What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner

If Your Toddler Won’t Eat Meat

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