What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat: Expert Advice & Tips from a Registered Dietitian
If your toddler isn’t eating, it can be frustrating and SO confusing. Whether they’re a picky eater or not, refusing to eat, showing no interest in their food, and throwing a fit about a meal is, unfortunately, common in the toddler years. The good news is that as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and mom of a picky eater, I have a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area, so I can help! This post is your new go-to for what to do when your toddler won’t eat.
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It’s Normal for Toddlers Not to Eat
You heard me! Yes, it really is normal for toddlers to have days when they are just not that hungry. Usually, a toddler’s appetite balances out over the course of a couple days. So, maybe one day they have a good appetite, but then the next 2-3 days they don’t want to eat much of anything. This is very common for toddlers.
I’ll say it a thousand times if I have to: it is okay for them to have low intake days. (You can let yourself off the hook, mama!)
Why Won’t My Toddler Eat?!
There are a few reasons why toddlers lose their appetites, and none of them are anything to stress about. Sometimes, a simple switch makes all the difference, but sometimes you just have to ride it out.
Reason #1: They Want Something Better
One of the most common reasons a toddler won’t eat is that they don’t have a meal and snack schedule set in place. If they’re used to being able to graze all throughout the day, or if they get snacks from the pantry whenever they want to, they are just not very likely to want to eat at meals. And this makes total sense! It’s because they’re smart– if they know they can get something they prefer– like Goldfish– whenever they want, why fill up at mealtime?
Reason #2: They’re full!
This is really Reason 1A, but bear with me: another reason they may not want to eat is because they’re snacking so much throughout the day that they just aren’t hungry. In other words, their appetite gets thrown off when they eat too frequently throughout the day.
Hunger is actually a good thing. It’s a normal biological function for someone to build up an appetite and then satisfy that hunger with a meal. We want our kids to know what this feels like!
When toddlers eat too frequently, they never feel properly hungry, so they never need a full meal. Instead, they’re satisfied by a few bites here and there, all day long. If they never get hungry for an actual meal, it’s likely that they’ll refuse them.
Meal & Snack Schedules For The Win!
Having a daily meal and snack schedule is a GREAT thing for toddlers (and for you too) because it addresses the #1 and #2 reasons why toddlers won’t eat! With a schedule, they know what to expect, their body has more of a chance to build up an appetite, and they are more likely to eat at meals.
This schedule would work for a one-year-old, a two-year-old, a three-year-old, or a four-year-old– the only thing that changes is you’ll eliminate their nap time at some point, and may move lunch back to 12:00pm or 12:30pm. (This is the schedule I’ve used in my house since my son was 1. He’s 5 now, and we still use it… minus the nap, which I miss so much!)
Reason #3: Milk Overload!
How much milk does your toddler drink?
Drinking too much milk is a common culprit when toddlers won’t eat at meals or their toddlers’ appetites are low. It has calories, so it fills them up like food does and lowers their desire to eat.
Aim to limit the amount of milk your toddler drinks from 16-20oz daily, whether it’s cow’s milk or a non-dairy alternative. If they’re still breastfeeding, that’s fine (you don’t have to limit to a specific amount), but it’s worth noting the number and frequency of feedings if you’re noticing they are not eating, because breastfeeding on demand, or very frequently, can affect their appetite for solids. I’m in no way saying that you need to reduce your breastfeeding– just know that it’s a possible explanation for why your toddler’s not eating.
Reason #4: They’re Sick
If your toddler won’t eat because they’re sick, that’s okay. This is normal and expected. You do not need to worry if their appetite dips down for a few days when they’re not feeling well. Making sure they are drinking something is more important than food. I have a whole post on food for sick toddlers that you can read over, too!
When should I worry about my toddler not eating?
You only need to worry if eating is an ongoing struggle that has you concerned that they’re not gaining weight or that their diet is extremely limited (they’ve cut out entire food groups, they cry or throw tantrums with every meal, etc.). These are signs that you should consult with the pediatrician so they can determine whether or not they want to refer you to a specialist. That could mean a dietitian, a feeding therapist (who is an SLP or OT), a gastroenterologist, or someone else– they’ll know best.
Ultimately, if their refusal to eat is interfering with regular daily life, it’s definitely worth talking to someone about it. Occasionally the pediatrician won’t be concerned, and you’ll remain concerned. Trust your mama instinct and reach out for a second opinion. (You can even chat directly with me, here.)
Why is my child suddenly not eating?
To be clear, when someone asks about their toddler “suddenly not eating,” I would describe that as them normally having a pretty good appetite, but then out of nowhere it completely changes.
I want to clarify because it can be normal for a toddler to eat like a grown man one day and then eat barely anything the next day. Appetite fluctuations are to be expected. As mentioned above, appetite changes can be due to things like illness, so you’ll want to pay attention to whether there are any other symptoms going on. Low appetite during illness is common, and as long as you can get them to drink fluids, it’s okay if they have a really low appetite for a couple days (if they are otherwise normally healthy).
If your toddler suddenly won’t eat and you know it’s not because of illness, there are a few things that could be going on. To figure it out, ask yourself a few questions:
Did something recently change in their life?
Did you move? Are they at a new daycare? That kind of thing. Something like this could be throwing them off.
How old are they?
If they’re somewhere between 12-28 months, it’s really common for their appetite to go down naturally because they are not growing as quickly anymore. Babies have a much quicker growth rate than toddlers, so as their growth slows, their need for calories slows down as well. This is normal, and happens at different times for different kids.
What To Do When Your Toddler’s Not Eating
It’s really common for toddlers to have varying levels of hunger depending on the day (and even the time of day!). Some days they may take down seconds and thirds of everything, other days it’s like they’ve only consumed milk and air. Either way, I wouldn’t force them to eat. It’s important to let them listen to their body and what it’s telling them they need.
Just make sure that every time you make a meal or snack for your toddler, you’re serving at least one food they like. You don’t need to list off every food in the house asking, “what about this?” until they agree that they want something– just give them one tried-and-true fav at each sitting. If your child is even refusing foods they like, it’s a sure sign they are not hungry. And when they are not hungry, they do not need to eat.
I know it can be hard to step back because there’s part of you that feels like you NEED to get them fed. But, remember that if you’re sticking to a meal and snack schedule, they’re getting an opportunity to eat every couple of hours, so they are not going to starve. Even if it’s the last meal of the day, and your toddler doesn’t eat dinner at all.
If your toddler won’t eat breakfast…
Some toddlers don’t have a huge appetite in the morning, and it’s likely for one of two reasons:
- They’re eating late the night before. If they tend to have dinner or a snack (or even a big cup of milk) right before bed, that can cause them to wake up without much of an appetite.
- They’re nursing or drinking milk first thing in the morning, before breakfast. Milk may be giving them enough calories that their body doesn’t feel hungry for breakfast.
What To Do:
If you notice your toddler routinely isn’t hungry for breakfast, consider pushing breakfast back by 30-60 minutes (if it works with your schedule). Or, make your usual morning snack time the new routine time for a breakfast-type meal.
If your toddler won’t eat lunch…
If they are going to daycare or school and you notice they aren’t eating their lunch, it could be due to a couple reasons:
- They’re distracted. Sometimes it’s hard to minimize distractions at school, especially when the distraction is other kids. Ask your child’s teacher if they notice what’s happening at lunch time with your little one, or if they can try to keep an eye on them for the next couple days to see what is happening at mealtime.
- You’re sending foods they don’t like. When they’re eating away from home, I suggest prioritizing the foods that they typically enjoy. (They’re already getting enough “newness” from their environment!) You can include something new here or there, but in general, it’s best to serve familiar, liked items at daycare or school.
- The setting is new. It can be overwhelming to start at a new place, even if it just means they’re moving up to the next room in daycare. Sometimes it takes them up to a few weeks to feel settled and want to eat.
- They need help opening items. Whether it’s a pouch, a packaged item, or a piece of fruit that needs to be peeled, they may not be able to open it themselves. And, the teacher may not know they need help, or might be unable to get around to helping them in time.
What To Do:
To figure out exactly why your child isn’t eating lunch, play around with sending familiar, liked, easy-to-open foods for a while and see if anything changes.
If your toddler won’t eat dinner…
Toddlers often front load their calories. And this is an awesome thing! If you think about putting gas in your car, you NEED to fuel up before you go on a long drive. Your car can’t start a big journey if it doesn’t have gas. Toddlers are often very similar– many “fuel up” before a long day of growing (and playing, screaming, running, laughing, cuddling, singing, and talking!), to give themselves the energy they need for what’s to come.
I’m honestly quite pleased when I see toddlers who eat well earlier in the day and taper off as it gets closer to bedtime. Their body needs the energy the most in the morning!
When It’s a Problem:
If you’ve gotten into the habit of giving your toddler something else (or you continue offering things until you find something they want) after you’ve served dinner and they’ve rejected it– you could unintentionally be perpetuating the whole not-eating-dinner thing.
Side Note: It’s fine to offer a bedtime snack as part of your routine, especially if you’re afraid they won’t sleep through the night without eating dinner. Just keep it in line with foods similar to what you’d serve at a meal (read: not a “fun dessert food” every night!). If they know they can get a “fun dessert food” whenever they want, they’ll be more likely to skip out on dinner just to hold out for dessert later. (See! They’re too smart. They learn this stuff too fast!)
What To Do:
Always serve a food with dinner that you know they usually like. Just like with other meals, if they decline that, then you know they’re just not hungry or interested in eating right now.
Beyond that, just have confidence in knowing that it’s OK for them to go to bed without eating dinner. Remember that toddlers front load their calories and naturally eat more earlier in the day, so it’s not unusual for them to not want much at dinner. And, know that just because they don’t eat dinner, doesn’t mean they won’t make it through the night. Even if they do get a little hungry, it’ll help them adjust and eat more calories during the day. You’re not “making them go hungry” if they choose not to eat anything.
Toddler STILL won’t eat? This should help:
If you’ve read this far and you’re still struggling, confused, or wondering WHYYY your toddler won’t eat, you are not alone. Here are some answers to the SUPER frequently asked questions I get from other parents fighting the good fight and trying to do what’s right for their toddlers. (Other parents like you!)
Help! My toddler won’t eat the meals I make.
This is so common. Here are a few tips:
- Offer food from a serving dish.
- Use a “tasting spoon” to give them a teeny tiny portion
This will give them control over what they eat and what they have on their plate, which can help!
What do I do when my toddler hardly eats anything?!
Like I mentioned above, it’s okay to have these days! Toddlers’ appetites even out over the course of a few days. When this happens:
- Don’t force it
- Give them a multivitamin. This may help give you the peace of mind that they are getting something they need, even if they don’t eat much.
My toddler won’t eat foods they ate as a baby. Why?!??
It’s okay! Babies just have bigger appetites than toddlers. Try serving little pea-sized portions of foods they’re not into.
My toddler will only eat a few foods. What can I do?
If they want to eat the same few foods over and over again, or they never want to eat something new, you can still work on variety. In fact, I strongly encourage you to! Small changes are more likely to be successful with picky eaters, so if they don’t want to eat something new, try something that’s just slightly different. This could be a different brand of something (like a waffle or a chicken nugget), a slightly different flavor (apple cinnamon applesauce instead of plain), or a different variety of something (Gala apple vs Honey Crisp).
Why won’t my toddler eat at the dinner table?
An often overlooked reason why your toddler won’t eat or why you’re having a REALLY hard time keeping them at the table is that they don’t have proper seating.
The most common problem I see with toddlers sitting at the table, that is EASILY fixable, is being too low down! If it’s not a problem at home, it’s usually a problem at restaurants. And, even with a booster seat, they often have to reach up to the table to get their food. Why is this an issue? Well, picture yourself sitting in a chair where the table is at your face level. Wouldn’t that be difficult and annoying!? They feel that, too!
Do your best to get them at a height where the table hits them about mid-chest or lower. This usually helps achieve better behavior at mealtime, longer sitting, and possibly more eating, too.
I love the Stokke Tripp Trapp chair (ours was gifted to us from Stokke) because it converts from a high chair to an ergonomic chair that adapts as your child grows, so you can always keep them at the perfect height. I just love everything about the design.
And, it gives them a good place to rest their feet, so they aren’t kicking things under the table (my son’s biggest vice!). This Keekaroo Chair is another similar option at a lower price point.
I Can Help You Keep Bums in Seats & Get LOs to Eat!
I have a FREE print-out on how to get your little ones to sit at the table longer. If you’re struggling with this right now, download my Step-by-Step Guide to Keeping Your Toddler at the Dinner Table!