1. Toddlers
  2. Nutrition & fitness
  3. Mealtime

Toddler not eating? Ideas and tips

1-4 years

Is your toddler not eating? Although it can be frustrating, it’s a normal part of toddler development. A helpful approach is for you to decide what food to offer your child, and where and when to offer it. It’s up to your child to decide how much food to eat.

Toddler not eating – or not eating enough?

Many parents worry about whether their toddler is eating enough healthy food. It’s common for toddlers to eat only very small amounts, to be fussy about what they eat and to refuse to eat at all.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Toddlers’ appetites vary constantly because of growth spurts and variations in activity.
  • Toddlers aren’t growing as fast as babies, so they need less food.
  • Toddlers have very small stomachs.
  • Because toddlers are so interested in the world around them, they have short attention spans when it comes to food.
  • Toddlers want to push boundaries and show how independent they can be.
Liking a food one day and refusing it the next is common toddler behaviour. It’s one of the ways that toddlers show how independent they are. It can help to think of it this way: you provide healthy food options for your child, and your child decides how much food he’ll eat – or not eat.

Appetite ups and downs: how to handle them

If your toddler won’t eat or won’t eat whole meals, you could try reducing the amount you’re giving her to eat. It’s normal for toddlers to need only small servings at mealtimes.

Also, avoid trying to force your child to finish everything on the plate, because this can make mealtimes stressful. Instead, praise your toddler for trying a spoonful or having a sip of water, if that’s all he wants.

At regular times between meals, you can offer your child healthy snacks like fruit or vegetable sticks. This should keep her going if she’s eating only small amounts at main meals.

As long as you offer healthy food, try not to worry if your child doesn’t eat very much sometimes. Your child won’t starve. Children are actually very good at judging how much food they need.

It can help to judge your toddler’s appetite over a week, rather than over a single day. It’s OK if he eats less today – he might be hungrier tomorrow. If your toddler is healthy and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, he’s probably eating enough.

Video

How to tell if your child is eating enough

4:56

In this short video, parents talk about how they know whether their children are eating enough food. They talk about how children’s appetites and food intake go up and down all the time. They suggest looking at what your child eats over two weeks instead of in one day or one meal.

In some cases, a child’s appetite might be affected by a health issue. If your child consistently refuses food or you’re concerned about your child’s growth or overall nutrition, check with your GP or child and family health nurse or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Trying new foods: tips

You might think your toddler is fussy and will eat only one or two particular foods.

But sometimes toddlers will try new foods if you just keep trying. If you assume your toddler will like new foods, you might find a whole new world of discovery opens up for both of you!

Creating a positive eating environment

  • Make mealtimes a happy, regular and social family occasion – sit together to eat with your toddler whenever possible.
  • Show your toddler how much you enjoy eating the food you’ve prepared.
  • Get your toddler involved in helping to prepare and cook family meals.
  • Offer new foods when you and your toddler are relaxed and she isn’t too tired or distracted by other things.
  • Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for a meal. If your toddler hasn’t eaten the food, take it away and don’t offer an alternative snack or meal.
  • Avoid punishing your toddler for refusing to try new foods. This can turn tasting new foods into a negative thing.
  • Avoid bribing your toddler with treats just so he’ll eat some healthy food. This can make your child more interested in treats than healthy food and sends the message that eating healthy food is a chore.

Serving new foods

  • Serve your toddler the same foods as the rest of the family. Your toddler will get the nutritional benefits of a wide range of foods, and accept new tastes and textures as ‘normal’.
  • Offer new foods with foods that your toddler already knows and likes.
  • Keep offering new foods. It can take 10-15 tries for children to accept and enjoy new foods.
  • If your toddler refuses something, offer it again in a week or so. Your toddler might gobble it up and even ask for more – a toddler’s interest in food can fluctuate wildly.

Following your child’s lead

  • Let your toddler touch, lick and play with food, and allow for some mess as she learns to eat.
  • Let your toddler feed himself and give him some help if he needs it.
  • If your toddler loses interest, or seems tired, cranky or unwell, take the food away.

Once you’ve found something your toddler actually eats, it can be tempting to keep on serving it up. But your toddler needs to eat a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients necessary for growth and development. So it’s important to keep offering her lots of different foods.

Offer a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups at each family meal. Go for variety yourself – show your toddler that you’re willing to try new foods and that you enjoy them too. Healthy family food and an eating environment that encourages a positive attitude to healthy food make a great start for your toddler.

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Last updated or reviewed
28-04-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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