Some parents can find feeding their toddler stressful. Sometimes toddlers will not eat or they will eat very little. It can be frustrating, but it is a normal part of toddler development. A helpful way to think about it is: you choose what, when and where they eat, and your child decides whether to eat it and how much of it they will eat.
Toddlers like to have a choice, so to avoid tantrums ask them what they would like to eat, offering healthy options.
Offer healthy food
If you provide a variety of healthy food and drinks for your toddler, you know whatever they choose will be nutritious. If you can buy a good range of foods that you are happy to offer your child, they will always have something to eat.
They may want a particular food that you do not want to give them, such as chips or lollipops, it is best to have this type of food only occasionally and in small amounts.
Schedule meal and snack times
Children, especially younger ones, do best when they know what to expect.
Family meals are very important and are often the only time when the whole family is together. It is best if the family can eat at the dinner table, turning off the television and any other screens to reduce distractions.
Try to offer snacks at set times that are not close to meal times, so they do not lose their appetite.
Kids who have a big glass of milk or juice before dinner will also eat less.
Introducing new food to young children can take patience. Choose the food you would like your child to eat and keep offering it. It can take 10 to 15 tries for children to accept and enjoy new foods.
Try the same approach with snacks. Make it easy for your child to choose healthy snacks. Keep fruits and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include yoghurt, nuts or wholegrain crackers and cheese.
If food is rejected, calmly clear it away. Most foods can be safely kept in the fridge and offered again later. Try not to bully, fuss or offer bribes. It is best not to prepare a 'special' separate meal for your toddler. It can be helpful to remember:
- It is normal for children to be fussy eaters.
- A child will eat when they are hungry.
- A healthy child who refuses to eat is not hungry and does not need food right now.
- Try not to worry if your child does not eat or only eats a small amount. It is best not to react but stay calm and positive. Children can sense that their parents are worried, or fussing over them at the mealtime and it can make eating more stressful.
Give your toddler a choice
At the same time, give your toddler a choice when you can manage it. They like to have a say in things — this is an important part of their social development. Give them some choices about food but only offer choices you are happy with. For example, you can ask:
- Which morning tea snack would you like: a piece of fruit or a sandwich?
- Which cup would you like to drink your water from?
- Should we buy red or green apples this week?
Alternatives to some foods
No single food is essential to a child's diet, and a substitute for refused food can easily be found. If your child will not drink milk, try cheeses, yoghurts and milk shakes.
If your child will not eat cooked vegetables for dinner, you could offer more fruits or salad vegetables (such as celery or carrots). But keep offering the vegetables too.
If your child will not eat meat, you can give them the iron they need with foods like wholemeal bread, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, beans and lentils. And you can replace the protein in meat with the protein in milk, dairy foods, eggs, peanut butter and beans.
By mixing foods you can easily match meat for iron and protein. For example, peanut butter sandwiches, baked beans on toast and iron-fortified breakfast cereal with milk all contain protein and iron.
Make food fun
Food should be enjoyed, even if it is not all eaten. Make foods fun when you can: for example, you can cut sandwiches into shapes, go to the park for a picnic, or let your child help prepare part of the meal such as arranging salad or fruit pieces.
For a toddler, enjoying food means touching, feeling and playing with it. Let children feed themselves. Hands are as good as spoons, even if they are messier.
Set an example
Children will usually want the foods they see you eating, and reject foods they see you refusing, so it is worth looking at your own diet. Are you adding too much sugar, salt or fat to your food? Would you confidently feed your child the foods you eat?
Good food habits learned in childhood can last a lifetime, so it is important to guide toddlers by your own example, and be positive about eating well.
Things to remember
- A child will eat when hungry.
- Toddlers are less inclined to eat nutritious foods when they fill up on non-nutritious snacks and drinks between meals.
- Children are great imitators, so look to your own diet.
If you continue to be worried by your child refusing food, talk to your doctor, child health nurse or children's dietitian.
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Last reviewed: March 2021