Help! I have a toddler refusing to eat
You’ve survived the first months and fed baby all night and day.
You’ve introduced solid foods and survived the mess.
But parenthood has a new surprise for you: you have a picky eater.
We encounter this with many parents that have a toddler refusing to eat. Parents always ask us how to get a child to eat when they refuse?
We’re going to share some of our secrets to success!
Developing and changing tastes in toddlers
“But my kid used to love this!”
Yep, that’s the cry of a parent dealing with a toddler refusing to eat.
Even foods that they always enjoyed are now a big no-no. The “safe” food you know were accepted and loved are now thrown on the floor.
It’s possible your toddler had a bad experience with that food.
Maybe his/her tastes have developed and they are more sensitive to subtle flavours and don’t like the new taste.
Or, their perception of certain textures doesn’t feel right anymore.
Social aspects also weigh in. Perhaps they heard comments that made them reconsider their favourite food in a bad way.
No matter the reason, it’s normal and part of your toddler’s development.
Children are born with a preference for salty and sweet foods. They also have a bias to reject new foods and flavors.
It’s likely an innate way to protect themselves from harmful foods. Thank you evolution! It may explain why you have a toddler refusing to eat.
It is also normal that your toddler is developing some preferences (and aversions!) for specific foods. We all have our favorites!
The good news? A family environment is where toddlers experience the most impactful eating opportunities.
Eating behaviors acquired early in life tend to persist in time. They will shape your child’s dietary habits for the rest of their life. Jeez, no pressure then?!
A toddler refusing to eat certain foods is part of their normal development.
Is there hope? how to get kids to eat when they refuse
Yes, there is hope that your picky eater will open up to new tastes and foods.
Here are some tricks you can try at home to help your toddler overcome their reluctance for some foods.
Aversions often arise with foods like vegetables, fruits and protein sources.
Getting a child who refuses to eat, to try new foods is super stressful for parents. Luckily our Top 10 list of tips for handling picky eaters targets these foods.
1) Serve a balanced plate
Serve a balanced plate at every meal, but don’t comment or pressure your kids to eat any of the components.
Pressure will only create more desire to refuse. Try not to worry about them not eating anything.
You cook it and serve it, and that’s it. Your toddler refusing to eat is a normal part of this, but give it time…a lot of time.
Repeated exposure (that can be 10-20 times) is wonderful at making any food seem “normal” and eventually get your child to try eating it, when they may have previously refused. What count as an exposure? Seeing the food served, in different shape, way, tastes. What isn’t exactly an exposure? When that same food is “hidden”. Sure, maybe your kids will eat it with pleasure, but if they don’t know it’s in their food, it doesn’t exactly help them feel comfortable around it.
Serve a balanced plate, with no pressure to eat all (or any) components.
2) Make sure YOU eat the food you serve too
Make sure you prepare it in a way that you like, and express how good you think the foods are.
Don’t over exaggerate, but be vocal. Let your kids know how good things taste, how nice a recipe is, or how pleasant the food’s texture is.
Peer modelling is a powerful thing! Social influences do affect young kids.
Evidence shows that toddlers are more likely to try new foods if they see it eaten by a familiar adult. You are that familiar adult who can exerts a positive influence on your child’s eating habit!
Positively influence your toddler to imitate you: eat food with pleasure
3) Allow yourself to not like all foods
But still cook and serve them to your family! It is okay for anyone to not like ALL the food ALL the time.
You can also model that to your toddler. Respect food preferences and know they are not universal.
How do we behave when served foods we don’t like? What do we say? Do we have to force ourselves to eat it ? (no.)
This is an important message to teach your kids: they don’t have to love every food and that is ok.
A toddler refusing to eat is normal. It is okay to no love all food, and no one has to eat something they don’t like.
4) Offer a variety of food and cook them in different ways
We all tend to buy the same food and to cook them in the same way, following our favorite recipes.
We are creatures of habit after all! Especially when trying to maintain schedules for ourselves and kids.
Offering new food options, or cooking usual choices differently keeps it interesting!
It is a good strategy to encourage your child’s to discover and try food they have never seen before.
Making a point of offering new food varieties time-to-time can help your kids keep an open mind. New foods can help cultivate excitement and curiosity.
That’s how to get a child to eat when they refuse – by piquing their interest. It may lead to the opposite of having a toddler that refuses to eat; an open-minded and curious eater.
Also, cooking method can change everything. We’re talking boiled vs roasted chicken, sautéed vs steamed veggies, and new sauces, dips and spices!
Challenge yourself to cook new food and to use new cooking techniques.
5) Pair the new/disliked food with a favourite.
This can be reassuring for young eaters. It provides a reference point, something they recognize and love. Oh, and this is particularly effective for picky eating toddlers that refuse to eat.
For example, a good trick is a dip for cut veggies. If you include some new veggies in the mix, the dip is something they know and something that is fun (and tasty – who doesn’t like dip!).
Carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, kohlrabi, cauliflower, peppers, bite size tomatoes, broccoli, celery, radishes… with a dip made of plain yogurt, lime juice, fresh basil or parsley, salt and pepper.
Put that on the table while you cook dinner, and before you know the plate will be empty!
Pairing a new food with an old favorite is a reassuring approach for young eaters.
6) Involve your kids in choosing what to eat
Whether it is at the grocery store or during meal prep at home. Ask them for recipes, ideas, and what they feel like eating or buying this week.
You’re less likely to have a toddler refusing to eat if they got to participate in choosing what to eat. Make them feel needed and in charge. They are more likely to try something that they chose.
Get these kids involved! No decision is too small for your toddlers. What to buy, what to cook, how to serve it, which plate to use – get them to decide.
7) Make it a game
Suggest that everyone in your family comes up with a new recipe. Guide them to a website for inspiration (Ours is Ricardo Cuisine!).
This one is a big hit every time: chicken and cauliflower mac’n’cheese.
Keeping it light and fun can encourage your kids to be more adventurous at the family table.
8) Do not trick your kids into eating something they don’t want to
That will make for a bad experience for your kids. Because they will eventually figure it out. And, positive eating habits aren’t formed on the basis of a lie.
It sends the message that eating food (think vegetables) requires lying. You want your toddler to love to eat food!
You don’t want to have to hide and lie for the next 15 years, don’t you?
So, don’t get shaken if your toddler refuses to eat. Persevere, with these tips and know over time, you will raise a happy eater.
Don’t hide food and trick your kids into eating stuff they don’t want to. It reinforces that foods are not worth enjoying for what they are.
9) Be patient
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. They’re young. Don’t worry too much about every meal. Look at their food intake over the week.
You are teaching them that eating is delicious, pleasant, and normal. You are teaching them to respect their bodies, to eat what they want and to eat when they are hungry.
It is all about teaching them to love to eat. It cannot be done in one single meal.
10) Acknowledge the good, ignore the bad.
We want to associate meal time with pleasant time. Enforce your family rules. Table manners are important, so do get clear on those and set the expectations for your kids to follow. We don’t suggest that eating a certain number of bites be a requirement for any kids.
Emphasis should go on making family meals pleasant for everyone.
Bonus: One extra tip!
11) Involve your kid in cooking.
That is a little bit more work for you (so chose your moment!), but it works EVERY TIME.
Depending on their age, get them to either pick up stuff from the fridge, mix and stir, or cut ingredients following a recipe.
Kids who have been involved in preparing a recipe are more likely to eat it. And it teaches them some essential cooking skills that are useful for the rest of their life.
Getting kids cooking is a good way to get them to try new flavours
Let us know which tip(s) work best for your family!
Birch LL. Learning to eat: behavioral and psychological aspects. Preventive Aspects of Early Nutrition; 2016; 85:125-134.
Walton K, Kuczynski L, Haycraft E, Breen A, Haines J. Time to re-think picky eating?: A relational approach to understanding picky eating. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act; 2017;14:1–8.
Haines J, Haycraft E, Lytle L, Nicklaus S, Kok FJ, Merdji M, Fisberg M, Moreno LA, Goulet O, Hughes SO. Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating: Position statement. Appetite; 2019;137:124–33.