There should be a long section in the parenting handbook (that never came with my baby) on why won’t my toddler eat? In our household, outside of dealing with sleepless nights, getting our toddlers to eat was the biggest battle!
Nothing is worse than continuously trying to make food for a toddler when you know they probably won’t touch it and you will once again throw it away. Not to mention the fact that if you don’t somehow get food into this little being, they are going to be a hangry mess.
We had two picky toddlers in our house. One who would have been more than happy to live on yogurt drops and the other who wanted nothing but food packets. In order to improve their nutrition and also save our bank account, we started down the path of finding ways to encourage good eating.
I spent more time than I ever wanted on getting advice from their pediatrician, their preschool teacher, a child psychologist, a nutritionist, mom friends and of course endless scouring of the internet for solutions. I was very determined and desperate to improve the continuous toddler food battles.
It took some time and what worked for our first toddler didn’t work for the other, but we made massive improvements with both who now eat a variety of vegetables, grains, and protein sources as well as love fruit.
Here I will share 19 easy tips that I’ve learned and explain what worked for us on not only how to get your toddler to eat but also how to get a toddler to eat veggies (green ones too!)
Why won’t my toddler eat? Do not panic
It is very easy to spin out of control with toddler food battles because they are infuriating (and you have to feed them so many times a day). When I confided in our pediatrician, she told me to aim for one good meal in every five meals. If we met that, then my toddler was okay nutritionally.
I didn’t need every meal to be perfectly balanced, it was okay if they didn’t eat the meal or if there wasn’t a vegetable at every meal. Instead, my goal was to ensure they were getting a good variety for 1 in every 5. This allowed me to not have to worry over every eating time.
I would instead focus on providing good options at every meal. And then thinking back over the course of the whole week, my toddler didn’t eat well at all the meals, but overall, they ate well at a few.
Super Carrots and Tricky Peas
Anyone remember Popeye the Sailor who would eat spinach to be strong? Turns out there was something to that.
I came across a study that showed preschoolers would eat twice as many carrots when they were called “X-ray vision carrots.” Preschoolers loved the idea of fun sounding vegetables and that they were getting super powers. It also allows kids to start making a connection between food and what it does for their body.
At first, I was very skeptical but honestly was willing to try anything because no one was eating any veggies in our house.
We started with carrots. We called them super carrots because they give you super eyes. I would say things like “I’m so excited to eat my super carrots so I can have SUPER eyes.” To help along this idea, I would ask my toddler if they could take a bite of a super carrot to help me find the (object) on this page of the book. When they found the item, I would be so excited and say wow, you must have super eyes. Let’s take another bite and see if you can the next object on the next page.
I would later remind them of their super eyes like when they would point something out. I would answer with “wow, I didn’t see that, those super carrots you ate yesterday must have given you super eyes”. I wanted to help them make the connection that when they eat carrots, it would help their eyes to see.
It was so successful in our house that we added in tricky peas to help them be more “tricky” and also mighty broccoli for energy in order to fight monsters.
Raspberries fingers and bell pepper phones
We have also found that giving food funny names makes them more fun to eat. I slice up bell peppers and our older kid mentioned they look like phones. Whether they do or don’t, the name stuck and our almost 3 year old thought it was hilarious when our 5 year old pretended to eat her phone. We played along by saying “what?!? you are eating your phone?! Oh no don’t eat your phone!” Then we would pretend to call them and they couldn’t answer because they ate their phones. To this day, they still both love eating their bell pepper phones.
We did something similar with raspberries. They would eat them by sticking them on their fingers and then eating them off their fingers. So we would be like “oh no! you ate your finger!” Our 3 year old would answer “No! I ate a raspberry!” with the biggest grin on her face.
No one loves routines like toddlers. If you haven’t learned the power of routine yet, then you are seriously missing out on some awesome toddler parenting hacks.
Routine gives toddlers a sense of what is happening next. From the viewpoint of a toddler, it can be very stressful to never know what comes next in their day. Even for me, I like to know what is happening the next day or that afternoon. I usually know what I am going to eat before I make it. We take knowing what is going to happen next for granted.
The first thing I changed was surprising my toddler at mealtime. Instead, I would always give them heads up before the meal. Even if your toddler isn’t speaking a lot, they will understand you. I would tell my toddler exactly what I was making and then go make it instead of just setting their lunch on the table and announcing lunch time.
Our weekly meal routine
My preschool friend said adding a simple routine to meals would go a long way and it did. Our dinner routine is below but you could do one that fits your families eating preferences.
Pasta Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Takeout Wednesdays, Fish Thursdays, Pizza Fridays, Soup Saturdays, Breakfast for Dinner Sundays.
Everyone knows this schedule in our household including my toddler. While my toddler won’t know what pasta or the details of what we are having, I think it helps. For example, I might say to my toddler, today is Monday, we are having pasta for dinner. You love pasta! Noodles are so yummy.
Additionally, you can change out the name if it’s a food that your child is still learning to eat. For instance, it took my toddler a long time to like fish, so I changed the name to bread roll Thursday. She loves bread rolls. I would always make them for her, and she could eat it if she took one bite of the fish. We did that for a long time and now she eats all her fish.
Very small steps are steps towards success
I did a free course by a nutritionist on getting picky toddlers to eat and the one thing that really stuck with me was that it can take up to 21 times of tasting a food before liking it. That is a LOT!
However, it is so important to know this because it will change how you value success or progress. If you can get them to taste a food (even if they spit it out), you have succeeded because have completed a tasting and are closer to them liking the food.
Some of my mom friends use a “no thank you” bite. It never worked for my kids but it’s this idea that if you don’t want to eat it, you still have to take a bite and then you can say no thank you and be done. If your kid will do that it is a great way to get more tastings in to grow their pallet.
Similar to the super carrots for super eyes idea, a growth chart can be used to help kids make a connection between eating healthy and their growing body.
We have a growth chart and our toddlers loves to get measured. Every time we do, I always point out how big they are and wow they must be eating such good foods to grow that much!
This works really well for older kids as well! We used this same tip to help our kindergartener with going to bed. She would always complain that she hates sleeping and why does she have to sleep. So, we would always point out how she must be getting really good sleep because look at how much she grew!
Make one Meal for Everyone
I got this advice from a wonderful cookbook and have since followed it. It is this idea that the family eats the same dinner together. To do this, as you cook, you set aside items for your toddler. Before you added sauces and spices.
For example, when we make a stir fry, we plate rice, veggies and protein before any sauces or spices are added. Therefore, they are eating the same food items and I only have to cook one meal.
The reason it is important to try to eat the same meal is because your kids want to be you and want to copy you. Additionally, it will prevent setting the precedent that you don’t have to eat the dinner because you can just eat something different than everyone else.
I can’t always pull it off. Sometimes we want to eat something that really doesn’t have anything toddler friendly in it, but I aim for one meal most nights.
A win and a challenge at every meal
I don’t think any parent makes it very far in parenthood until they understand the word hangry at a completely whole new level.
At every meal, make sure you always have something you know they will eat. This will avoid the meltdown over not liking the meal and also get something in their bellies, so they are more reasonable when you ask them to try something else on their plate.
You can also include a challenge at every meal. A food you know will be a fight. Only put a tiny amount on their plate like 1-2 bites and then use every tip I give you here to get them to try that food item out.
Put your oxygen mask on first
Speaking of hangry, it is never a good idea to get into a food battle with your toddler when you are hungry. It never ends well and results in negative associations for the toddler.
I have learned the hard way that when my toddler is refusing to eat, or even refusing to join us at the table, I let it go until I have eaten. I just enjoy my meal and then I have the calmness and energy to deal with my toddler. Additionally, it gives my toddler 15 more minutes to get hungry which is sometimes all it takes.
Take a bite, I’ll turn the page
The best way to get my toddler to eat and actually the best way to keep her attention span for a book is to combine the two. I seriously don’t know why it works so well but if I read to her at the table, she eats and listens to the book.
I don’t love this tip because I would much prefer to eat also, but wow does it work so I use it when I need it.
I pause at the end of few pages and ask her to take a bite so I can turn the page. I will break out a book if it is just my toddler and I at lunch. I try to avoid it at family dinners.
Family Conversation and Games at Meal Time
Our second had such a hard time eating because she just couldn’t stay focused on it for long enough. We had to make meal time more engaging.
This was huge for us to get our toddler to sit at the dinner table and stay there long enough to eat. One of the big problems was that eating was not enough to keep them at the table. Their brains are just so busy that they would soon bore of eating. So, we include them in conversation using two talking games. This has been more useful for the older toddler but I don’t see why you can’t do something similar for the younger toddler.
The first is Rose, Thorn and Bud. It is where every person says their highlight of the day (rose), a challenge (thorn) and something they are looking forward to (bud). We always start with the youngest and work our way up. In addition to keep them in the conversation at the table, it always teaches them how to reflect and communicate better.
The next game we play is called who loves? It is where you go around the table and each person asks a who loves question. And everyone can raise their hand to answer. It can be as silly and fun as you want. Examples include:
Who loves ice cream? Who loves boogers? Who loves dragons?
Moon Squirters and Feed the Woozle
Use time outside of mealtime to work on eating habits. You can do this in three ways.
Read kid books about good eating. This gives a toddler the chance to see characters try new foods and see the outcomes. I have used books for learning everything from how to try new foods to dealing with difficult emotions or going to the doctor or dentist. My favorite goods on trying new foods are:
- Charlie and Lola: I will never not ever eat a tomato. (We still to this day call tomatoes moon squirters.)
- Gregory, the Terrible Eater
- Green Eggs and Ham
Another way is to pretend play meal time. You can do this by playing restaurant and taking turns being the person who eats the food and the person who cooks and serves it. You can make funny faces when you try the food and ask your toddler if you should try it again. They will say yes and you can make the funny faces but keep trying it.
You can also play this awesome food game called Feed the Woozle, where you feed the monster gross monster food like fly ice cream. I would always read the food item and say “do you think the monster will like it. Let’s see, why don’t you give her a bite?”
Be a little scientist
Another idea that has helped us a lot especially with vegetables or foods that my toddler doesn’t love the taste or texture of is to play “scientist.” We all try the food together at the table and make observations such as wow this is crunchy. Is your crunchy?
It changes the goal for the child. Instead of being in a battle of please eat your food, you are asking them what do they think it is like? We also all do it together. We all try the food item. I think this helps my toddler not feel alone and changes the dynamic.
For instance, we might try a food and I’ll say “wow mine is really cold and crunchy! Is your piece also cold? I’m so curious, try it and tell me!”
Compromising has its advantages
I have had mixed feelings throughout my time as a parent on compromising. I go between wanting to set limits while also wanting to get through the day, which most of the time means compromising.
After a lot of back and forth, I have decided that if I can find a way to compromise or make a deal with my kid, it is a win. I decided this because it teaches them a useful life skill. In life, relationships are built on valuing the other person’s point of view and feelings.
I have also found that compromising is always a win with food because toddlers aren’t great with numbers. Usually when we decide on number of bites. My toddler will always pick a higher number than I was going to suggest. They also don’t really know how to count so you can sneak bites in. Additionally, learning numbers and practicing counting are great activities for toddlers!
Lastly, if compromising on the number of bites means they will eat then you are one step closer to the 21 times it takes to like a food.
Cut everything with kitchen scissors
This isn’t really a tip to getting your toddler to eat but more of just a toddler eating hack. You can cut everything with a kitchen scissors. Forget the knife. That takes way too long.
I learned this from a mom friend who cut everything her toddler ate with a scissors. Since then, I now cut up everything that way from their morning pancakes to their pizza slices at dinner. Such a time saver!
Change the temperature
This was a big one for my very picky toddler. I would always make my toddler’s food similar to how I liked it such as giving her vegetables not too hot but still warms. It turns out, my kids like very different temperatures of food than I do (similar to how I would never enjoy a bath at the temperature my kids do).
The biggest difference here was that they loved their vegetables basically room temperature or barely warm. So I would take frozen peas or veggie medleys, add some to a bowl with water and microwave them for 1 minute. I would then scoop them out onto their plates and let them cool for a good 5 or longer minutes before serving. They love them that way.
Additionally, my kids love eating frozen fruit more than fresh fruit. This is honestly such a win because buying frozen fruit lasts longer and is not as expensive. At dinner, I will give them a side of frozen blueberries or frozen mango. They also love frozen berries in their yogurt. I mash them up a little before adding them. It also turn the yogurt fun colors.
When my oldest child was a toddler, we had this awesome playgroup at a library. It included snack time for the toddlers. The person who ran the group would bring a snack for them. The first time, the snack was hummus with cucumbers. My toddler ate everything on her little plate and seconds. I was amazed. I thought it must be the type of hummus because she didn’t eat hummus or cucumbers for me at home.
I went out and bought that same hummus. It didn’t make a difference. She still didn’t eat it for me at home. However, every time we went to playgroup, she ate the snack. The experience taught me the value of peer pressure and group setting. So if you can find a playgroup or a setting where your toddler can try out foods with a group of toddler friends, I highly recommend it as a tool to get your toddler eating new foods.
Join a farm share
We joined a farm share a few summers ago as something fun to do. It had a weekly pickup and also pick your own items each week. I didn’t realize how awesome the pick your own would be for my toddler. She loved it. We would pick something new every week such as flowers, strawberries, tomatoes, etc.
There is something about this experience that results in a willingness to try it. My toddler wouldn’t try tomatoes no matter what I did. One week, we went to the farm to pick cherry tomatoes and I turn around to see my toddler gobbling them up off the vine.
The funniest part is she still won’t eat them at home but every time we went to pick some, she would eat 10-15 cherry tomatoes.
Dessert is powerful
This is especially true for the older toddler who can understand the connection that you only get dessert if you eat your dinner. We have dessert every night. For our toddler it is a little cookie, small scoop of ice cream or just a few chocolate chips.
How many calories should a toddler eat?
A toddler needs around 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day. I am not good at keeping track of calories so instead what was helpful to me was understanding what a toddler portion is. A good rule of thumb is ¼ of an adult’s meal. So if you have a slice of bread, a serving size for your toddler is ¼ slice of bread.
What to feed a toddler who has a stomach bug?
When your toddler has an upset stomach or is sick, the safest food choices are the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast). My toddler would eat applesauce but not the other items from the BRAT diet. So we got banana food packets from the store. We also did crackers instead of toast since she would not eat toast. We also did noodles and plain cheerios since sugar can make diarrhea worse. In addition to those, we also did Pedialyte popsicles since she would not drink it. I just froze the drink in an ice pop maker container and it worked well.
Why Won’t My Toddler Eat? Share your tips!
There you have it. Every trick in the book on how to get your toddler to eat! I hope these help you navigate meal times and create a veggie loving tot. Remember that it takes time and 21 tastes to like new food. Just be creative and work on it a little bit at each meal. Additionally always remember, there is a reason I could write 4000 words on the subject and why there are endless posts on how to get a picky toddler to eat. You are not alone and if your toddler won’t eat, they are 100% normal. Just keep trying and one day, I promise they will sit at a table and eat.
Lastly, remember to leave your own advice and tips you have used in the comments so others can learn from your wisdom!
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I am a wife and mother to two awesome girls. After having my babies, I wanted to create a space to help moms since motherhood doesn’t come with instructions. With a background in teaching, I put my love of to-do lists and action items into creating bump, birth and baby resources for my readers.