A young picky eater refuses to eat her vegetables

Why Won’t My Child Eat?

It seems to happen almost overnight – your adventurous toddler starts snubbing at food they previously enjoyed. While changes in your child’s appetite can be frustrating for parents, they’re a normal part of a child’s development and growth.

Between the ages of 2 and 6, children want more independence and control. As toddlers learn to develop and use their own voice, they also learn how to say no to food! The good news is that this too shall pass. Here are tips to encourage stubborn toddlers to eat (and to avoid a power struggle against your toddler at the dinner table!):

  • Be persistent and patient. Research has shown that it may take exposing a child to particular food 15 to 20 times before it is accepted!
  • Let them decide. Instead of requiring your child to “clean their plate,” try following this model for Division of Responsibility, championed by child feeding expert, Ellyn Satter. Parents provide the food, and the child decides how much of it they will eat.
  • Be positive. Approach mealtimes with a positive attitude and a calm demeanor. If you are stressed, then your child may pick up on that stress and battles may ensue! Look for ways to make mealtime fun so less focus is on the food itself and rather the experience of being at the table.  
  • Try new cooking techniques. If your toddler doesn’t like eating vegetables, try roasting them to bring out their natural sweetness.
  • Separate food. Deconstruct mixed foods into their separate parts. If you’re cooking a casserole like lasagna, separate the noodles, tomato sauce and the cheese before serving so that the child can understand the food’s ingredients. This might help complex dishes seem less scary!
  • Allow children to experience food. Let your toddler play with their food – by touching it, picking it up, maybe even licking it, or chewing some and then spitting out the rest. This is one instance where playing with food can be a good thing: it can help your children overcome their skepticism and get comfortable with unfamiliar foods.
  • Introduce new foods alongside familiar ones. Children like things that are recognizable, and may be more willing to try something if they can relate it to something that they do like.
  • Be an example. Help your child form good eating habits by modeling them yourself. Let your child see you eating diverse foods or trying new ones. Over time, this can have a positive impact on your child and give them courage to try new foods themselves.

I hope some of these strategies will help make mealtimes more peaceful for you and for your toddler. Click here to see even more tips for parents of picky eaters!

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About the Author
Ann Dunaway Teh

Ann Dunaway Teh is a registered and licensed dietitian. She is the founder and president of Dunaway Dietetics Inc., a nutrition consulting business, and has more than 15 years of experience managing and consulting with school programs, athletes, individuals, restaurants and hospitals. Ann is the mother of two precocious children who keep her on her toes and inspire her to create kid-friendly recipes on My Menu Pal, a healthy meal planning resource designed to help families eat better together.