What To do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

So your toddler won’t eat, and you don’t know what to do?  First, let me clarify by saying that this post is intended to deal with situations where your toddler just doesn’t want to eat.  If your child is sick, that’s another matter.  Parents – remember the last time you were really sick?  You probably didn’t want to eat either.

Before we jump into any solutions, let’s think back to when we were kids.  If you were playing outside with a group of friends and your mother or father opened the front door to shout, “Johnny – come inside for dinner right now!” … did you feel like eating?  Of course not!  You were having too much fun doing whatever else you were doing.  Your toddlers or older children feel the same way that you did back then.  If they are busy with other things, they don’t want to eat right now.

So how do you change this?  With toddlers it can be pretty easy.  All you need to do is distract them from what they are doing through questions or actions.  Once distracted, you can start to lead them in any path that you want to, so long as you keep their attention fully engaged.  Remember – the LAST thing you should do is simply start demanding things such as “get to the table right now, it’s time to eat”.  That just won’t work.  You’ll be inviting a fight or a tantrum.

Always always always use more graceful language tactics to get your way with toddlers.  It’s just easier.  You can learn all about my methods by checking out my audio course.  That is if you are interested in improving child behavior.

SEE ALSO: This audio lesson will forever change the way you interact with your kids

16 Responses to What To do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

  1. Julia Lazar December 9, 2008 at 5:04 pm #

    Ok, But what are the solutions?
    My 15 months old never liked to eat. She is underweight and her growth has slowed down. Even her dr. is concerned. I’ve tried so many things: distractions (works sometimes), variety(she doesn’t have a favourite), self feeding (just drops food on the floor right away). Nothing works. She refuses food even if she acts hungry.
    Every every article I read, just says not to worry and that she’s getting it somewhere else. Well, not from me. And it’s not a phase, this was always a problem.
    We need real solutions. Not something obvious that I’ve tried so many times already.

  2. Chris Thompson December 16, 2008 at 1:00 am #

    Julie – I emailed you with additional detail. At 15 months, language tools such as what I teach are not going to be as effective because 15 month olds don’t tend to speak or understand English as well as 2 year olds. I think that one non-obvious approach would be to use anchoring, which is a more powerful version of Pavlov’s classical conditioning. You want to make sure you “anchor” a very positive state to the activity called “eating”. This is an unconscious process. It’s easy to do but takes some dedication and repetition, especially with such a young child.

    My initial post was more targeted at parents who have a hard time getting their toddlers/preschoolers to come to the table, not kids who actually don’t eat enough. That is an entirely different (and much more serious) problem. Anchoring can help, I think, but I would really want to trust a medical professional here.

    Lastly – Can you use more of a liquid diet? Milk, toddler formula, or even home-made smoothies? Does she like to drink? That’s one more option. There is no rule that food must be in solid form.

  3. Jan December 22, 2008 at 1:25 pm #

    Hi Julie
    If there has always been a problem with eating you probably should look at a couple of areas like oral hypersensitivity that a Speech Therapist would need to assess or if you falling into the trap of giving in and giving her milk when she doesn’t eat or not having a suitable routine to stick too. I have information that may interest you from my website. You are welcome to visit.

  4. Alexis May 23, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    I need help!!.my 2yr old has refuses to eat anything I give him…i do know that if I call the doctor they will just tell me not to worry as long as he is drinking fluids…uh hello thats the last thing I wana hear lol….besides my child prefers the magic word “no”!! Or “dont want it” I just dont want him to get sick.. :(

    • Chris Thompson May 26, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

      Alexis – what happens when you ask your child to pick out his own food? Example, “Are you hungry? … what do YOU want to eat? Go to the cupboard and get a snack that you want to eat ..”

      Find out what he gravitates toward. I want to validate that he’s actually eating SOMETHING, and it’s not a medical problem. If he is refusing to eat any solid foods at all, there very well could be a medical issue and I wouldn’t hold off going to a doctor.

  5. Myrna Vergil June 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    My 23 mo. old only wants milk or breastfeeding. It is tiring and stressful, however she is getting some calories through liquids. Do you advocate giving in to the milk/breastfeeding demands or do I play tough and refuse to give her anything until she eats other things? I feel like this is a phase and want to be patient but I get so much pressure from other people to play hardball with my daughter. I set out a variety of foods she used to like to eat but she won’t budge. We sit at the table and I try to share my own food with her to entice her but nothing- only milk milk milk or mommy mommy mommy.

  6. Tim Sturgill February 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    I have a 30 month old who refuses to eat anything. Occasionally he will eat part of a bananna, some peaches or strawberries. He has also before regularly eaten fruit snacks, but now even that is something he won’t eat. He has never eaten a cheerio or a cracker or french fries, and never eaten eggs, meats, cheeses, or anything other than the puree foods he ate as a baby. He won’t even eat those items now. He only wants milk and Boost. Suggestions?

    • Chris Thompson February 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Tim – honestly the easiest solution is to run out of milk and boost. Run out and be on his side when you tell him “I know you want X and we’ve run out. The stores are all closed today. We can try tomorrow”.

      He will eat. Let him choose what to eat if your goal is simply to have him eat anything else. He isn’t going to starve himself.

    • Chris Thompson June 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

      Tim – the first thing to do is make sure there are no medical problems. Not to be an alarmist, because it’s not my style … but a family who had a SEVERELY picky eater emailed me later to let me know their child was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. I’m NOT saying this is the case for you, but it shows the value in checking with medical professionals in addition to working on other solutions.

      In the absence of other health problems, the answer is pretty simple. I’m dead serious about this. Stop buying milk and boost. Then give him the choice as to what he want to eat. Be on his side, but find a way to explain that there is no milk or boost available. Boost is complete junk food.

  7. cisco sotelo March 5, 2012 at 2:47 am #

    My three year hold is really selective on what she eat..but for the last 3 days she hasn’t eaten anything but fluids water and juice. I have asked her and offer everything that I could she’s still plays and runs around.. I’m worried that she’s not eating…. she’s not showing any sings of sickness ……what can I dooo!!!!!

    • Chris Thompson September 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Two things:

      1) Never limit water, because it’s great to enjoy plenty of fresh clean water. If you notice a huge increase in a child’s intake of fluids, it can be a sign of juvenile diabetes (happened to my niece), but I say this only to let people know of one possible reason for fluid changes, not to freak anyone out.

      2) Conveniently run out of juice. Just run out. Notice what happens. Your child will find an alternative. I recommend you limit juice consumption in kids unless (you’re making your own juice from a juicer and using lots of veggies). They don’t need the extra sugar.

  8. April March 7, 2012 at 12:52 am #

    I have a 3 year old who used to eat just about everything and for the past year i have been having trouble getting him to eat anything all he wants is snacks i need him to eat meet again any suggestions pls would be helpful

  9. sherry March 19, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    My daughter is 3yrs old, and only likes to eat chips,ramen noodles& porridge, this is @ home, however when she is @ pre-school, she usuallys eats other foods such as mash potatoes,chowmein,carrots macaroni etc…. she hates all meats, including fish, how can I get her to eat the same foods she eats @ pre-school @ home? She have seem a nutritionist and I have been told she is on the standard weight line!! I also give her daily vitamins, but recently I have realised she has a dime size patch in her hair, and I have read that this can be linked to malnutrition. I am now @ my wits end as to how I can get her to eat most foods including meat seeing that growing chldren need protein please help!!!!!!!

    • Chris Thompson April 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

      Sherry – this is a REALLY easy thing to fix. The answer is to get rid of all the crappy foods that you don’t want her to fall back on. Fill the cupboards and fridge with the stuff that you do want her eating. Then let her choose :)

      For those who have my course, remember “double binds”? This is the same concept. Except it is a multiple bind. You remove ALL choice that you don’t want available. Then you let the child choose between what’s left. The illusion of choice is there.

      Throw away the junk.

      BTW Porridge (if you mean oatmeal) is pretty healthy. Not the pre-packaged envelopes, but whole oats (rolled, steel cut, etc).

  10. Kelly h April 17, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    Hi my 2yr son won’t eat any more than couple tea spoons at one time.
    He’ll eat lots at daycare but as soon as he comes home it’s back to eating not much. He’s been the same weight since he was 15 months old. I don’t know what to do…. He’s still full of energy. Any suggestions would be very helpful thanks

    • Chris Thompson September 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

      Kelly – first thing to do is find out if his weight is within a safe range. Ask your doctor for help on this. Without knowing what your child weighs now it’s impossible for me to say if his weight is normal. Probably isn’t normal to not gain weight for a solid 9 months (15 to 24 months age range), but without any actual numbers it’s impossible to say. Your doctor will know best. As for eating, have you tried asking him what he likes? Involving him in preparing food (even at 24 months you can have him do really tiny things to involve him). My course will help you a lot with this.

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