Dealing with Toddler Eating Challenges

Here is what you can expect in respect to feeding as your baby is becoming a toddler and some steps you can take.

A big thanks to Natalia Stasenko MS, RD from for putting this together to help us parents through this stage.

Regardless of your feeding approach or the amount of spinach your baby enjoys from early on, chances are she/ he will still go through some variation of a picky phase or food refusal in her toddler years.

The good news is that with the right feeding approach you will help your toddler outgrow this frustrating but developmentally appropriate phase.

1. Refusing to sit at the table

Let's face it, small kids are easily distracted. They want to go-go-go, explore, play, climb and go some more. Some little ones need a lot of help transitioning from play to the table because it may be difficult for a child to do it on his own.

If they are sufficiently absorbed in their play, they may not even recognize they are hungry, let alone want to take a break to think about it.

What to do:

  • Make mealtimes pleasant and reduce distractions. It is especially important is there is a recent history of power struggles at meals.

  • Help your toddler wind down in preparation for the meals. Maybe you can create a short ritual with putting the toys away, hand washing, a song or prayer before sitting down to eat.

  • If your toddler started refusing to sit in his highchair, it is ok to let him sit on your knees or even try setting up a picnic on the floor. This is a phase, too, and it will pass sooner than you think.

2. Crazy shifts in appetite

Toddlers are notorious for their unpredictability. One day they will eat you out of the house and others (more typically) survive on a couple of crackers.

It is all normal for three main reasons:

a) Slowed growth after the age of 1: they simply don't need to eat as much per body weight as they used to when they were infants

b) Still strongly responsive to their hunger/fullness signal: they are highly attuned to these signals and tend to respond appropriately regardless of what we adults seem to think they need at any particular meal.

c) Busy bodies full of energy and curiosity that don't want to stop to eat.

What to do:

  • Set those regular meal and snack times and stay firm on not allowing munching or drinks between (except for water).

  • Give your toddler the freedom to eat as much or as little as they want at eating times.

  • You can't force their appetites to be consistent but you can choose to be the stable “rock.”

3. Being wary of new food.

Each child is different so some kids may have a stronger aversion to "new" than others. Research shows that most kids need at least 10 exposures to a food before they will find it acceptable. The key word is "at least" because some kids need a lot more. Don't set your expectations too high. Remember your job is the actual exposure, it is not getting your toddler to love beets.

What to do:

Instead of spending your energy on getting your toddler to eat or even try something, try these strategies to expand his/her diet:

  • Make “different” the new “normal”. For example, if your toddler generally accepts pasta, try different pasta & noodle shapes. If steamed broccoli is popular, try roasted broccoli or a broccoli casserole. Serve apples raw, grated or cut into matchsticks, roasted, as an apple sauce or microwaved with a dash of cinnamon. Of course, your mileage may vary or it may take much longer than you expect, but don’t give up or throw in the towel. This is a long term work you are doing.

  • Give opportunities to 'sneak-up' on foods. Kids can't do their job of eating and 'sneaking up' on foods if we get in the way with reminders and encouragement to "just try it, you might like it!"

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