Refusing to Eat -- My Problem This Week

Cynthia Dermody

Photo by Cafe MicheleZ

Your toddler is growing and developing at light speed, both physically and mentally. As wonderfully exciting as this time is, it's also terribly frustrating at moments. Each week, I'll try to help you conquer some of your most perplexing toddler challenges--or at least get you a little more info so you can find the best solution for your child.

One of the most talked about topics here is "How can I get my toddler to eat?" I decided to throw some of your most common questions at Heather Stabley, registered dietitian with Nemours Children's Clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Bottom line: Don't worry, your child will not waste away.  

Why won't my toddler eat?

They are going through several physical, social, and psychological changes at this age, and may have anxiety over anything new, especially food. They want to choose what, when, and how much they eat. Around 18 months, your child's growth tends to slow down. She will not want to eat as much because her body doesn't need quite as many calories.

How do I get my child to try new foods?

Try to accompany it with a familiar food that he already enjoys, and avoid labeling foods as "food he likes" and "food he dislikes." Keep in mind your child's taste buds will change every couple of years, so continue to offer foods that he may have rejected before. It may literally take 10 to 20 attempts before a child accepts a new food.

Should I force my toddler to finish his dinner?

Unless your child is underweight or has medical problems, don't worry if your child doesn't want to eat a meal or snack. You can take his dinner plate from him and excuse him from the table, and offer a snack a few hours later. He will eat what you offer him when he is hungry enough, and he definitely won't starve.

Is it better to give my child junk food (that's all she'll eat!) so she gets something in her stomach?

That's one of the biggest mistake parents make. Even too much juice or milk will spoil a child's appetite. You should only give your child high-sugar foods after she has eaten healthy foods. And don't reward or bribe your child for trying new food, either. It's better to give them nothing at all, than to offer non-nutritious foods.

My toddler will only eat beige food--mac and cheese, bread, etc. Is this okay?

Your child may be going through what is known as a "food jag," where he only likes one or two foods and wants to eat them all the time. Typically your child outgrows this habit when he becomes bored with the same food. A good rule of thumb is to allow your child to eat these foods as long as they fall within the food guide pyramid. Macaroni and cheese is a grain and contains dairy, so that's fine. Try to make your own instead of using a box so you can put in real cheese, whole wheat macaroni noodles and milk, and try to sneak in some peas or beans.

Should I do away with snacking until my toddler learns to eat properly at mealtime?

Your child will still have growth spurts sporadically, and he may be hungrier and eat significantly more than at other times. During those times your child will require more energy and nutrients, so it is always a good idea to give snacks in between meals, at about every 2 to 3 hours. This means your child should be fed approximately 4 to 5 times per day with 3 meals and 1 to 2 snacks in between meals.

My child won't eat anything green. Will this affect his growth?

This is very common. Toddlers need at least 5 fruits and vegetables per day. Sometimes it's easier than we think to sneak fruits and vegetables in since their serving size is a lot smaller compared to adults. For instance, one serving would be equivalent to 2 baby carrot sticks, ½ of a banana or apple, 3 orange slices, ¼ cup of cooked vegetables, or 3 to 4 strawberries. Other tips:

  • Offer your child vegetable juice, which has a lot less sugar than fruit juice, and it usually contains vitamins A, C, and E.
  • Try to sneak some fruits and vegetables in by adding crushed pineapple or mashed bananas to muffins.
  • Add cooked mashed carrots and peas in spaghetti sauce. You can also make mini cupcakes by adding a can of vitamin-A packed pumpkin to the dry cake mix.
  • Try ants on a log, yogurt dip with fruit, peanut butter or a lowfat dressing with raw vegetables. Just be creative!
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