Today my son showed up at the lunch table determined NOT to eat what I’d fixed. He didn’t want to try his beans, he poked at his rice, and he absolutely refused to even touch the cooked carrots. “Mommy, I want ‘ce-yal.’ I do NOT wanna eat ‘dis.” After cajoling, bribing, and threatening, his food remained completely untouched.

Infants are driven to eat by hunger—which is a good thing as many formulas and even breast milk aren’t the most palatable substances out there. However, as infants become toddlers, they suddenly discover their taste buds. Eating takes on a whole new meaning—one of pleasure, rather than necessity alone, and food struggles begin.

Like many adults, the toddler doesn’t judge food by its nutritional quality, rather he/she decides whether to eat it based less on hunger and more on texture and taste. Giving your 2 y/o a nice talk about why eating green beans will make him grow stronger is no more effective than explaining to your dog why you won’t let him eat cat food.

In the midst of these struggles myself, here’s a few tips I found:

  • Make sure mealtimes are regular. Children’s bodies need consistency to develop a sense of hunger. It is important for your toddler to learn to eat from a sense of hunger not just for pleasure. Many eating disorders occur when people force themselves to eat when not hungry because the food “looks good.” If you have meals at consistent times, your toddler will begin to develop a sense of hunger that coincides with those meal times.
  • Avoid snacks. Snacks between regular meals decrease children’s hunger drive. If the hunger drive is decreased, they have nothing motivating them to eat except taste/pleasure. Therefore they will probably not want to eat anything new, and likely less likely to eat those things that are healthy. (Can you see how this tip goes along with the previous point?)
  • Avoid juice or sweetened beverages between meals. Juice can cause both failure to gain weight AND obesity. In young children, juice strongly suppresses appetite/hunger thus preventing children from consuming the calories they need. In older children (who have learned to eat even if not hungry) juice contributes empty calories that can lead to unwanted weight gain. Remember, juice is mostly sugar and is actually a high calorie beverage.
  • Don’t force your child to finish their plate. The practice of finishing everything on your plate even if you feel full promotes eating disorders. It’s important for your child to learn to listen to his/her body’s cues. When the stomach starts feeling full, allow the toddler to stop eating.
  • Always serve new food FIRST before serving known food. Children will be much more motivated to try new foods while hungry than when full.
  • Try the three -bite rule. If I’m introducing a new food, I make my children take at least three bites of the new food. If after the third bite, they still don’t like the food, I don’t force them to continue eating it.
  • Extra help. If your child is not gaining appropriate weight, throwing tantrums with every meal, has difficulty eating certain foods or textures, or has anything else you feel is preventing adequate nutrition, seek professional help immediately. There are some toddlers who have a true eating disorder. If caught early, it can often be corrected. Waiting can potentially lead to long term eating problems.

So how did things end with my son? After sitting through the whole meal and refusing to take even one bite of the new food, he was excused from the table without eating anything. I placed his food in a plastic container and told him I’d keep it in the fridge until the next meal was served. One hour later, he started complaining he was hungry. I reminded him that he had been offered lunch and that there would be no food until supper which was still another two hours away. He soon distracted himself with his choo-choo train set.

A few hours later, when supper was served, my son happily ate his beans and rice without any complaints. Then, he tried three bites of carrots and announced he still didn’t like them. I didn’t force him to finish them. When he’d finished his beans and rice he once more asked for “ce-yal” and I happily complied with his request. He finished the meal with a bowl of cheerios.


About the Author

Rachel Nelson MD

graduated from Loma Linda University and completed a pediatric residency at UC Davis. She has a passion for helping children reach their full potential. She is married to a colorectal surgeon and together they have two children: Amy and Michael. Dr. Nelson enjoys playing outside with her kids, gardening, and music.

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