What to Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

Toddler parents, this one’s for you. Do you have a picky eater at home? Picky eating is often considered developmentally appropriate, which means it can be a normal part of childhood. It tends to begin around the age of 2. But even if picky eating is common, that doesn’t make it easy to deal with!

Speech therapists are uniquely qualified to address feeding skills in young children. Here, we’re answering your most common questions about toddlers and eating. Let’s dig in!

Q: Why is my 2-year-old refusing to eat? 

A: A toddler’s rate of growth significantly slows after they turn 2. This means your child is likely eating less food overall, and they’re more likely to fill up on smaller amounts of food. So they’re probably perfectly satisfied with the piece of cheese and yogurt pouch they had today! 

On top of that, many toddlers love to drink milk. But if they drink too much milk, they’re less likely to want to eat because their hunger is already satisfied. Try not to let your toddler snack all day or fill up on milk, so they can come to mealtimes hungry. (Note: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the recommended daily serving of milk in children over 2 years of age is 16 to 20 ounces per day.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that toddlers are beginning to develop their own thoughts and opinions. And with that comes attempts at asserting their control and testing their boundaries. This is totally normal! Offering your toddler choices is one of the best things you can do. You’re in control of the options, and they’re in control of their choice! 

Q: How long is it OK for my toddler to not eat?

A: As we’ve mentioned, it’s not uncommon for toddlers to go through periods of reduced appetite or picky eating. Their eating patterns will vary, and their appetites can change from day to day. This can be related to a variety of factors, such as illness or changes in routine.

Just keep an eye on your toddler’s overall health and energy levels. If they seem healthy and active, and they’re meeting growth milestones, a brief period of not eating may not be cause for concern. However, it’s important to speak with your pediatrician if your toddler consistently refuses to eat for a long period of time or if you have concerns about their overall health and growth. 

Q: What should I do when my toddler won’t eat?

A: Here are our feeding experts’ top 5 tips for supporting your toddler during mealtimes:

1. Serve a range of foods. Provide a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy. Small portions are best to allow your toddler some control over how much they eat. They can always ask for more!

2. Offer your child their preferred foods every other day, instead of every day. This helps to avoid burnout, where your child gets tired of eating the same food.

3. Create a positive environment. Use positive, calm, and supportive language to reduce the pressure to try new foods. Avoid distractions like TV or electronic devices during meals, and focus on the social aspect of eating together as a family. 

4. Get your toddler involved. Let your toddler help you while shopping and preparing meals. This may make them more interested in trying foods! (Check out this article for tips, including some easy, kid-friendly recipe ideas.)

5. Be patient. Toddlers are exploring their independence, and mealtime can easily become a power struggle. When in doubt, avoid pressuring your toddler to eat. 

Keep in mind, it can take 10 to 15 attempts at trying a food before your toddler decides they like it! 

Q: Should I be worried if my toddler doesn’t want to eat? 

A: If your toddler doesn’t want to eat, you are not alone. Although these periods of reduced appetite are normal, it’s important to know when professional help might be needed. Here are some signs that it may be worth contacting a speech therapist:

  • Your child eats very limited foods or only eats certain foods (for example, only McDonald’s chicken nuggets)

  • Your child consistently panics or shuts down when presented with new or non-preferred foods 

  • Your child frequently gags when trying new or non-preferred foods

You can also take our easy online speech, language, and feeding quiz to determine if your child could benefit from an evaluation. However, an important note: If your toddler is losing weight or you are concerned about malnutrition, be sure to speak with your pediatrician.

Remember, it’s normal for toddlers to go through phases, and their eating habits can change over time. Do your best to make mealtimes supportive and positive–this is the key to creating healthy eating habits.

And most important, know that you are doing the best you can with the knowledge and capacity you have right now. You did not mess up, and if your toddler isn’t eating much, it’s not a direct reflection of you as a parent. Take it one day at a time, and don’t hesitate to talk with your child’s doctor or a speech therapist if you have questions or concerns.

Sign up for a consultation
Discuss your communication needs with a speech therapist for free
Get started

More from

Watch learning jump (leap! spring! hop!) from your sessions into the real world.

Get started