Why your child refuses to eat anything and what to do about it

3 things to do if you don't think your child eats enough food

Why your child refuses to eat anything and what to do about it

Are you worried that your toddler is not eating enough food? Isn’t it amazing how they seem to have so much energy some days, basically subsisting on air as nourishment?!

Maybe your child is falling off of their growth curve or doesn’t eat nearly as much as their older sibling did at this age.

Or your little one doesn’t come close to eating what the handout your nurse gave you suggests he should have in a day. Or what your friend’s daughter eats…

Having a child that refuses to eat certain foods (or doesn’t eat at all sometimes) can lead to:

  • Spoon-feeding a child that’s perfectly capable of feeding themselves.
  • Bribing your child with dessert, to finish dinner.
  • Other pressure tactics, like forcing them to eat 3 bites.
  • Short-order-cook syndrome: if they don’t want dinner, you bring out a backup food or a favourite you’re sure they will eat. Or get stuck making 2 meals over and over…

But know that it’s totally normal, starting around 15-24 months for children’s food intake to decrease. Their growth rate slows down and they may not need as much food!

In this blog, I’ll share some things to look out for that may naturally increase your child’s food intake. And whether to know if you might need more help.

Why your child might not be eating 

If your child’s growth is fine, then they’re getting enough calories. But if they are starting to fall off their growth curve, then maybe they’re not taking in as much as they could use.

Here are a few things that could be going on:

1) Milk intake is too high

Lots of kids loooove milk. Some drink it all day long. 

Not only is this bad for their teeth, but it also fills up their tummy. Leaving no room for solid foods. when I see a child’s food record with 4 or more cups of milk per day, I know this is what’s going on!

This can be dangerous because while milk is nutritious, it doesn’t contain all of the vitamins and minerals your child needs to grow. Like iron, for example.

Until 12 months breastmilk or formula is your baby’s main source of calories and nutrition. But after you switch to cow’s milk it should be limited to two cups (max 3) per day.

2. Their eating schedule is sporadic

Very often with children who are smaller, or eat small amounts of food, parents follow the child around all day with bites of food. Just trying to get a bite in whenever they can.

But this doesn’t allow your child to build up an appetite. Ever. So they never feel hungry, and never really eat meals. Because they’re so good at listening to their appetite (and this is a good thing!)

So while it may seem counterintuitive, kids actually eat better if they have scheduled meals and healthy snacks, at least 2 hours apart.

3. Your expectations are too high

Children have small tummies, and often we think they need to eat far more than they really do to be healthy. 

Also, around 1-2 years their growth rate has slowed from the first year. It’s normal for their appetite to decrease.

Try and look at your child’s food intake over the course of a week. Not day-to-day. And definitely not meal to meal.

Kid’s appetites go up and down, unlike ours. So let them listen to their appetite and trust it too.

And know that it’s most common for kids to eat nothing at dinner! While we think this is when they *should* eat the most, often they are tired. And may have eaten enough and breakfast and/or lunch to meet their daily needs.

4. You’re pressuring them to eat

There are three types of parenting styles, that we can also categorize into feeding styles:

– Authoritarian: This is the “clean your plate,” controlling style of feeding. Funny enough, it usually backfires. And pressure = stress  = decreased food intake in kids.

– Permissive: This is the free-for-all with food, where the child chooses what they want to eat and when. Think constant snackers, or who are allowed to eat only chicken nuggets.

– Authoritative: This is the healthiest type of feeding style. You provide some boundaries about food (according to the Division of Responsibility). BUT within your boundaries, your child is always allowed to choose how much to eat, or if they eat at all. Without pressure of any kind.

And it can be a huge mental leap to be able to trust your child’s appetite, instead of thinking it’s your job to get them to eat. It’s hard!

But if you can wrap your head around this feeding style and practice it with your child, you will be more likely to:

  • Have a child that eats the amount of food he or she needs to grow well.
  • Stress less about how much your child eats, or that they’re not meeting their nutrient or calorie needs.
  • More peaceful family meals that everyone can enjoy! No more tears or yelling at the dinner table.

With small eaters it’s very common to put pressure on our kids to eat (and there are many ‘hidden’ ways to pressure). But they actually end up eating less than their appetite tells them they should.

Instead, it’s your job just to provide the food at meal and snack times. Then it’s 100% up to your child how much they eat of what you’ve offered. Whether that’s 3 portions or zero bites. 

It might make you feel less pressure to force your child to eat more if they’re getting some balanced supplements. If your child needs a vitamin supplement, check out my blog here discussing my favourite brands and nutrients that are important at this age.

When to get help

There are lots of other reasons why kids can be picky eaters, from development to sensory sensitivity and difficulty chewing.

If your child has always had difficulty with solids, perhaps they have a sensory or oral motor struggle. If you think that’s the case, it’s a good idea to get a consult with an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist who specializes in feeding.

If you would like a specialist to analyze your child’s food records and see if there are any gaps, that the job for a dietitian! We can also help you implement the Division of Responsibility in your family. 

Want help getting started? Watch my free training “How to teach kids to try new food without struggles at dinnertime.”

mother holding young child

Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier.

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Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.



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