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How To Feed a Toddler Who Refuses to Eat

Got a picky eater toddler, or a toddler who is too busy to eat? Here are our best tips and tricks for how to get a young child or toddler to eat when they refuse, without force feeding or stress during meals.

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If you've got a toddler who won't eat dinner, or a toddler going through a picky eating phase, you've come to the right place. This blog is chock-full of practical tips for dealing with picky eating in toddlers.

Your toddler stopped eating?

Keep in mind that toddlers can be refusing to eat because they are having bigger eating problems than just a toddler picky eating phase. You should always check with a pediatrician if you think your child needs more help or needs professional help.

We had to put our son in feeding therapy because it was more than just a general toddler picky eating phase for us. (Read about our experience with feeding therapy for picky eating).

Our son used to gag and throw up while eating because of a super sensitive gag reflex (we used the nuk brush to help stop gagging while eating). Our son used to have really bad reflux ever since he was a tiny baby (read about our story with reflux and picky eating).

Your toddler refusing to eat can also be as simple as a cold coming on, or teething in younger toddlers. In those cases, sometimes nothing we try works. I just make sure my son is hydrated and give him his favorite foods and snacks just to get him to eat something.

But when our son is healthy but just refusing to eat, we've come up with lots of different ways to get him eating. 

And of course, it's totally normal for toddlers to just refuse to eat. Toddlers can eat a lot one day and then eat almost nothing the next day. But sometimes our mama gut just tells us that our child is hungry and needs a little extra help to get food into his or her belly.

Use your best judgment and talk to your pediatrician to see whether you really need to get your kid to eat eat if they don't want to eat.

Are these tips recommended by therapists?

Some of the tips below go against what some occupational therapists recommend. They might even go against the Division of Responsibilities in Eating. Some of these definitely count as "pressuring" your child to eat, which is usually not advised. 

However, some of these actually are recommendations that we got from our feeding therapist and from the online picky eating class we took

I've talked to so many moms who say they just can't watch their child not eat anything. I feel the same way.

So I am sharing tips with you for how to get your toddler when it seems like they just won't eat anything. Remember, I am just sharing tips that have worked for us with the hopes of helping other mamas (and papas). Always check with your pediatrician (or a therapist if you're working with one) to see if they agree with these approaches.

As you'll see below, many of these tips are complete opposites of each other. That's because every kid is different. Plus you know that toddlers are not consistent day to day. What works one day might not work the next.

So read through these, and pick out the ones that are likely to work for your child. If something stops working one day, pivot and try something else!

How to get a toddler to eat when they refuse

  1. Cookie cutters. Cut the food into fun shapes, or let your child "help you" by using the cookie cutters at the table. Then turn it into a game: "can you eat all the points off the star?" "can you eat the dinosaur's head?? Oh no!! Its tail is gone!" We've gotten our son to try lots of different foods this way. We have this set of cookie cutters. It's super inexpensive, and has pretty much EVERY SHAPE IMAGINABLE. This set is also really great because they're easier for toddlers to use independently and are very small, which works for more kinds of foods, such as fruits and veggies.
  2. Praise your child anytime he or she tries a new food and likes it. Clap, sing, celebrate. Whatever you have to do to make it a positive experience for them.
  3. Ignore your child. (Don't worry, it's not as heartless as it sounds!). Typically I advise always sitting down to eat with your little one, but sometimes if you pretend to be "busy" and go do something on the other side of the room (while still keeping an eye on your child, of course), they might surprise you and just start eating because there is no one to act out in front of.
  4. Don't give your child any food. Again, not as mean as it sounds! Sometimes I intentionally "forget" to put food on our son's plate when we sit down to eat so he asks for it. Then I do a whole silly thing of "silly mama! I forgot to give you food!" and let him take some food from the family plate (or place some on his plate) and he is much more likely to take a bite.
  5. Lie to your child. (I promise this is the last trick that makes it seem like I am a terrible parent!) Sometimes I call foods by the wrong name on purpose to get my son to eat them, and it TOTALLY WORKS. Peas are "green corn," because he loves corn but didn't want to try peas last time I offered them. He ate a few pieces of green corn! One time our son asked for cauliflower, so I told him the roasted butternut squash cubes that I made were "orange cauliflower squash." And he tried it and LOVED IT! He would have never tried butternut squash if I said "here, try some butternut squash." 
  6. Try making a game out of it! Have your child pretend to be different animals and take a bite like that animal. Here's a free printable picky eater game dice template with different animals to make this east for you! Roll the dice and take a bite!
  7. Bring a little toy to the table. It keeps them distracted and keeps them sitting longer. I wrote about this in my blog post about how to keep your toddler seated in the high chair.
  8. Switch up the location. Break out of the routine and have a meal somewhere else. A picnic on the living room floor? Pack some food and take it to the park? Our son tries more new foods and eats a lot more when he is not sitting at the table. We try not to make it a habit out of eating in the living room, but sometimes when I know he needs to eat or I know there is a food he would like but refuses to try we take it to the living room and I feed it to him while he is playing quietly or when we're reading a book. This is how I got him to eat his first vegetable EVER. Our son eats the most veggies when we are taking a walk. I chop them up small and we go for a walk outside as I keep feeding him. Then we sit down on the lounge chairs at the pool in our apartment complex and he finished his veggies happily. Then we walk home. 
  9. Feed their toys. Bring a small farm animal or another washable toy to the table and have your child feed the toy. They might start feeding themselves while they're at it!
  10. Get a toddler-safe knife and have them cut their own foods at the table. My son loves cutting things and automatically takes a bit of whatever it is he just cut. Remember, you still have to supervise closely and probably help them out even if it's "toddler-safe." We have this set of knives and they actually cut pretty well without being too sharp.
  11. Use any one of the 3 sensory tricks to get your child to eat.
  12. If your child proclaims that they're "all done" eating but they really haven't eaten anything, ask your child to "help" you transfer the leftover food back into a storage container. Often times, my son starts putting food in his mouth instead of back into the container. Sometimes I even put the food back onto his plate and say "oh no! we have to do it again!" and he will keep transferring the food and eating.
  13. Try again later. Get them down from the high chair and let them go play for a few minutes. In the meantime, re-arrange the food onto a different plate, maybe remove one food and add another one (doesn't have to be complicated, just slice a grape or a cherry tomato in half, or add a slice of ham or a cracker to the plate) just so it looks like it's new food. Sometimes our son forgets that he didn't want to eat just 15 minutes ago and sits down to eat.
  14. Distract them. Read a book to them while they eat. Show them flashcards. Talk about silly things. Turn on music and sing to them. I don't recommend turning on the TV (although that usually works REALLY well). In fact, I have a useful article that talks about how to get your toddler to eat without TV. But anything else is fair game in our house.
  15. Serve them their favorite foods. Alongside some of their not-so-favorite foods. Frequent exposure to non-preferred foods is recommended by occupational therapists for picky eating in feeding therapy. Add just a tiny bit of non-preferred foods to the plate so they see it regularly. Seeing the non-preferred food often gets my son more enthusiastic about eating his preferred foods.. even if he isn't so keen on eating in the first place.
  16. Turn eating into a game. For example, have your child add the macaroni one by one to this toddler-friendly vegetable soup. Then have them count how many macaroni pieces they can scoop up with a spoon. You can do the same thing with cheerios in milk. Or with stacking chicken nuggets on top of each other. 
  17. Have your child "help" you in the kitchen. Give them some fruit or veggies to chop, or have them help you prepare sandwiches. Keeps them busy and they might even try the food they are helping you prepare! You can also have a sandwich or a quesadilla (or something portable) ready when you call them into the kitchen and ask them to help you cut it. Just touching the food is a bit accomplishment if it is a food they typically refuse!
  18. Use books. We have a BUNCH of books that mention eating and have pictures of different foods. Showing our son the foods in the books often works to get him to try the foods! Some of the books are: Pete the Cat and the Perfect Pizza Party, (this book has a TON of different foods on pizza) and Eating the Alphabet (just pictures of fruits and veggies). Some of the books we use I actually got for just $1 at the dollar store because I was specifically seeking out books that had pictures of food in them.
  19. One, two, three, GO! I can sometimes get my son to try a new food by saying we'll do it together. I give him a small piece of food (and explain to him "look! it's a small one for Elliot!") and take a big piece of food in my hand ("look, it's a BIG ONE FOR MAMA!"). Then on the count of three we each take a bit! Sometimes we switch it up and give him the big piece to feed to me and I take the little piece to feed to him. This is how I got Elliot to try and LOVE roasted broccoli for the first time - he ate half a head of broccoli this way!

Notice that I don't have TV/iPad/phone listed as one of the tricks. Yes, watching cartoons will usually get a kid to eat. And we used to rely on that for almost a year. But we really made an effort to cut out screen time during meals and here are my tips for how to get a toddler to eat without TV.

And yes, all of this sounds overwhelming. It sometimes feels like a circus during mealtimes between the singing and the toys. Of course, the goal is for our son to eat without any of these gimmicks. And he often does!

But there are times when it's like, 5 pm and he hasn't eaten anything that day and we just gotta get him to eat a meal that day.

These tricks have consistently worked for almost two years now. And by "consistently" I mean "sometimes," because toddlers are fickle. But if we've had success with a technique more than a few times, it went on the list. I figured if it worked a few times, it's worth sharing with others. Maybe it will work for you, or maybe it will give you other ideas for how to get your child to eat when they refuse.

I am sure I have more tips and tricks that have gotten my son to eat when he just won't eat anything. I'll keep updating this list when I think of what else we do or if we find new tricks that work for us. Make sure to bookmark this page and come back to it later!

So what do you think? Have you already tried any of these tricks for how to feed your toddler? Do you think any of them would work for you? 

Do you have other trick ways to get your toddler to eat? If yes, please let me know in a comment below! I could always use more ideas.

Other helpful resources for picky eaters:

Would these help any other parents you know? If yes, please share this on Facebook or save it on Pinterest!

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Sunday 12th of January 2020

Totally relatable and I agree sometimes as mums we just cannot see our child go hungry. I managed to get my child to eat in a high chair by reading books to him which I see is on your list!


Wednesday 15th of January 2020

Yes, we definitely read books! I figured more books throughout his day can't be a bad thing, right??

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