Getting your toddler to eat can be somewhat of a mystery. One of the problems with feeding toddlers is that we treat them like adults and assume their appetites are the same as ours. This is a pretty natural assumption to make, but toddlers are in fact completely different to us when it comes to their drive for food.

Up until about the age of 3, a toddler’s appetite is governed purely by hunger. They do not eat out of boredom, emotional distress or for any other reason, they only eat when they are hungry. Boredom, emotional and cultural reasons for eating are learned behaviours that begin to emerge in the preschool and childhood years.

Do you notice that your toddler goes through phases of constantly asking for food and eats you out of house and home for 3 or 4 days and then all of a sudden becomes picky and not interested? This is because their drive for food is based purely on what their body needs in terms of energy and thus their appetite changes accordingly. It might also change from meal to meal during the same day. Some kids might be really hungry at breakfast time but only pick at lunch and then be really hungry again by dinner. This is actually OK and you mustn’t worry if they don’t seem to be eating enough. They are only little and because they are eating purely based on their body’s energy needs, there are some days when they don’t need as much food as we think they do.

Always remember that a hungry toddler will eat. If they aren’t eating they’re probably not hungry. With this in mind here are a few tips to help you solve the mystery of your toddler’s appetite.

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One option only…

If you offer your toddler some food and they won’t eat it, offering them something else until you find something they will eat often results in an extremely fussy child and a frustrated parent. A toddler will ALWAYS prefer the sweet option and quickly learns that if they refuse to whatever you’re offering and you give them something different, they’ll eventually get what they want.

So what do you do?

Let’s say that tonight’s dinner is a lasagna. Serve it up to the toddler along with the rest of the family. If they won’t eat the lasagna, don’t make a fuss, just take it away and make them wait in their high chair while everyone else eats and enjoys their dinner. Generally, seeing the family eating and enjoying dinner together is enough motivation to get a toddler to at least try the meal. Give them a few more chances to have some lasagna, but if they refuse each time, it’s not a big deal, just take the bowl away again without making a fuss. If they don’t eat what you offer them or only eat a few mouthfuls you can assume they are not hungry.

A toddler will only go hungry once and if you’re consistent they will learn that they either eat what is put in front of them or they don’t eat at all. This may sound a little harsh and it’s totally up to you, as the parent, to decide on where you stand in all of this. I will say this: Although you may feel bad putting your little person to bed on an empty stomach be reassured to know that if they were hungry enough they would have eaten. A hungry toddler will eat, it just may take a hungry tummy or two until they realise that there is only one option at meal times.

Too much distraction…

I have a 3 year old and 18 month old. I find that when sitting in their high chairs for meals and snacks, they are much more likely to focus and eat well, compared to when they’re sitting at their little table. Being at their own little table gives them the freedom to get up and walk around which can sometimes be too much of a distraction for them. Overly distracted toddlers are picky eaters, particularly when they’re trying new foods. It’s the same for distractions, such as having the TV on or mobile phones being used.

If you want to teach your kids how to eat at their little table (which is an important part of their learning and development) then I recommend that you do it with food that you know they will eat. That way you are only tackling one new behaviour at a time. Teaching toddlers to stay sitting at their table whilst offering them new foods or foods that they’re not overly fond of will be too much for them to handle. Keep it simple, limit distraction and keep meal times stress free.

Too much milk…

A very common reason for needlessly fussy children is excess milk consumption. As infants transition from drinking formula to cows milk sometimes they can get into a bad habit of drinking too much milk. More than 500ml of milk each day can dull a toddlers appetite and they’ll be very picky and not want to eat much at meal times. If you have a toddler who likes their milk perhaps its time to scale back their consumption a bit so they still have an appetite for other nutritious foods. Although milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus, its a very poor source of iron. A child with a dulled appetite from too much milk is not hungry enough to eat foods that are a good source of iron and other nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, meats and wholegrains. In fact, the major cause of toddlers admitted to hospital with iron deficiency anaemia is excess milk consumption.  Too much fruit juice or other high sugar foods that are low in nutrients can also have an appetite dulling effect and toddlers will not be hungry enough to eat more nutritious foods.

Watch the snacking…

Another reason why toddlers can be fussy at the dinner table is that too much snacking has gone on before meal time. Like I mentioned above, a child with a dulled appetite is not going to be keen to try new foods at dinner or eat the green vegetables on their plate. One of the best ways to get children to accept new foods is to make sure they are really hungry when you put it in front of them. In fact, a food that satisfies a child’s hunger is positively reinforced to that child as being enjoyable. Give your children a small snack about 2-3 hours before the main meal and they’ll be hungry and ready to eat what you put in front of them.

In the end, toddlers and children will learn to eat and enjoy new foods eventually. Never give up. Make meal times as positive and enjoyable as possible, try to include them with the whole family when you can and be consistent. Your hard work in the early years will pay dividends later on.

Kate Freeman Nutrition Mouths of Mums Article Sign Off





This article was written exclusively for Mouths of Mums by Kate Freeman from www.katefreemannutrition.com.au

MoM asks: What meals do you encourage your toddler to eat? What are some of your hints and tips?

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  • Some fruits have a very high water content and very little bulk to satisfy hunger so they tend to steer away from them. Some work that out for themselves long before they start school


  • This was very insightful! Thank you! I think I will try this out when the time comes


  • Good tips. I’m blessed with good eaters. My youngest wants to eat all day and is rather obsessed with food. I have to teach her moderation and portion control.


  • We have always encouraged a variety of foods.


  • There are some great tips on here, thanks so much. Fussy eating is hard to deal with!


  • It annoys me that some parents continually insist on serving 2 y.o. onwards food that they obviosuly don’t like and insist on them eating it or they get nothing else.


  • Toddlers are so fickle to feed. What they scoff down this week, they won’t even touch next week

    • We have always been super lucky with healthy appetites and interest in food.


  • Can be hard! A really interesting article! Thank for this read!


  • Thank you lots of things to think about


  • Thanks, a few good things to think about.


  • We have a very similar approach at our house. Unless it is really not suitable then everyone gets the same meal with a large variety in types of cuisines throughout the month


  • Awesome.
    Thanks for the tips :)


  • good read for mums. Thanks for sharing.


  • Good advice. I remember stressing that my child HAD to eat something and used to only serve what I knew she would eat. Now of course she’s fussy. But now, and with my second child I’ve taken the approach of ‘here’s your dinner. You can choose to eat it or not, but there are no other options. This works most of the time, but the older one all tends to pick at dinner. The youngest is a great eater!


  • U tell this to all the dr’s i see and dietitians, i gotta feed my girl 5 meals a day with more then 2 options so she can put on weight, not easy when there just not big eaters


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