Upper half of the image is of a toddler sitting at the table with some type of pasta and green veggie on his spoon, with a look of disgust on his face. The lower half has the title of the article on a white background.

If you have a toddler, chances are pretty good that they’ve refused to eat their meal a time or two. Let’s be honest, they’ve probably refused to eat their food at least once in the past week! You may even be at the point where you’re saying: “Edwena, my toddler won’t eat anything!”. I’ve heard that before, and I know exactly what to do 🙂

Now, while we’re being honest, let’s talk about what you do when your toddler refuses their meal. 

Do you…

Cater?

  • Your toddler says “I don’t like fish.” So you immediately offer them their fave – chicken nuggets. 
  • Your toddler refuses to let the broccoli on their plate, so you give them the option of a fruit instead. You may not even tell them which fruit and allow them to request their favourite.
  • Your toddler wants chocolate milk for dinner instead of white milk, so you quickly swap it out to avoid the meltdown.

Beg or plead? 

  • Your toddler removes the ground beef from their taco, and eats only the tortilla. You respond by saying, “Please honey, just take one bite of your meat.”
  • Your toddler doesn’t want any of the peas and carrots you served, but is done eating their pasta, and asks to get down from the table. You respond with “Take one bite of your veggies, do it for mommy please!”

Bargain?

  • Your toddler is enjoying their toast, but hasn’t had a single bite of their egg. So, you say: “I’ll get you another piece of toast if you take one bite of your egg.”
  • At lunch, your toddler eats their bell peppers in record time, but ignores their tuna sandwich and asks for more pepper. You respond by saying they can have more, IF they eat 3 bites of their sandwich first. 

Sound familiar?  Here’s what I want you to remember before we dive into my tips for these scenarios. First of all, toddlers LOVE having control. They thrive on it. They want to be independent, and enjoy making their own choices. Which often means choosing the exact opposite of what we want them to choose. Secondly, there should be no room for negotiation at the table! If they aren’t getting a sense of control in other areas of their lives, chances are they will try to gain control at the dinner table. Why? Because, as parents, we show them that how much they eat is important to us. So, they know they have some sway when it comes to what they eat, because mom and dad are invested in how much they eat. If you’re familiar with the Division of Responsibility, aka the DoR (and if not, read up on that real quick), you know that this is a complete role reversal. Your toddler needs to know that what is on the menu is not up for debate. 

The Division of Responsibility and how it halts mealtime negotiations

Okay, let’s chat about this a little bit more. To refresh your memory, as parents, you get to decide: what, when, and where your child eats. Your toddler gets to decide: if they eat, and how much they eat. This can be really difficult for parents because it’s easy to be concerned about how much our toddlers are eating, and what foods they’re refusing at any given meal. But it’s so important that we stick to these roles in feeding. When we don’t, toddlers recognize that you’re invested in how much they’re eating, and will use that to their advantage. Don’t let them!

Easier said than done, right? Try to focus on what’s going on in the mealtime conversation, talk about their day, enjoy your own meal, and don’t focus on what your toddler is eating. Keep the feeding environment positive, have fun, let them play with their food (if they want!), and you can even get in on that too! If this sounds like too much change, aim for a neutral environment to start. You may not be jumping right into food play yet, but keep your facial expressions neutral, don’t react to what they’re eating (or what they’re playing with), and keep the conversation going! Eventually, you’ll notice that this “neutral” environment really is a positive environment for your kiddos, and it helps them relax around mealtimes. I can help you implement all this and more, confidently, inside my Feeding Toddlers online course!

That being said, I recommend that your first step in managing your toddler’s meal refusals is to assess how well you’re implementing the Division of Responsibility. If you can, speak with your partner about the roles, what you’re focusing on accomplishing with each meal, and what going outside of your role in feeding may look like. My assistant shared with me a top tip her and her husband use in these scenarios, that she learned from a parent coach for another situation, and has applied to mealtimes.

My husband and I have a code-word, something we can say, or mumble under our breath, when the other is doing something outside of our roles as parents, or that doesn’t coincide with a particular parenting technique we’re trying. When it comes to meals, if one of us is stepping outside of our role in the Division of Responsibility, and the other notices, they will say ‘pineapple’! And it’s just a really neutral way of reminding them that they’ve crossed a line without actually making it a discussion in front of the kids. For example, if my daughter asks to get down from the table, and before I know it, I’m saying ‘Don’t you want to try a bite of your chicken first?’ My husband will say: ‘pineapple!’ and I immediately rephrase it to: ‘Sorry honey, what I meant was, did you check in with your tummy to make sure you’re full?’ Most of the time, our kids don’t notice, but if they do, we simply say that daddy was reminding mommy of something, and leave it at that.”

If you’re the only adult at a meal, and therefore don’t have an outsider’s perspective to let you know when you’re crossing into your toddler’s role in feeding, I still have a tip for you. If you find yourself watching what food your toddler chooses from their plate, frequently talking about what food is on the menu (like how long it took to cook, how you seasoned it, how hard you worked on it, etc.), or mentioning how yummy something is, chances are you’re invading their role. It may be harmless, you may genuinely like what you’re eating, but these are some things that can come across as pressure to your toddler. Take a step back and refocus on something else. I have a lot of ideas for mealtime conversations in a two part blog series, so check those out (part 1 & part 2) for some conversation starters!

But, what if my toddler wants more control?

Even if your toddler has full control over how much they eat or if they eat at all, they may still want more. This doesn’t mean you can give them access to parts of the DoR that are under your control, but maybe add in some new things they can control. For example, give them an option between two colours of plates, cups, utensils, etc. Let them set the table! They’ll feel so independent, and it also helps them to have a routine for coming to the table without a fight

If they still want control over the menu, let them request certain things. Say they want to have watermelon for breakfast, you could say: “That’s not on the menu this morning, but I will add it to the menu for Thursday.” This lets them know that their wants are being taken into consideration, but that you hold the power over the menu and will add it in where it fits for you. Just be sure to follow through on these for your toddler, as it will help them to build trust and know where their boundaries are.

How to respond when my toddler says “I don’t want to eat [that]”

This can be a tricky one, but it’s definitely a common toddler phrase. Either, “I don’t want to eat that,” or “I don’t want to eat.”. I’ve got a 3 step process for responding to these comments from your toddler…

Step 1: Acknowledge and validate

It’s so important to let them know that you heard what they said, that it’s okay for them to say it, and that you’re listening to them. Connect with them first, show that you heard them, this may even involve repeating it back to them, or clarifying if they’re not hungry at all or if they don’t want one specific thing being offered. Let them know that you understand, and validate their feelings by saying it’s okay if they don’t want that or don’t want to eat. A lot of times toddlers are simply looking for validation and to know that they’ve been heard. They may say something like this, almost as a knee jerk reaction, because of something else that happened where they couldn’t exercise control, and this statement is their way of taking that control back. So really it had nothing to do with food, and once you validate their feelings, they may actually even begin to eat. 

Step 2: Explain the boundary

This involves reminding your child of their role in feeding, while simultaneously explaining your role in feeding. The boundary that you’re highlighting for your toddler is that this food is what’s on the menu. Period. It’s not changing. Speak clearly, and be confident in your role as the leader and decision maker. You cannot waver in this, you need to have the point of view that NO ONE can change your mind. 

Step 3: Explain the options they DO have

Now that they’re clear on the boundary, you can let them know what choices they do have. They can choose what they want from the menu to eat, how much of it they want, and if they don’t want to eat, that’s their choice too. This puts the power back into their hands. Now that they’re clear on the menu, your job is done. So, this reminds them that now it’s their turn, the rest of the meal is in their control.

These 3 steps may look something like this…

Toddler: “I don’t want any carrots!”

Parent: “Okay honey, I understand that you don’t want any carrots today. Carrots are on the menu, but so is grilled cheese and ketchup to dip. Would you like any grilled cheese or ketchup?”

Toddler: “NO!”

Parent: “Okay, so no grilled cheese or ketchup either. That’s your choice, you don’t have to eat but this is what’s for lunch today.”

Toddler: “But, I’m hungry!”

Parent: “If you’re tummy feels hungry you have carrots, grilled cheese, and ketchup to choose from. Which would you like?”

Toddler: “Grilled cheese, please.”

This may be a best-case scenario, but it shows how to stick to your role, while reminding your toddler of their role and ability to choose what they want from the options provided.

Be okay with a skipped meal

This is a tough one for parents, but it happens. In the above scenario, the toddler could have just as easily decided that they didn’t want anything to eat and would like to get down from the table. When this happens, you need to be okay with them skipping a meal. It’s developmentally normal for toddlers to choose to forgo meals, sometimes a couple in a row, especially in the early stage of illness, or even during normal times, as their appetites fluctuate a lot. There can be days where they survive off of a small yogurt or crackers, and then a few days after that they’ll be eating normally again (sometimes double or triple what they usually eat!).

I’ve talked about schedules for toddlers in the past, and if you’d like to hear my thoughts on it, listen to this podcast episode all about it. But, basically, toddlers thrive on routine! By creating, and consistently sticking to, a schedule for meals and snacks, toddlers will begin to rely on the schedule to know another eating opportunity is not far away! Because of this, they may actually choose to skip a meal here or there, and that’s just fine. Please note that this requires frequent eating opportunities, and for toddlers, that means being offered 3 meals and (at least) 2 snacks throughout the day, consistently, but with flexibility as required.

When to worry

Now that I’ve gone over all of my tips for when your toddler refuses a meal, I also want to emphasize that this is not one size fits all! There are certain cases where more assistance may be needed.

If your toddler is refusing to eat all but 20 foods, it’s time to get my Feeding Toddlers online course. I expand on the principles of the Division of Responsibility in there, and provide you with a step-by-step plan that you can use to introduce new foods and get your toddler comfortable with exploring foods, which will eventually lead to them eating a larger variety of foods.

If your toddler is refusing to eat all but 10 foods, you need to speak with your doctor about getting a referral for feeding therapy, or contact a pediatric dietitian locally to determine if your toddler can be assessed without a referral. In these cases, you will need a more tailored approach, and one-on-one therapy, in order to get a full picture of where your toddler currently is and what the next steps will be. 

If your toddler has a sudden drop on their growth chart. By this I mean that their percentile has changed drastically in a period of just a few months, then they will require further assessment, similar to the scenario above, to determine why that’s happening, and what to do moving forward.

If your toddler is stuck on pureed textures. This is important because if you’re finding it difficult, or seemingly impossible, to move your toddler (including infants aged 9 months and up) on to finger foods, a feeding assessment may be warranted. You would know that your toddler is unable to handle finger foods by their reaction when it’s served. They simply may refuse them, or they could experience excessive gagging, coughing, choking, the food may be typically spat out or fall out of their mouth, and therefore it’s unlikely your toddler is able to eat to the point of fullness. If you’re observing these reactions, it’s important to seek out a feeding evaluation.

Finally, if your toddler has an underlying medical issue, such as: silent reflux, allergies, GI issues, etc., I want you to listen to your parents’ intuition! You know your baby best, and if you feel that your child is consistently refusing meals, and you feel that something is wrong, seek out a feeding assessment. There is no harm in doing so, and it may help provide further insight as to if there are other medical issues yet to be identified.

Hopefully this helps to ease your mind, as most toddlers that choose to skip meals don’t fall into any of these categories, and my tips outlined above will help. However, just because your toddler isn’t in one of the above categories now, that doesn’t mean you can blur the roles when it comes to feeding. My Feeding Toddlers online course has numerous tips on ways to handle normal changes that take place in toddlerhood, because despite popular belief, it’s not just like feeding an infant anymore! The course can also be used as a way to prevent picky eating from forming in the future. Sign up today and be fully prepared for whatever changes your toddler throws at you!

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