How can I get my toddler to eat more?

Feeding a toddler can be a huge challenge – some eat everything put in front of them, some barely seem to eat.

It can be worrying to see your child barely eat but toddlers – children from 18 months to 3 years – often have really variable food intakes. For the majority of children this evens out and isn’t a problem. They have a wonderful inbuilt mechanism that, when offered a variety of foods, means they thrive and somehow manage to get the right amounts of nutrients over a few days even if over a single mealtime or even a single day it feels like they are going to fade away.

When to seek help if you are worried your toddler isn’t eating enough

Seek help though from your GP or health visitor if you have concerns that your child isn’t gaining weight, they can check your child’s weight, plot it on their growth chart and reassure you that all is fine, or offer extra help if their growth is slow. Toddlers put on weight a lot slower than fast growing babies, so although it can seem that they aren’t putting on much weight often they are growing just fine.

Sometimes toddler have underlying reasons that they are off their food – a sore throat, a sore tooth, or they’re coming down with a cold – all things that will pass. If your child seems low in energy over more than a day or two it could indicate many things including that they are low in iron – so that is another thing your GP or health visitor might check out. Another thing to consider is is your child constipated? Passing hard poo or being in pain when they poo are signs of constipation and if you have ever been constipated you’ll know that it is something that can really knock out your appetite. This is another thing to contact your GP or health visitor about for extra help.

If your child is off their food and not taking much fluids either then watch out for signs of dehydration – being very low in energy, having less wet nappies, being ‘floppy’. Being severely dehydrated is very serious so if in doubt contact a GP or take your child to A&E for rehydration if you can’t encourage them to drink.

How can I get my toddler to eat more?

So if you are sure your child is growing well, pooing well, they don’t seem ill but you are still frustrated about their eating – what can you do?

Well, your child could well be going through a ‘fussy eating’ phase. At least a third of toddlers do.

So how best to get through a phase of toddler fussy eating?

You’ve probably already tried a few things and found that trying to ‘get’ your child to eat is not as simple as that: your toddler is not a passive being who will simply do as they are told! Nope, they are learning rapidly to try new things out, see how the adults around them react and exert their independence however they can.

As a parent you will be developing your own styles of doing things with your child, trying out how to react to their behaviours. Some parents like to be strict, some hate to set out boundaries, many of us are just trying things out and hoping for the best!

When it comes to feeding your child, feeding, parenting, psychology and nutrition experts all round in the world agree that adopting a particular style of ‘food parenting’ seems best – responsive, authoritative – ie not too strict, not too passive.

One of the best ways to explain this is the Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility:

  • You are responsible for what, when and where.
  • Your child is responsible for how much and whether.

Satter's Division of Responsibility
You are responsible for what, when and where. Your child is responsible for how much and whether.

So in other words, you as a parent choose what food to offer, when and where – ideal is to have offer a variety of foods every 2-3 hours (so 5-6 small meals or snacks a day), seated and in a calm environment. Your child than has the opportunity to sit and experience the food – whether or not they eat it and how much they eat is completely up to them – you supervise and eat with them but don’t try to encourage them to eat more (or less).

How to get your toddler to eat more?

Attempts to get your toddler to eat more through pushing, coercing, and cajoling are likely to backfire – even if they succeed in the short term – ‘getting’ a bit more in at a particular meal, they don’t tend to help with helping your toddler to develop a healthy relationship with food.

Want to learn more and get more help with managing fussy eating? Have you seen the Stress-Free Mealtimes workbooks and online course – here I walk you through the key 8 areas of your toddler’s mealtimes to change if you are wanting to achieve Stress-Free Mealtimes.