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The Toddler Who Won’t Eat Anything

Parents of toddlers always say to me, “my child doesn’t want to eat anything anymore!” Indeed, feeding a toddler can be frustrating, especially given how drastically a little kid’s eating habits can change from one day to the next. Feeding during the first year tends to go relatively smoothly, but as we approach the second year, many “great eaters” turn into “picky” toddlers.


So how do we prevent this? The first step is to look at what a toddler actually needs– your active toddler only needs about 900 calories a day (more on this in a minute).


The next step is to look closely at what he is actually eating. When a parent expresses concern about his or her toddler “eating nothing,” I like to review a typical day for the child. The story I hear often goes something like this:


6:00 AM 8 oz. bottle of whole milk (150 cal) so parents can get a bit more precious rest.
8:00 AM Some banana (73 cal) or half a bowl of oatmeal (75-120 cal).
10:00 AM Since breakfast was light, half snack cup of Cheerios (55 cal) on route to the park.
11:30 AM Other half snack cup (55 cal).
*He has now had between 300-400 calories, over a third of what he needs!*
12:00 PM Healthy lunch is served and goes untouched.
12:30 PM Concerned about skipped lunch, toddler gets a “vegetable” pouch (70 cal). He sucks it down and gets another (70 cal).
1:30 PM Another 8-oz. bottle (150 cal) for nap to “top him up.
4:00 PM Mum Mums (30 cal) to keep him happy on route to music class.
5:00 PM A cupful of crackers (100 cal) to tide him over until dinner.
*He now only needs 100-150 more calories to meet his daily needs.*
6:00 PM Healthy dinner served. He pushes it away with a look of disdain.
7:00 PM Worried he won’t sleep with an “empty” tummy, toddler is given another 8 oz. bottle of milk before bed, thus surpassing his caloric need for the day while still maintaining the appearance of “not eating anything”!


Total calories: Approximately 1000. He’s not eating nothing. Now let’s look at the nutrition.


Let’s start with the positives. He got plenty of protein and calcium from all that milk. However, you can meet the protein and calcium needs of a toddler with only 12 ounces of milk or even 6-8 ounces of milk with a 3-ounce serving of chicken or fish and two small pieces of broccoli.


There’s also iron.  Let’s see where we can improve: Cow’s milk protein is low in iron, which is fine for cow babies but not humans. Toddlers who consume dairy as their main source of protein often become anemic, which has been shown to lead to later learning and attention problems. And even though Cheerios are fortified with iron, he still needs another more. He could get a sufficient amount from ½ cup of hummus, 3 ounces of chicken and one large egg. (Yes, toddlers need A LOT of iron and many don’t get it which is why most states require iron levels to be checked in all one and two-year-olds.)


Also, our toddler didn’t get any fresh food besides the banana! The “vegetable” pouches don’t count. The vegetable is usually the last ingredient listed. In fact, there can be as little as a teaspoon of actual vegetable inside that pouch! Most of the ingredients are fruits which brings us to…


Everything he ate was chock full of sugar. The American Heart Association advises that children should eat no more than 3 teaspoons of sugar a day (about 12 grams) but in the above scenario the toddler had approximately 80 grams of sugar. There are 12 grams of sugar in one cup of milk– the AHA calls dairy an acceptable source of ‘natural’ sugars and is concerned more with ‘added’ sugar. But even then: plain Cheerios, Mum Mums and Bunnies have about 1 gram of sugar, but Honey Nut Cheerios has 9 grams! One “vegetable” pouch has about 10 grams of sugar, which is technically from fruits and vegetables but in the processing, the natural sugars in the fruits/vegetables are converted into less healthy forms and most of the fiber and other good stuff gets removed. So even though they say “natural” sugars are good for you, I can’t help but question all this sugar in our toddler’s diet.


So, now that we are thoroughly dismayed, what do we do about it?


1. Cut WAY down on dairy.

One cup of milk and maybe a yogurt or cheese stick a day. We consume more calories in drinks than we might with solid foods, so it’s good to give dairy in non-chuggable forms. If you do give milk, try to give it in the afternoon or evening only, and use a straw or open cup not a bottle.


2. Give breakfast first thing after waking.

It’s nice to use the bottle to buy a little time in the morning, but it will end up starting the cycle of the toddler who is already full at mealtime. Give him lots of good stuff while he is really hungry: a scrambled egg, iron fortified cereal, nut butters on toast, fresh fruit, even vegetables!


3. Cut out snacks.

Your infant could go 3-4 hours between bottles so your toddler is perfectly capable of going from breakfast to lunch with nothing in between. If your schedule has a particularly long stretch between two meals, give what I call a ‘mini-meal’ in between, not a snack.  If you think ‘mini-meal’, you will be more likely to give hummus and crackers, a hard-boiled egg, or veggies and dip instead of Goldfish. Frozen peas (still frozen) are always a favorite with my kids.


4. Don’t replace.

If your child doesn’t eat the meal you’ve made, don’t take it away and offer something else (sweet and simple) you know he will eat. Unfortunately, nature has given us a highly addictive brain that once upon a time helped us survive when food was scarce. This tendency makes us crave foods high in sugar and fat that once would have kept us alive longer. Ironically this same tendency is probably the root of most of our current health problems that shorten our lifespan. Our pesky brain will almost always accept a cupcake over carrots, milk or juice over water. If your child doesn’t eat the healthy meal you have prepared and your response is to follow it up with a full serving of milk or some crackers, he will eat that even if he’s not hungry. He’ll also learn quickly that he can skip the meal and get the simple sugars eventually. If your child doesn’t eat a meal, down he goes to play and the next meal will…  get eaten!


I hope this advice is helpful and hopeful to you and not discouraging. If you have already fallen into some of these eating traps, do not despair, you are not alone and you can make changes! Yes, the first few days will be tough dealing with the wrath of an angry toddler. But stay strong–he will quickly forget his three bottles of milk and stroller snack cup. And with some lifestyle changes you can set up some good habits for a lifetime of healthy eating. 

Read more about cultivating an adventurous eater from Dr. TJ Gold. And Dr. Cohen’s advice on feeding solids from babyhood on up.