It’s pretty normal for toddlers to say “no” to food. Refusal comes in all forms: shaking the head “no,” putting a hand up to signal “no,” or verbalizing the word are all ways your toddler may let you know he or she is not having what you’re offering.
What not to do
Some parents hear “no” and won’t accept it. They respond with encouragement, such as “Oh, come on, try it. It’s good!” Encouragement is not a bad thing to do, but many kids will dig in their heels in response.
Some parents may produce a bribe or an enticement, such as dessert or another type of reward. This often gets kids to try or to eat more, but according to the research on rewarding children for eating, dangling a carrot doesn’t work very well in the long run. Kids end up liking the reward better (dessert) and may rely on being rewarded in the future.
Eventually, your toddler may figure out what you want: children will eat what you want them to eat. In other words, your child becomes savvy to you and your tricks.
What to do instead
The best way to respond to the toddler who says “no” is to roll with it. But the best response is no response.
If you can’t do that, say this:
“Okay, I can see you aren’t interested in this. Maybe next time.”
Allow the meal to carry on, but pay no attention to what or if your child is eating. Just provide the meal as usual.
Enjoy your meal, but don’t tolerate negative behavior such as throwing food, whining, or banging on the table. If these occur, end the meal. Clean up your toddler and remove him or her from the table.
Internally, you may be dying inside. You really want your child to eat. You worry that if your child doesn’t eat, he or she will be hungry soon, and that would mess up the schedule for the day or the timing of the next meal.
Remember, you can alleviate your worry and set yourself up for success by reminding yourself that:
The structure you have set up for feeding your child (three meals and two to three snacks in between) allows him to eat every two to three hours. These intervals allow hunger to build before eating and subside afterward, while setting the appetite cycle in motion. Several meals and snacks throughout the day also provide your child opportunities to eat a variety of foods and nutrients.
A representation of all food groups at mealtime, and two to three food groups at snack time, up the ante that your child will find something from the meal that he or she likes and will eat.
Serving a new or foreign food with a food that is liked and generally accepted such as milk, fruit, bread, or crackers, or another nutritious food, may increase your child’s comfort level with the entire meal.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- The best response to the toddler who refuses food is no response.
- Bribing, rewarding, and even encouraging eating may not be the best in the long run.
- Set yourself up for success by using structure and variety and by pairing familiar foods with new foods.