With the fear of new foods, a slowing growth rate, less hunger, and a strong drive to practice new skills, mealtimes with toddlers can be challenging. Below are some normal behaviors for children aged 12 months to 36 months (3 years) of age.
Refusing to eat
Food refusal during this phase is not personal, and it does not mean that your toddler does not like the food they rejected. In fact, food refusal often doesn’t have anything to do with the food. The toddler brain is wired to learn by pushing boundaries, saying, “No,” and exploring the reactions to their “no’s.” This is normal and does not mean your toddler has regressed. If you are struggling with food refusal, check out our guide Handling Toddler Food Refusal, or our virtual toddler course.
Demanding favorite foods
We all have food preferences, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, in toddlerhood, it’s common for kids to demand only these favorite foods, filling their belly and leaving no room or motivation to explore anything else. Rather than an expression of dislike for other foods, your toddler is seeing what happens when they make a demand—does it work? Remember, toddlers aren’t yet able to consider long-term goals, and they struggle with delayed gratification. In response, it’s important for caregivers to help set boundaries around meal menus rather than allowing the child to dictate the food served. If you are struggling with holding a boundary around food, watch our virtual toddler course for tips and strategies.
Asking for snacks
Toddlers find something magical about the word “snack.” Some toddlers will refuse a regular meal but dig in if the same food is re-branded as a “snack.” The highly palatable traditional toddler snacks further reinforce the magic of a “snack” yet are often highly processed, high in sodium or sugar, and lacking in adequate nutrition.
Toddlers often request snacks to avoid another activity (napping!) rather than hunger. Keep an eye on how often your toddler snacks throughout the day—frequent snacking and grazing during the day can cause food refusal at main meals. Stick to a feeding schedule, and if you feel stuck on serving pouches and puffs for snacks or simply want healthy snack ideas, see our guide 101 Snacks for Toddlers.
Eating one bite and then leaving the table
Do you have a one-bite wonder? Toddlers often sit down to a meal, take one bite, and then leave the table. This often occurs for one of two reasons:
Lack of hunger for table food. Lack of hunger is often due to frequent nursing (daytime and/or nighttime), continued bottles of formula, large quantities of cow’s milk or milk alternative, or frequent snacking.
The child needs to move. It is common for a toddler to need to wiggle during mealtimes—sitting for 20 minutes is a long time for a toddler. You can help by keeping mealtimes brief and limiting distractions—i.e., putting toys away or out of sight, turning off screens, and securing pets in another room. Additionally, consider a physical activity before mealtimes to help the child meet their need to move.
Refusing to sit in the high chair
Toddlers learning to walk, run, and climb—and wanting to practice these skills all the time— may have difficulty staying seated at meals. While refusing the high chair or trying to get up during meals is a common toddler behavior, it’s also not safe. Moving around while eating increases the likelihood of choking, and it’s important to set boundaries to keep the child safe.
This is a great time to consider whether their high chair is still appropriate and safe for the child. Consider the following to reignite a child’s interest in staying at the table or engaging with the meal:
Toddlers love to sit on a caregiver’s lap for a meal—and if this doesn’t bother you, it’s fine to share a meal with your toddler on your lap. Don’t worry—your fiercely independent toddler will want to sit alone again.
Schedule some meals away from the table—eat outside or try a picnic in the living room.
Putting objects in their mouth
More than 50% of all fatal choking incidents do not involve food.1 Unfortunately, all the toddlerhood exploration means they have an increased ability to find small items that have fallen to the floor or grab something unsafe, which puts toddlers at an increased risk of choking.
Keep dangerous items—including batteries, small toy parts, fallen food (stale chips, etc.), nut shells, and tools like screws and bolts—away from toddlers. Ensure that you and all caregivers know how to perform choking first aid and CPR on toddlers. Download our free Toddler Rescue guide.
Throwing food remains common in the toddler years and happens for several reasons:
Your toddler is learning how you react to their behaviors.
Signifies that your toddler is simply not hungry enough at mealtime.
Toddlers find it fun and naturally rewarding.
Food throwing can be a particularly difficult phase to move past. If you’ve checked your mealtime schedule, regulated snacks, and are limiting milk feeds to no more than 16 ounces per 24 hours, and your toddler is still throwing, it’s time to set some firm boundaries around what behaviors are acceptable at the table.
Wanting milk instead of solids
Milk feeds—either from nursing or a bottle—can easily derail a toddler’s desire to eat table food. Milk feeds in toddlerhood offer quick calories and quiet moments in a busy toddler world but can deter a toddler from having the motivation to self-feed, chew, and taste new or unfamiliar foods.
Some toddlers respond well to a gentle schedule for milk feeds. Other toddlers need clear times to understand that milk feeds aren’t an option. After 12 months of age, the nutrition from table food is vitally important for your toddler, so helping them feel the hunger drive to explore table foods is crucial.
See How to Wean from Breast or Bottle for guidance on gently implementing scheduled milk feeds and reducing or fully weaning from the breast or bottle.
Selectiveness vs. picky eating
Selective eating, tantrums, and food refusal behaviors are a normal part of toddlerhood. If managed with loving yet consistent boundaries, toddlers will eventually grow out of these phases. If your toddler is usually tasting the food you present—even if they are not finishing it—and is generally happy at mealtime, you are likely experiencing toddler selectiveness. However, if you have consistently tried setting boundaries, optimized your mealtime schedule, limited milk feeds, and provided a zero-pressure eating environment, and your child is still refusing to eat, you may have more of a picky eating situation.
Picky eating is marked by consistent poor intake, food refusals that persist for several meals in a row (often to the point that weight and growth might be negatively impacted), and distress at the table.
Additionally, children who refuse whole food groups (i.e., refusing all protein or meat) or entire texture categories (e.g., they won’t touch anything wet or runny) are probably experiencing picky eating rather than selective eating. Picky eating is persistent and tells us a child needs more skill-building before typical mealtime boundaries can be established.
For more, see our article Is my child a picky eater?.
When to seek help
Seek help if your child:
Is struggling to gain weight appropriately for growth
Showing signs of sensory processing challenges—discomfort touching certain textures, challenges with washing hair or hands, etc.
Is willing to starve themselves if not offered very specific meals/foods
Is brand loyal—will only eat one specific type of a certain food
You are finding it hard to eat outside the home,
If you are experiencing the above with your child, it’s time for you to reach out to your child’s medical provider for additional help. This may mean a referral to a pediatric occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist for feeding therapy, visits with a pediatric registered dietitian, or even a referral to other pediatric subspecialists. A little help can go a long way. See When to Seek Help for more information.