What to Do When Your Toddler Won't Eat

Toddler Food Ruts

Well, it’s happened. Your child has become one of “those kids.” You know, those kids who will only eat orange foods, or bread and cheese, or potato chips and fruit snacks, or apples. Try as you might, they just won’t eat anything green, or foods that aren’t crunchy, or any meats. You tried to convince them, maybe even bribe them (gasp), but they just won’t give in. Leave it to a toddler to have iron will power.

But rest assured, it’s happened to the best of us. And in the nutritional world, we call them food jags or food ruts.

What Is a Food Rut?

What exactly is a food jag? A food jag, or food rut, is when a child will only eat a few foods. It’s a normal part of toddlerhood and shouldn't raise any alarms. But as a parent, I know it can be downright frustrating!

But you’ve been doing everything right. You’ve been offering them balanced meals, a variety of choices, and healthy options, so why are they suddenly stuck on a few foods?!

Why Food Ruts?

There are plenty of reasons (and plenty times when there are no real reasons) why your child could be in a food rut.

One reason might be that their growth has slowed down. After their first birthday, their bodies aren’t growing as fast, so they need fewer calories per pound. They may not feel quite as hungry. Just as when your child has a growth spurt, they seem to be endlessly hungry; when your child’s growth slows, their appetite decreases a bit and they seem to not eat anything.

Sometimes food jags occur around this timing, when they are less hungry.

Food ruts may also occur when children want to assert their independence in making choices. Toddlers are just learning about being independent and making choices. My son is currently in a habit of rejecting his usual seat at the table and pulling a stool over to a new spot.

He wants to choose where he sits at dinner and no one can change his mind. (Just ask my husband, he’s sure tried!) Rest assured, some of their new behaviors are simply part of their natural development.

How You Can Help

But for whatever reason a food rut happens, there isn’t much as parents we can do but let it ride its course. Worried your child will develop a nutritional deficiency? It’s unlikely. There’s no need to worry unless your child is rejecting an entire food group for more than two weeks. If that happens, talk to your child’s doctor or a registered dietitian.

So, what should you be doing during this (possibly very frustrating) food rut? Here are a few tips to help you keep your cool and have some perspective too.

  1. Continue offering them a variety of foods (including their accepted foods).
  2. Keep reasonable in mind.
  3. Model healthy eating by eating a variety of foods yourself.
  4. Help your child feel hungry at meal times by limiting snacks for a few hours before the meal and encouraging plenty of exercise in the time leading up to the meal.
  5. Keep the emotion out of meal time. Be relaxed and unconcerned if your child rejects certain foods. Give them the choice if they want to eat or not.

As your child seems to relax about their preferred foods, you might try altering them slightly or adding something to the food.

For example, if apples are one of their preferred foods, you might give them some peanut butter or yogurt to dip their apple in. Or if they are stuck on chicken nuggets, try offering different dipping sauces. If peanut butter sandwiches are their jam (pun intended), add jelly or honey to the regular sandwich. Slowly making changes to their preferred food might be a way to get them to add in other new foods as well.

Overall, try to relax. One of the greatest parenting lessons we can learn is to go with the flow. And don’t worry, the food rut won’t last. I can almost guarantee that they won’t be requesting potato chips and fruit snacks at their wedding luncheon.

Hang in there!

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