Decoding Your Toddler's Appetite: A Guide for Parents
The suction plate is filled with balanced foods, the easy grip utensils are set, and the most ergonomic highchair is in place. After two bites of rice and a finger dip into applesauce, your little one proudly proclaims, “all done!” Oh no!
For parents, a lackluster toddler appetite can set off a cascade of worry. After all, it’s one of our biggest jobs to make sure our kids get enough to eat! So it’s natural to question your toddler’s appetite. Are they eating enough? Was that too much? How do I get them to eat more?
But the truth is that unpredictable and fluctuating toddler appetites are completely normal! So, take a big deep breath and then read on to learn how to decode your toddler’s appetite and navigate their fickle food needs.
Toddler appetite: What’s normal?
Toddlerhood brings many new adventures… In the blink of an eye, your once-tiny baby goes from barely being able to swat at hanging toys to emptying every bathroom drawer. One minute they’re drinking milk around the clock and the next they’re disinterested in eating. With that, it can be normal for a toddler's appetite to switch as fast as lightning, with one day bringing full-blown feasting and then hardly making a dent in their dinner the next.
Why does my toddler’s appetite fluctuate?
Many things can affect your toddler’s appetite. Constipation, distraction, sickness, or even sleepiness could cause them to eat less. Eating around other children or other family members may drive them to eat more.
Toddlers grow at a slower pace than when they were babies, so they might not need the same nutrition as before. Often, parents see an appetite boost during growth spurts which is just as normal as an appetite slump. Along with physical changes, your tot is also changing developmentally, and they’re becoming more aware of what’s in their control. Though they’re still small, your little one is trying to assert some independence by resisting your plea for them to eat their peas. Now that we get what’s normal, how do we deal with these finicky fluctuations?
Tips for Guiding the Toddler Appetite
Think beyond a single meal.
Take heart in knowing that one meal isn’t a good indication of your toddler’s eating habits as a whole! Consider how your child has eaten over the course of several days…or a week. It could be that they’re picking at their food one day, and wolfing down seconds and thirds the next! Remember, if they don’t seem to eat much at one meal or snack, they will get another opportunity to eat again soon.
Offer toddler-friendly portions.
How much grownups think a toddler should eat and how much they actually need to eat are often different! Picture your toddler’s little clenched fist— that’s about the same size as their stomach. Only so much food can fit into that bitty belly, and it can fill up quickly, especially with milk and juice. Consider starting with just a spoonful of each food for each year of their age. For instance, a 1-year-old would get 1 spoonful of all food groups offered, and a 2-year-old would get 2. Then, if they let you know they want more, you can add another helping.
Be patient when introducing new foods.
Developmentally, toddlers are more observant about how foods look, feel, and taste, than ever before. If they’re skeptical of a new food, stay cool. It can take nearly 20 times for a toddler to accept a new food. To help with acceptance, offer a very small amount of the new food and consider taking a bite together if your tot is open to it.
Consider the division of responsibility.
Ellyn Satter’s approach to feeding children is that everyone has a job at meal times. This perspective takes some of the responsibility off parents and asks the child to play a more active role in mealtimes. A parents’ job is to offer nutritious foods at a certain time and place, while the child’s job is to decide whether to eat and how much to eat. Provide your child with a wide variety of foods to supply them with the nutrients they need from whole grains, dairy, proteins, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and legumes.
Give them a say.
Toddlers want to make decisions on their own, so let’s help them! While giving toddlers free rein over their eating isn’t developmentally appropriate, it can beneficial to give them a choice between two foods so they have some voice in the matter. That way, they feel in control even though there are still some limits in choice.
Encourage, but don’t pressure.
Pushing your little one to eat food can put a damper on their food experience and they may not want to eat altogether. Remain calm and trust that they’ll eat what they need.
Eat together as a family.
Science backs the significance of eating as a family. A 2018 review published in the journal Appetite found that family meals were associated with better nutrient intake, less fussiness, and more enjoyment for infants and toddlers.
Know when to seek help.
If you’re concerned about your toddler’s appetite and eating habits, don’t hesitate to speak with a trusted pediatrician or dietitian.
It’s probably time to seek help if your child…
- Struggles to grow and gain weight
- Cannot tolerate certain food textures or often spits foods out
- Has low fluid intake
- Has low energy levels
- Shows signs of illness ( nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
More on Feeding Toddlers:
- Quick and Tasty Toddler Breakfasts
- How to Help a Picky Eater
- The Most Nutritious Foods for Toddlers
- Healthy Snack Ideas for Tots
Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.