Why Your 2-Year-Old Won't Eat (and What to Do!)

Struggling to understand why your two-year-old won’t eat? This article doesn’t contain a magic wand with the power to get your child to eat when they refuse. What is does is far more useful. You will learn the root cause of your child’s behavior and what to do to help your child eat better.

Is it normal for children not to eat?

First, let’s clear the air on a common misconception. Most of the time, children that refuse to eat are labeled with negative terms such as bratty or difficult. This frames the challenges with eating as a behavior problem.

The issue is that most children that struggle to eat don’t have a behavioral issue. The behaviors such as refusing to sit at the table, throwing food, gagging or tantrums are really symptoms. 

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If you are the parent of a toddler, eating and meals can feel like a roller coaster. The developmental changes your child is experiencing along with a normal slow down in growth contribute to food refusal.  Neophobia and picky eating are a hallmark of the toddler years.

Read this Toddler Feeding Guide for a comprehensive look at nutrient requirements, portion sizes and best practices. For even more help, this article offers specific ideas about what to feed your toddler.

No matter the age of your child, once you understand the underlying cause and implement strategies, the behaviors and food refusal can resolve. Meals can be pleasant and important quality family time.

 

Why Your 2-Year-Old Won’t Eat

Helping your child eat better starts with understanding common reasons why children refuse to eat.

1. Feeling Pressured

If your child turns his nose up a food or an entire meal, our natural response is to offer encouragement. The reality is that our good intentions contribute to picky eating.

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Pressure creates stress for your child and stress promotes the release of adrenaline.  Adrenaline is a hormone that helps us be more focused and respond with a fight or flight response. Unfortunately, it also suppresses appetite.

It is easy for meal times to become a pressure cooker when your child is refusing to eat.  There can be bribery, lectures about the importance of nutrition, and threats of going to bed hungry. Even subtle pressure can create stress for your child, especially when there is a desire to please you.

While the goal of these well-intended efforts is to get your child to eat, instead they are turning off the appetite switch for your child. 

To help your child eat better, skip the pressure at meals.

Following this guide will help you establish a relaxed and fun mealtime routine.

 

2. Grazing and Snacking Too Often

With hectic schedules and convenient snack foods for kids available in abundance, it’s common for kids to graze throughout the day. This leads to meals with little or no appetite, and then grazing again between meals.

It can be a cycle that can feel tough to break. You may worry if your child doesn’t eat well at a meal and want to offer food. Your child may also demand snacks and it can feel difficult to manage the inevitable tantrums that may arise if snacks on demand are eliminated.

Implementing a schedule for meals and snacks is essential to creating an environment for success. Use this step-by-step approach to make a successful transition.

 

3. Sensory Food Aversion

If you find that your child prefers a particular food texture or taste, you can benefit from a better understanding the sensory elements of eating.

Eating is far more than the physical action of putting food in your mouth, chewing and swallowing. In addition, there are an incredible array of sensory experiences your child must integrate and process as part of the eating experience.

This might be touching a “slimy” vegetable or processing the smell of roasted cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. The response your child has to the sensory experiences of food are most likely normal but may be different from another child the same age or even older siblings.

If your child eats only a single texture or you observe difficultly with chewing or swallowing, talk to pediatrician about your concerns.

One strategy that is particularly effective for children that are highly particular about food texture, flavor and refuse to eat foods, is food chaining.  This highly individualized approach to selecting foods creates a chain of similar food and over time expanding the number of foods accepted by your child.

 

4. Short Order Cooking

Preparing a special food for your child in an effort to thwart food refusal or to ensure that something is eaten is a trap that many parents fall into.

You might be thinking that your child refuses to eat anything but a handful of foods and that none of these foods are on your list of dinner ideas for the family.  These preferred foods are not your opponent, they are your secret weapon.

The key to eliminating short order cooking is to include a preferred food at meals and snacks.  A preferred food is one that your child eats at least 50% of the time when offered.  It doesn’t mean that it is a favorite food, just one that is usually accepted.

When you include a preferred food with the meal (even if it’s chips!), your child has the opportunity to be exposed to other foods in a low-pressure way.  He isn’t worried that there is nothing on the table that he can eat. 

Using a preferred food approach is incredibly powerful both because it eliminates the need to pressure your child to eat (there is a food he can fill up on available) and provides consistent exposure to new foods.

This strategy and how to implement is described in detail here.

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Summary

How to get your child to eat when they refuse is about understanding the root cause of the problem. Focusing on the negative behaviors creates misguided efforts and does little to resolve the issue.

 

Next Steps

Join my email list to learn the top 3 mealtime mistakes that contribute to picky eating and what to do instead.  You’ll receive an exclusive “Mistake Free Mealtimes” worksheet to identify exactly what you need to change and an implementation plan to help you get started.

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