My 8 Tips for dealing with meal refusal in toddlers

If you are following me on Instagram (if you’re not here’s a chance to do so :)) , you’re probably aware that I haven’t been getting much sleep for the past few weeks. It seems that there is such a thing as an 18-month sleep regression in toddlers, and to be honest, I think it is one of the worst ones we’ve experienced so far!

My baby (can I still call her that?) has developed a lot in the past few weeks, she is communicating in 3-word phrases now, and becoming increasingly better coordinated. I am constantly in awe looking at how far she’s come! I can also imagine how scary and unsettling all those new found abilities can be for a toddler, so I do my best to be sympathetic about it all, despite the serious lack of sleep.

Whenever we go through a sleep regression my toddler also experiences a decrease in appetite. It is not the best of times as it can really be the final straw that makes me lose my patience. But I am learning, and I have to say that I have become a much more patient person than I used to be before having a baby. So I guess she isn’t the only one learning new things!

I am frequently asked how I encourage my toddler to eat healthy foods, and in this post I will address just that. But I want to focus on sharing with you how I deal with her eating habits during tough times like a sleep regression. I am far from knowing what I’m doing, or pretending to be the toddler food whisperer. I am simply following my intuition and doing what feels right. I have been following this principle in every aspect in raising my toddler so far.

1. Presentation (Colour & Texture)

When it comes to food, I have made sure that she’s exposed to different colours of fruits and vegetables from early on. This I believe has made her very curious towards food and she’s always keen to try something new, which makes me very happy. She has had kale in her purées since she was 7 1/2 months old, and she loves her green smoothies now.

2. Big mess, no stress (mostly) 

I’ve also let her experiment with food as soon as she showed interest in it. This means that I would let her make a mess while eating. Yes, it is not always pleasant to clean up after, but I really enjoy watching her eat. We did incorporate a lot of baby led weaning principles, and I also offered her purees as well. Now there will clearly be a time where she will have to learn to develop table manners, but I think sparking curiosity in food is the priority at her age.


I believe that letting her play with the food, and the fact that I would give her as much time as she needs to eat (she is a slow eater, just as I used to be!), have contributed a lot to her positive association with meal time and her openness to try new foods.

3. I offer her a wide range of age-appropriate foods.

I avoided any processed or sugary snacks (and still do), so that she can develop a preference for whole foods instead.

4. Mealtime = family time

Mealtime is also big at our home, and we love to eat together. She loves to watch us eat and copies everything we do. This has made me even more aware of the fact that we as parents are role models in this, and every other regard, and has made me more conscious of what impressions my actions install in her.

5. Consider character

With that said there are other factors that can influence how open a toddler is to try new foods, such as the child’s character. Let’s face it, even if we as parents are responsible for teaching our children to eat healthy, some have it easier than others, as they are blessed with more cooperative kids. So I take my hat off to any parent that keeps trying to feed their children healthy foods, despite the hardships and struggles they may be facing!

6. Manage your own expectations

As I already mentioned, she doesn’t always eat the food I prepare for her. It can feel disheartening sometimes after I have spent time to cook her meal and have put all my love in it. But here is the most eye-opening thing I learned during these phases: It is my expectation of, what, when and how much she should eat that cause the problem. As a mom I’m obviously concerned if she’s eating enough, but again what is enough? Is it enough what I’ve put on her plate, or the amount she chooses to eat? As hard as it can be, I’ve learned to let go of my expectations over the quantity of food she eats. I have learned to trust that she’ll eat when she’s hungry and will choose not to, when she’s not. I am not making a scene or any drama about her choice anymore (because yes, it did happen a few times, and I really didn’t like myself during this time).

7. Manage mealtime emotions carefully

Whenever she refuses to eat the food I prepared for her, I just calmly say: “You must not be hungry then. Let’s put you down so you can play instead. You can come back to the table when you want to eat.” On the other hand when she finishes her food I simply say: “Well done, you finished your food” but I don’t go overboard with emotions and praise. It sounds so simple and logical, but sometimes it’s so hard to do!

I read somewhere that one way to avoid power struggles at mealtime is to take away the emotions from this activity. It makes total sense. If our child sees how desperately we want her to eat her food, she’ll soon learn to turn this into her advantage. And here we’re one step away from bribery and making promises to what we’ll give them if they would please, only finish their lunch!

Getting angry with our child for not eating is just as useless, if not harmful. Same thing goes for praising her when she does finish their food. Praising them too much (you see where the emphasis is) might lead to associating food with reward, which can open up the possibility for them to overindulge in food in their adult years when they are going through a difficult time.

Trust me, I know that doing the above is hard! I do want to clap my hands and get overly excited when she finishes her food, and sometimes I can hardly control myself to not get angry when she doesn’t. But I have come to realize that this exercise is so much more about my patience and ability to deal with refusal. I have started to consider it as a character-building practice in a way and it has been transformative.


8. The Smoothie Card 

As I mentioned already, she loves smoothies, and they have been great whenever she refuses food. I make her smoothies with fruits and vegetables and this way I know she’s getting in some of the foods she might refuse to eat if I would just put on her plate during these challenging times. It is a win-win and fuss-free solution in our home!

In another post I’ll share some of the smoothie recipes I prepare for her.

And now I’d love to hear from you! How do you encourage healthy eating habits for your child and most of all, how do you deal whenever they refuse to eat the food you’ve prepared for them? Let me know in the comments below. 🙂

She loves to do grocery shopping, which is another way to increase familiarity with food! 🙂



One response to “My 8 Tips for dealing with meal refusal in toddlers

  1. Pingback: My 8 Tips for dealing with meal refusal in toddlers | CANTONS.LU·

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