Toddler Food Refusal

Cruz Joseph Crespo loves to squat and eat Nut Butter.

Last night my two year old found a bag of bows in the closet where I store wrapping paper. He sweetly toddled the bag into the living room where I was sitting on the couch with my husband and the rest of our kids. Cruz wanted to share the wealth.

“One for you,” said Cruz as he handed me a bow. “And one for you, and one for you, and one for you.”

We laughed until we cried. It was so stinking cute. Kids just pick things up from the air! He probably learned this phrase at school. I imagined him sitting as his little table as he waited for his teacher to hand out the morning snack.

Now if he could only be as cute with his acceptance at snack time… When Cruz turned two he picked up something else from the air. Food refusal. And by refusal I mean, if it’s not nut butter on a spoon, he does not want to eat it.

Even though Cruz is my fourth child, I find myself turning to experts for help. There’s scores of information online about toddler food refusal that helped me understand the why behind this infuriating behavior and begin to make a plan to attack it.

Most sources say toddler food refusal is usually about control. The teeny humans can’t control much in their lives, except for what goes in their mouth and actually makes it into their stomach. Self feeding is one of the first skills a toddler can messily master, and therefore it’s a BIG one.

Experts caution not to make it a power struggle. “One more bite and you can have a cookie,” or, “No playtime if you don’t eat your broccoli,” means very little to a toddler. As adults we can rationally weigh out options and consequences, but toddlers live their lives around he principal of NO. They can say it well and do it even better.

Returning a sense of control can be as easy as offering our toddlers a choice. “Would you like yogurt or applesauce?” or “Do you want eggs or chicken?” Giving toddlers visuals helps to communicate their options. Often times if they feel like they have a choice, they will make a good one. Inevitably this won’t work the first, second or even third time. But experts tell us to stick with it. Giving children a sense of freedom at meal time can make things more enjoyable for everyone.

If we let Cruz, he would drink his calories. He loves all things liquid, bottles and straws. All experts agree, if a toddler is full of liquid his tummy will be full and therefore won’t be hungry. So limiting liquid intake around meal times is another strategy to tap into hunger as an incentive to eat. Sounds elementary, but it’s an easy fix that could help a problem before it begins.

Conversely, we use Cruz’s love of straws to trick him into drinking nutrition. Loading his smoothies with delicious fruits and veggies is an easy and fun way to get nutrition on the go. We can sneak a few handfuls of spinach into almost any fruit smoothie combination with no refusal. For now.

Unlike adults, most kids don’t like HUGE portions. A pile of anything can be daunting for a child. Experts say offer small portions of food to ensure kids don’t get overwhelmed. A few bites of a new food is a perfect place to start. Larger portions can also lead to over eating, encouraging yet another bad habit.

According to, a child’s serving size would be approximately one-quarter of an adult’s. Children up until the age of 3 needs about 40 calories for every inch of height. For example, Cruz at 32 inches should be taking in about 1,300 calories a day. I expect him to need more on the days with heavy activity and plan accordingly.

While we recognize the importance of offering the breast or bottle every three hours, once our kids toddle towards two, we forget the importance of timing. Kids are not little adults! Offering three meals and two small snacks around the same time each day is a good way to establish a feeding routine. Favorite chairs, spoons and even bowls and plates can provide toddlers comfort and excitement during meal time.

Sitting down as a family also creates a group dynamic where the pressure for a toddler to perform feats of eating strength are replaced with conversation and tales from the day. If your little guy is not yet speaking in sentences, encourage him to babble along by asking him questions and celebrating his answers.

Experts agree, placing a toddler in front of a TV during mealtime is not a good idea. It might serve a short-term purpose of getting your child to eat, but it can encourage mindless eating that can lead to bad habits in the future. Tuning off electronics while tuning into table manners, group conversation and appreciation of food is a great plan for all your family members.

It’s inevitable that a toddler will refuse foods, but it’s important to keep offering options until they become “kid approved.” Research shows that a little one might need up to 15 exposures to a food to begin to enjoy it.

E-Crespo works on all things E-Commerce at Steve's PaleoGoods and owns CrossFit 1Force in New Jersey.
E-Crespo works on all things E-Commerce at Steve’s PaleoGoods and owns CrossFit 1Force in New Jersey.

Even when Cruz decides he doesn’t like something, I’m trying to keep it around. He’s recently outlawed Strawberries, I’m guessing it’s something about the texture and not the sweet delicious taste. Even though he won’t eat them, he does enjoy “cutting” them with a teeny plastic utensil from his kitchen set. (And by cutting I mean squishing.) My hope is that one of these days he will pop one into his mouth and until that happens, I’m not making a deal of it. Besides, he is addicted to Dried Strawberries that are easily kept on hand and have no junk added. I am keeping faith that his love for the fresh will return.

Experts encourage us to look at nutrition in a week-long view rather than glancing at one day or meal. Feeding a toddler is like a game. Somedays we win, and other days not so much. If you suspect something is wrong or your child is losing weight, call your pediatrician for help. Trust that it will get easier, and one day you will simply circle the dinner table as you hand out portions of meat, veggies, fruits, nuts and healthy fats saying, “One for you, one for you and one for you….”