Is It Normal If Your Kid Flat-Out Refuses to Eat at Mealtimes?!

“If they’re hungry enough, they’re going to eat.”

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It’s hard enough trying to get your toddler to try new foods. Broccoli dunked in ketchup? Tried it. The vroom-vroom-here-comes-the-race-car spoon? Every dang morning. (Seriously though, why are kids such picky eaters?!)

Then all of a sudden, despite your best efforts, they decide they don’t want to eat … at all. GREAT. What’s a concerned parent to do?

Don’t force it. “If a child wants to skip a meal, I don’t recommend making a fight about it,” says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician and double board certified in pediatrics and obesity medicine. “If they’re hungry enough, they’re going to eat.”

“Sometimes [kids] may skip meals. They just really don’t want to eat and the next meal they’ll make it up,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and HealthiNation’s chief medical editor.

Consider their full calorie intake. Sure, it’s upsetting if you just bought your kid a happy meal from McDonald’s and they barely eat a French fry. However, it’s important to think about when they ate last, and how many calories they’re taking in as a whole—they might actually be full. Remember: Kids don’t eat the same size portions as adults.

“Sometimes parents come in and they say, ‘Oh my child is refusing to eat lunch everyday,’ but it turns out they had an eight-ounce bottle of milk before that, so they might be full,” says Dr. Hes. “So you want to see where their other sources of calories are coming from.”

Watch the snacks. “One of the mistakes parents make is that they’re so concerned that their toddler’s not eating enough, that they’re giving them snacks throughout the day, which in turn makes them not hungry and eat the meals that they’re supposed to be eating,” says Dr. Parikh.

Focus on the whole week, not every meal. It’s important not to stress about every single meal; kids’ appetites will fluctuate. Instead, look at their eating patterns for the whole week. “If you see [they’re skipping meals] for days on end, then it’s something to be concerned about,” says Dr. Parikh.

Having a picky toddler who zips his lips in the presence of food is not only frustrating, but also worrisome. More than anything you want your kid to be healthy and strong, which you know starts with eating the right foods. Just try to remember that it’s a common phase and it should pass.

Until then, here are some expert tips to get your picky child to finally eat the foods she needs—and build healthy eating habits for life.