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Will My Toddler Really Eat When They're Hungry? Experts Explain

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There is no bigger question mark than a toddler. They're hitting you one minute, and hugging you the next. They go through phases of eating constantly, and then eating nothing at all. The food battles can be most concerning — no parent wants to think that their kid is going without food and you might be a little tired of hearing, "They'll eat when they're hungry." Is this even true? As your toddler enters another hunger strike, you might wonder, "Will my toddler really eat when they're hungry?"

Dr. Adam Spanier, MD, PhD, MPH, and Professor and Division Head of Pediatrics at University of Maryland's School of Medicine, confirms to Romper that, yes, most toddlers will eat when they are hungry. What happens more, he says, is that adults often overestimate the appropriate portion size for a toddler. "It is much smaller than an adult-size portion," Spanier reminds us.

Toddlers can sometimes be picky eaters, and power struggles are definitely a possibility if the issue is forced, Spanier explains. "It is very common to have food dislikes at any age. Most picky eaters tend to outgrow it because tastes change throughout our life."

Because of this, he advises parents to avoid becoming short order cooks by preparing one main dish that most people in the family like, and allow a couple options for sides. Getting your child's input can help them feel invested, and having a few options available will give them some control over the situation. Serving majorly disliked foods or trying to force-feed them will never end well, so it's better to avoid that altogether.

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Dr. Jarret Patton, pediatrician, MD, FAAP, agrees. "Kids often pick a battle over mealtimes with parents. One thing is true though, a child is unable to starve themselves," he tells Romper. Parents should not give into picky eating habits of their child or toddler — the prepared family meal is what they should eat.

If they don't want to eat it at the given time, Patton suggests, have them still sit with the family, but save it for them for later. When they ask for something to eat, present the same meal; they will eventually learn that they don't have endless choices.

The best way to tackle the problem is to allow the child to feel as if they still are in control and making choices, adds Dr. Elizabeth Marks, MD, pediatrician at Albany Medical Center Hospital in New York. "Have the choices that they are choosing from be healthy ones, including some new options at every meal, and keep offering foods more than once, even if they refuse them the first time," she tells Romper.

Toddlers won’t starve, confirms Marks, and knowing that, parents should not make mealtimes a battle or a negotiation. "Start with small portions of what you’d like your toddler to try, and encourage them to just try one bite, but don’t negotiate," she continues.

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Set a good example by eating healthy foods yourself, and having everyone sit together for a family meal, too. If your spirited toddler flat out refuses to eat, try not to worry. Kids should be allowed to respond to their own hunger cues, Marks notes, and parents should try to avoid the urge to make them something else, or give them a snack or a cup of milk to “tide them over.”

Even if your toddler does not want to eat, Spanier mentions, it is still important to have regularly scheduled family meals and specific snack times. Children can become "grazers" if there is too much flexibility in the meal schedule. You do not want your toddler to live off snack food. If they are moving in that direction, add variety to the snacks and keep them healthy — cheese sticks, veggie sticks with hummus, yogurt, and fruit.

More than likely, your toddler is just pushing boundaries with you. And as frustrating and worrisome as it might be to have them not eat, more than likely, they will. Definitely contact your doctor if your child is losing weight, if they gag or vomit with certain foods, if they seem like they have heartburn, or if you have other questions or concerns. But trust the experts — they really will eat when they're hungry.

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