Feeding an 18 month – 4 year old

You know your baby is transitioning into a full blown toddler when all of a sudden they start refusing foods, and skip meals all together. Gone are the days of easy meal times. Now, you’re dealing with an extra emotional, extra stubborn, and fiercely independent mini adult. This stage is what most parents like to refer to as…. “the picky eater stage.”

If this stage has left you wondering, “where did my good little eater go?” be sure to check out this post for a full explanation. For most parents this age, 18 month -4 years, can be the most challenging feeding phase yet! But, don’t get yourself too worked up just yet. I’m going to walk you through a few of the most common issues you’ll likely face and offer solutions on how to deal with them best.

If you’re not quite yet as this stage, check out my post Feeding an 8-18 month old. 

Common issues you'll be facing

All or nothing eating

Does your little one eat an insane amount of food one day, then barely eat the next day? At this stage, having an inconsistent food intake is totally normal.

Kids are incredible at regulating how much food they actually need to eat. Some meals that may be just a few bites. Other times, they can ask for second or third portions. 

Although it’s incredibly frustrating and so, so hard to predict on how much they’ll actually eat, here are a few quick tips to better manage the all or nothing eating issue.

3 Quick Tips:

#1. Start with less. I mean WAY less!

Small portion sizes are the way to go. They not only save your sanity, they reduce food waste, and can take away any pressure on your little one to eat when they aren’t hungry.

How small is small enough?

Whatever you usually offer right now, cut that in half. If you find you’re still wasting a lot, cut that amount in half again.
You can always offer more if that meal or snack turns out to be a time when they are extra hungry.

#2. Double down on their best meal

Most kids have at least one meal each day they eat consistently well. Usually, that’s breakfast, but not always.

Make the most of this meal by:

Offering a good variety of foods at the meal and over the course of the week. Changing things up helps prevent the dreaded food jag.

Another great option is to bulk up the best meal with foods that can help your child stay full longer. I like to call these food components the “fullness factors.”

Fullness factor foods are high in either one or all of the following: fiber, protein, and/or fat.

An easy example of bulking up a meal with fullness factors would be:

  • Cereal and milk, with a side of fruit.
  • Muffin, cheese, and yogurt with flax or chia seed mixed in.
  • Eggs, bacon, and toast.
  • Oatmeal with a side of fruit and milk.

#3. Trust your child's appetite

6 reasons why trusting your child's appetite is hard

I know, I know. This is literally the hardest thing to do. Trusting that a few measely crackers are enough to fuel them for an afternoon until the next meal. But remember, kids are very intuitive eaters, and if you haven’t intervened too much at meal times, they should be able to eat exactly as much as their body needs in that moment.

Want to learn more about raising an intuitive eater? Grab my free guide here!

Two of the most common things I see when parents don’t entirely trust their child’s appetite are:

  1. Asking their child to eat more than they want to.

  2. Telling them to eat less than they want to.

When you ask them to eat more than they want to

If you grew up in a house with a “clean your plate” policy, or any other rules about food, you may have unwittingly tried many different tactics to encourage your little one to eat more too.

With no bad intention in your body, you’ve required your child to “eat one bite of everything” before they can leave the table. Or you may have even told them to eat their vegetables, or chicken before they can have dessert.

All seemingly harmless tactics to help your child have a more rounded diet, right?

The problem with bite rules

While asking a child just to take a bite of one food may not seem like the end of the world, and it’s not, it can be a slippery slope.


Two parts. Firstly, you’re asking your child to seek external cues to drive their eating, such as a clean plate or your approval. And second, depending on your child’s personality these kinds of pressure tactics usually result in kids acting in one of two ways: 

  1. The people pleaser
    This type of child is often the “dream kid” because when you say take a bite, they take a bite.

  2. The pusher backer
    This type of child is often referred to as stubborn because when you ask them to take a bite, they refuse. The more you ask them to eat, or push for certain foods, the less they often eat. 

When left to their own devices, kids in either category can and will eat to satisfy their hunger. On any given day this may be more or less food than you expected, which is completely natural.

When you tell them to eat less than they want to

Seeing your teeny tiny kiddo down more perogies than you, can be a scary sight for some parents. Fears of childhood obesity, or potentially your own battle with weight, instinctually leave you instructing your child that they’ve had enough perogies but can eat more veggies.

Sound familiar?

You may be trying to do right by your child, or prevent the hurt you felt growing up but I promise you this isn’t the way you want to go about it.

The problem with limiting food

Whether it’s specific foods, like sweets and treats, or just wanting your child to eat more veggies and less carbs, dictating or using other tactics to determine how much food and which food they should be eating isn’t your job.

Not too sure what your role at meal times is? Find out here.

Tell tale signs your child feels  they aren’t getting enough food include, but not limited to:

  • They can’t seem to control themselves around sweets or treats. Instead of eating 2 cookies, they’ll eat 5 or 10 for example.

  • Sneaking food after meal times. Finding wrappers, or plates in your young child’s room is a clear sign things need to be changed.

  • They may be constantly asking for food or snacks all day long, which just makes you worry more and more about their “out of control” appetite.

The cycle of restrict then binge is a vicious one; one that should be avoided at all costs with your kids. If you’re seeing some of these signs in your child and you’re not sure how to fix it on your own without causing more issues, click here to book a free consult call.

What to do when you're worried about how much your child is eating

When they take WAY too long to eat

Whether you have a chatter box on your hands, a scientist needing to touch and probe every food before they eat it, or the child who pushes food around on their plate for 20 minutes before they decide to take a bite meal, many things can be done to shorten up meal times.

How long is too long?

Now, we all have different ideas of exactly what constitutes a long meal time, but generally speaking here’s a guideline:

  • Snacks should require your child to take no longer than 10-15 minutes to eat, or to be sitting at the table.

  • Meals time limits should stay roughly between 20 -30 minutes max.

Are you shocked? Encouraged? Needing to completely re-think how on earth you can cut time at meals? We’ll get to that next.

Tips to shorten meal times

The first, and often easiest fix when meals are taking an eternity to finish, is to check your environment for distractions.

Toys, music, TV, tablets, to name a few, can draw your child’s attention away from eating extending meal times. 

Ditch the distractions by:

  • Turning off the TV, tablet, your phone (or put on silent mode) at meal times.

  • Put away toys before meal times.

  • Sit with your child while they eat.

Once you have the controllable distractions dealt with, next it’s time to work on the actual time spent at the table.

Depending on how much time you are spending already, shortening up meal times can either be a quick fix or a lengthy process.

To start you can:

  • Reduce each meal by 5 minutes at a time.

  • Offer visual and/or verbal reminders of how much time is left to eat.

  • Once the time is up, be sure to remind your child when the next meal or snack is and close the kitchen.

Remember the point to this isn’t to get your child to eat less, but to help them focus at meal times to eat until they feel satisfied. 

Putting it all together

Feeding little kids is tough! Don’t fool yourself into believing you’re just over-dramatizing how mentally exhausting it is to feed your family. You’re not!!

I’ve left you with a ton of ideas, tips, and tactics to help you navigate some of the common eating issues you may encounter when your child is 18 months – 4 years old. Of course this list is not inclusive of all the issues, that would be far too overwhelming.. and ridiculously long!!

If you want to learn how to avoid the meal time battles, skip the chaos, and raise a happy healthy intuitive eater be sure to follow BBN facebook page, and sign up for our monthly newletter, Food Talk with Lacey.

That’s all for now 🙂

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