How Do I Get My 3 Yr Old to Eat Food???

Updated on October 25, 2016
K.W. asks from Thibodaux, LA
19 answers

My 3yr old only drinks milk, eat gerber yogurt and a handful of things but nothing like a meal. She will occasionally eat popcorn,graham crackers, McDonald's fries and of all things funyons. I cry at night because she doesn't and won't eat. Now she has started a preschool and she stays sick with a cough and runny nose. She even had croup a few weeks ago. Can anyone help me out????

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So What Happened?

Thanks for the answers so far. But before some of you start bashing me and thinking I'm only feeding my kid junk this is not the case. Note i did say occaionally. Everyday my daughter gets offered a variety of foods i use the ice tray method. I have been dealing with this since we began introducing table foods to her as a baby. We have been to our pediatrician many times she has had speech therapy so i have tried all the tricks. Its just stressful for me to watch my child just not eat. I have tried all the tricks.....

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answers from Los Angeles on

My picky eaters loved to go to the buffet and choose what they would like to eat. They just about always tried something new each time we went.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I'd cut back on the dairy - which can fill a kid up. One of mine was like this. Only liked very bland foods. When they wake from naps or before dinner when they are getting hungry is a good time to offer things. PB was a big one for us - instead of crackers, I'd give him little bits of whole wheat bread with PB on it. Hard boiled eggs. Pancakes. Cheese grilled sandwiches. Still fun snack foods, but healthier options. His lunches and dinners sometimes looked more like brunch or snacks (I didn't mind doing pancakes and eggs for dinner), but pastas came next. If she likes cheese, do a simple mac and cheese.
But ultimately, if you're giving her the snacks - she'll eat the snacks. Mine ate bananas and grapes, and apples, so I'd start off with a few slices of apple before she's allowed to have the ..
I had a kid who drank so much milk, we called him the milk dud. He also was a little heavy as a toddler. So I cut back on the milk, and immediately he started eating better.

3 moms found this helpful

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answers from Washington DC on

please stop crying. you're the adult here, and your child is only 3. crying and being dramatic is not helpful and is creating an atmosphere of tension.
milk and yogurt aren't the end of the world. if that's what she's eating, it's clearly keeping her alive.
she is not going to die of starvation.
she might, however, develop eating problems if you a) keep crying over it and b) offer her junk food to try and tempt her beyond her basics. mcdonald's fries, funyons and graham crackers are far, far worse alternatives than milk and yogurt.
stop turning it into a weepy battle. offer her smoothies and mashed potatoes and soft broccoli with a little cheese on top and chicken soup. if she declines it, let her. if the only thing she'll eat is a glass of milk or french fries, she gets the milk. boom.
keep offering, and keep calm when she declines. when she deigns to try something, give her (LOW KEY!) praise and don't push it. encourage her to be adventurous but don't turn into the Food Police.
if you stop turning this into a battle, she'll stop fighting you.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Stop feeding her crappy things. Graham crackers are full of sugar. No one has to tell you that fries are no something to eat regularly. She's 3 and starting to voice her opinion. That doesn't mean you have to listen to her opinions.

Step back and look at what you are putting in her little body. She needs certain things to help her body and mind grow correctly. Think french fries are something that's going to make her big and strong?

Cut back to 1 or 2 glasses of milk and replace her liquids with plain water. No juice which is just sugar. Peanut butter toast for breakfast with a handful of grapes. Lunch stick with a sandwich and a serving of veggies. She may or may not eat but trust me she'll start at some point. No one is going to starve when food is around. By dinner she should be pretty hungry. Give her a portion of whatever you cooked for yourself along with a serving of fruit or veggies.

My son was a super picky eater but his choices were limited to what everyone else in the house was eating. I didn't panic when he didn't eat a meal. He was always on the small side and we wanted him to eat more but as long as he was eating good quality food it was ok.

Google serving sizes for 3 yr olds and plan your meals around it. They usually love finger type food. The internet should give you some great suggestions of things to try. Just stick with it and sooner or later she'll figure it out.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Santa Fe on

Added: I agree with those that say to try having your son meet with an Occupational Therapist. I wish I had done this when my son was young. He had many sensory processing type issues and textures, tastes and just how food looked really bothered him. He would seem afraid actually. I focused on making meal times positive and stress free. I just told him as he grows his taste buds will change and he may like it later and thank you for giving it a try. Good luck. Original: My son was really picky and he also liked to fill up on milk. He's almost 13 and he's still a little picky. He still really loves milk and always wants a glass at dinner. It's really hard when they are little and won't eat....I used to stress about it too. You have to not have junk in the house and just not offer it. Of course a little one will want that because it tastes so good! Make really basic healthy meals such as roast a chicken and serve it with rice and green beans. (or whatever you like) Just give her a teeny bit of each food on her plate. Talk about how yummy the food is while you enjoy it. Do this every meal. Don't beg her to eat or try to bribe her or really pay her much attention when she is being picky. My good friend also had a picky eater and she was so tired of it at age 3 she stopped giving an afternoon snack. They would eat an early dinner (5ish) and her daughter had to wait from lunch till dinner to get food. She started eating much better. I agree that having your child help you stir/prepare dinner is a good thing to do. Starting preschool and getting sick all the time is normal...this happens to most kids because the germs spread in a school.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

There are pediatric feeding programs and therapists out there. My daughter has been through a program twice, once at age 2 for a learned aversion to food (due to medical problems) and once as a very young teen, for sensory issues.

A trained group of therapists will speak with you to determine what meal times are like, what you've tried, what your daughter's eating habits are like. In a fun and playful (but highly structured) program, a therapist will introduce your daughter to foods, and to helpful new ways of eating.

One thing to consider, though: you'll also get some new ways of feeding her and conducting meal times. It's not all about her. You may have to learn some things about yourself - I certainly did. Take the therapist's advice to heart.

We (the whole family) learned a lot in these sessions. We learned about introducing foods, how to act when our daughter refused foods, what her issues were regarding a fear of choking or anxiety about foods, about senses, etc.

Your pediatrician or her speech therapist will know a nutritionist or hospital program (it's outpatient) that deals with kids who find eating difficult for a variety of reasons. Don't stop looking. Keep calling until you find someone trained in pediatric feeding issues.

In the meantime, here's a few things you can try: let her choose a new little dish for herself. The ice cube tray thing sometimes works, but sometimes a plate with her favorite colors or characters is more fun or appealing. Serve just a tiny bit. Make sure meal time is calm, with no tv or screens. Encourage her to simply sit at the table even if she doesn't eat. Talk with her about fun things like what she did at school, or plans for the weekend. Show no anxiety or despair. Make the meal times very low key. If she sits at the table for a few minutes and will interact in any way (like playing I Spy, or just having a little chat), she gets a star on a chart. It's a way of making meal times and the prospect of food less stressful. It takes real determination on your part. No sighing, no prodding, no begging.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

I only have a son but something I've learned from him is that he will eat when he is hungry. Naturally, what he wanted to eat wasn't really food either and I would feel a sense of guilt for his eating behavior. What I've learned from his child care is (for lack of better word) tough love. Basically what I was explained at his school is that he doesn't get to choose what he wants to eat. He eats what's available and I will say initially it was hard but eventually he got it and now he knows. I just give him 2 options so he can feel he has some say but it's basically what I'm choosing for him to eat and other times he doesn't. Oh, and there was a lot of explanation, and no "junk" food was visible to him. Hope this helps. Good luck.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

After your SWH: knowing she is in speech therapy is essential information. At 13 my grandson is still a picky eater. There are some textures he won't eat. He's also a teen. Speech therapy and occupational therapy helped. As a 3yo he ate very little. The muscles you use for speech are also some of the muscles you use to eat. Occupational therapy helps train those muscles. It also can help with texture issues.

BTW: I don't see anyone telling you this is your fault. You asked how to get her to eat. Do you think telling you a different way to feed her, is telling you it's your fault because you've been doing something different? That is not what we mean. Telling you to lighten up, not cry is not criticism. It's telling you that your daughter's eating pattern is not so serious you have to feel so intensely about the issue. It's saying relax. Your daughter is OK. You're OK. It's meant to help you feel better about this.
Eating and pooping are the only things 2 yo have control over. Enlist her help in a relaxed calm way. Don't insist that she eat. Provide healthy foods and incorporate the foods she's eating now in small amounts on her plate. Gerber has yogurt? Serve regular yogurt.

Give her praise and a hug when she attempts to eat other food. Give her a treat, maybe a small amount of the food she likes. If she doesn't try put her plate away, give her a hug and say something like we'll get this figured out.

My 3 yo granddaughter loves to help in the kitchen. Last night she put on her apron to stir a gravy mix and to line up potato rounds in the casserole dish.

Make mealtime fun. Talk about what you're fixing. Yum! Yum! Have her help put groceries in the cart. When possible, let her choose which package, which can to pick up.

For a meal give her one thing she likes as well as what you're eating. Once she realizes you aren't going to fill her up with just her food and when she feels hungry she will eat some of what's on her plate. She will not go hungry when there is food to eat.

Know getting her to eat will take time. Never give in by giving her only the food she likes.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

ETA: It would have been SO helpful if you had put the info about the ice tray,
the pediatrician and the speech therapy in the original post! No one is bashing you - you just put so little info there that no one had any idea of what you've already done! Next time, try to be more informative and you will get much more help! I work with kids with food aversions, sensory issues and chronic illnesses all the time. There is plenty you can do to reduce so much of this. Wish I'd had enough clues to offer you more advice!

Original answer:
A 3 year old will not starve herself. She just won't. She doesn't need to eat every few hours like a baby. She needs to be offered small amounts of a variety of foods at each meal: different colors, textures, food groups.

She will not eat French fries, popcorn, Funyuns or graham crackers if you do not offer them. So take those empty calories and high salt foods off your list and out of your cabinets.

Are you letting her fill herself up on milk and yogurt? They are okay foods, but they aren't enough. You can certainly "hide" nutrition in a lot of things, but I cannot believe she has gotten to the age of 3 without a wide variety of offerings.

Resist the urge to give her what she wants just so she will eat "something" - don't give in to the crying. If she's "done," say, "Okay, you're not hungry? Fine, you can get down from the table." Then wrap up the food and put it in the fridge. If she's hungry (in 3 minutes, 30 minutes, 3 hours), put her back at the table and put out the SAME food. No arguing, no stressing, no emotion, just matter-of-fact.

Start learning to cook healthy foods that look like fun foods or are in fun shapes, just to start. Make whole grain pancakes with whole wheat flour, rolled oats, soy protein and eggs, and make a face on them with 2 blueberries for eyes, 2 bananas for ears, a strawberry for a nose, and so on. Have her watch you (the smiling, not crying, you) and others in the family build a salad from a salad bar, and put the fixings (cut into small pieces) in a small sectioned ice cube tray for her if you don't think she will mix them together. Do the same for a taco bar and a fruit bar.

We make our own chicken nuggets out of real chicken dipped in egg and then in a mix of wheat germ and bran, and we fry them up in olive oil or half olive/half canola until they are crisp on the outside, then put on a rack on a baking sheet to finish in the oven (crispy outside but not dripping in oil). We cut sweet potatoes into thin strips, toss in oil, and bake in the oven - sweet potato fries! You can put a little salt on them for flavor, but we also use other spices and herbs (dill is good).

She has to see you all enjoying meals rather than turning them into a battle. You can serve a little of her favorite foods at each meal but only if they are healthy. Restrict her milk intake - if she is still thirsty, she can have as much water as she wants.

You cannot make mealtimes a battleground, but you also cannot let your child control you to the point that you are crying at night and not being the parent here. Not fighting or stressing at the table is one thing, but giving in to her and throwing just anything on the table is a huge mistake.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

Talk with your pediatrician about this.
You offer her nutritious food (no sugar filled junk food - go easy on the fries) and she will eat when she's hungry.
Yeah she's going to be sick a lot for a few years (they ALL get sick a lot when ever they start school or daycare) but then it'll eventually settle down to a few times per year.
It just takes that long to build up an immune system.
Her stomach is about the size of her fist - it doesn't take much to fill that up.
Stop crying and talk to your pediatrician - you'll get a lot of good info.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I'm on board with the other moms that suggest an OT, specifically one that has experience with food aversion, and also keep trying to connect with professionals who have a better understanding of this. Maybe there is even a support group near by?

My daughter has some mild food issues also. We were lucky to have found a speech therapist who was also trained in this area, and she had great suggestions and helped my daughter immensely. She was also great emotional support to me :-).

I think refocusing and letting your daughter be a part of the whole grocery experience including looking at the sales ads and cutting &glueing her own list, bringing it shopping with you together, and letting her get a few things on her list.

I know this is easier said then done, but relax on this issue...try to let it go. Sometimes when you don't, your emotions fuel the aversion. It just puts too much pressure on her. In other words change the atmosphere surrounding this issue.

Second,again easier said then done, understand that this is her personality and not something 'to fix'. This is her reality that she has full control over. Be patient and meet her where she is at, not where you want her to be. This is very hard :-(. I still have my days where I have to remember to let it go, and move on.

One last thing, the speech therapist working with my daughter brought to light a lot of food eating/aversion issues in our family history, which include an eating disorder. So I try to be very mindful with my daughter in regards to eating, eating atmosphere and letting her feel she has some choices.

I also agree that this is a normal immunological response to being around more kids.

Just remember this is a marathon, not a race. Pushing her too much will lead to bigger setbacks.

Good luck!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Your additional information regarding speech therapy is very helpful. It may be that an occupational therapist could be very helpful to work with.

In the meantime, if the pediatrician isn't worried about her health or growth, I encourage you to enjoy your time with her at meal times, chatting away. This will decrease her attention to what she eats, which may be a very good thing, longterm.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Oklahoma City on

Starting school is a time when she starts growing her immune system in a big way. Her eating habits have about zero to do with whether she will get sick from being around other kids or not. She will be sick just from being there.

As for her diet. You are the adult. You can draw a battle line and make meal time horrible or you can find ways to encourage her to take a bite and try new things sometimes.

Forcing her to eat certain foods because you think they are more healthy or better for her isn't going to so smoothly.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Fort Myers on

I know she's 3 but have her help you in the kitchen. Ask her to stir the pancake batter. Cut up fruit for a fruit salad, ask her to put it in the bowl. Make smoothies or smoothie ice pops. Make granola bars or other healthy snacks. Have her stand on a stool and watch you in the kitchen. If she's involved with the process, she may want to eat it.

Kids go through phases of what they like and don't like to eat. My son went through it, only eating 5 different things. As long as your daughter is drinking, eating something and going to the bathroom, you are fine. If you are really worried, talk to her pediatrician.

The sick thing and preschool is normal. My son started preschool in August and has had a runny nose since.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

I had to stop giving one of mine milk to get him to eat meals. I could only give him milk after the meal was done - water only otherwise.

For the colds and croup - totally normal when a child starts school/childcare. You'll feel like she's constantly sick for the first year, then she'll be fine. Better to have it happen now than have her miss half of kindergarten.



answers from Dallas on

Some kids are picky, but some kids have sensory issues with food where texture can make it very difficult to eat things. It would be worth having your school district do a sensory assessment if they provide that as part of Early Intervention. She's eating soft things that dissolve and that's it, so I would look into the sensory stuff.

Perhaps involve her in picking things. Do what you can to find soft healthy things. Take the skin off fruits. Watermelon might work for her. Try sweet potatoes. Perhaps make smoothies so you can get healthy stuff into her.

Kids at daycare do get sick, and it's that time of year. Her immune system is changing/working. It's OK.


answers from Chicago on

First, multivitamins! You can get your pediatrician to recommend a brand.

Second, lots of kids have limited eating habits. I would only eat: hot dogs, milk and french cut green beans till I was about 11. A friend's child lived entirely on milk, white bread and butter for two years. It isn't desirable, but for her age, your child isn't the worst eater I've ever seen.

It sounds to me as if she likes certain textures: smooth and creamy and dry. Nothing in between. May I suggest expanding the range within those textures? Melted cheese on pasta. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Lightly breaded mild vegetables like cauliflower?



answers from New York on

I agree with the other moms--have her evaluated for food aversion. If professionals determine she's just a "picky eater", then you must make changes. Do not offer/buy anything but very healthy options. What are your meal time rituals? Do you eat as a family at the dining table or does everyone eat on their own in front of the TV? Do you have a set dinner time? We also have a rule--no snacks after 4:30. You didn't say how your daughter's growth is. Is she a healthy weight or failure to thrive?

Preschool sickness is common. They're exposed to so many germs and stuff. But,immunity and diet could be connected as well.

Hang in there!!



answers from Los Angeles on

Your 3 year old may possibly have some sort of texture and/or an oral motor issue. Request an OT evaluation and you may be able to get feeding therapy for your daughter. My 21 month old has been in feeding therapy for the past 6 months and it's been helpful in learning why he will only eat certain foods and avoid others.

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