Pediatricians tell us that toddlers need fewer calories, so not to worry. But there's another more developmental reason that toddlers often don't eat. The "simple" cycle of HUNGER -----> EATING -----> FEELING BETTER isn't really so simple for your toddler. It involves conscious awareness of a physical cue (hunger), understanding that FOOD is the solution to HUNGER, and then expressing that need to us. Not only do toddlers have better things to do than to sit and be restrained in a highchair (things like walking, running, climbing and screaming about bathtime), but they have a hard time "tuning in" to that feeling of hunger to begin with. We can all relate to that, right? Getting so consumed in an absorbing activity that we forget to eat. That's the daily experience of your toddler.
Understanding this dynamic makes it easier to handle. Try this:
Think ahead about when your toddler's likely to get hungry, and offer something she usually likes to entice her to the highchair. (Thin, crunchy breadsticks are the snack of choice at our house these days.) Then offer her a prepared meal -- don't expect her to sit and wait while you make it. If she resists, that's OK. Take her down and send her on her way. Try again at the next regular snack or mealtime.
Drinking milk is your toddler's default -- it's a lot easier to drink milk (think how easy a nice milkshake goes down), and it's reminiscent of the good ol' baby days, when parents took care of everything. In other words, it's regressive -- and comforting. And sometimes, toddlers get so crazy-hungry that they're beyond food -- it just doesn't satisfy the way milk would. As long as your toddler's experimenting with food and getting a little variety during the course of the week, regressing to milk in the service of preventing a hunger meltdown sometimes is OK. (But check out her menu with her pediatrician if you're unsure.)
Don't panic about rejected food. You can't force a toddler eat, poop, or sleep. Putting extra pressure on the situation only makes it worse. Take a deep breath and be glad you're not contributing to a future food neurosis.
Rest assured that as your toddler gets a bit older, this dynamic will naturally improve -- young toddlers have more trouble with food than older, "more experienced" toddlers do. And as she gets to preschool age (3 or so), she'll be more interested in playing social games involving food (think "Tea Party"), AND she'll have a lot more experience with food under her belt. Once again, the miracle of development will help us get through this maddening stage.
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink