The Hungry Toddler: Tales of the Insatiable Appetite

hungry-toddler-585My daughter, now 32 months, has always had an insatiable appetite. When she was an infant, she nursed around the clock, and she had Michelin-Man rolls up and down her arms. She was always in the 95+ percentile for weight. After that first week in the NICU, I certainly never had to worry about her gaining and growing.

But when her appetite didn’t slow when she hit 18 months, I started to grow concerned. She was perpetually hungry, president of the Clean Plate Club. When I’d feed her a meal, she always asked for more—even when she’d had a portion that would have had an adult feeling full. She finished everything every single time, and I started to worry she didn’t have an off switch. She’d even swipe food from her friends at snack time and had a hard time understanding why they’d walk away from an unfinished snack.

Each time we were at the doctor, I’d ask if I should be concerned. I wasn’t worried about her weight (babies on diets are bananas); I was more concerned that she wasn’t registering fullness. But because she always stayed in her “weight class” and her percentile range, the doctor wasn’t worried. She told me that I just had to cut her off when I felt she’d truly had enough, so that’s what I did. When the food obsession continued, the doctor added a thyroid test to the standard blood work at her 2-year well baby visit. It came back normal, so again, the doctor wasn’t concerned.

I always went by the rule that the parent decides what, when and where we eat, and the child decides whether and how much. But she’d never say she was full; at each meal, she’d ask for more. And keep asking until I’d finally cut her off. And people would say, “But she’s eating carrots! She’s eating healthy things!” And I’d be like, “You do not understand. She would eat for hours if I let her.” People would say that perhaps it was a growth spurt. Again, you don’t spurt every single day for two years straight. So it continued…and continued to stress me out.

In doing some research on the insatiable toddler, I came across an article responding to a parent’s question about a kid obsessed with food. The response was that when a child feels like they might not get enough food, it creates the mindset of scarcity, and can turn into a bit of an obsession with food. At times, I was pretty convinced it was simply a toddler power struggle, but this obsession part sounded like us, so I decided to follow the article’s advice. If she was still hungry, I’d offer more food. So after she finished her meal one night, she was still hungry. So I gave her more carrots. And more carrots. And more carrots. And she kept saying she wanted more. I was pretty sure she was going to turn orange. But I kept at it. I was going to let her control when she was done if it killed me. So we sat at the dinner table for AN HOUR while she ate carrots.

The next day, we did the experiment again. This time, Carrot Time was significantly shorter. After a couple of days, it seemed like she learned that if she was truly hungry, we would always be there to offer her more food. She still cleaned her plate each and every meal. She never pushed food away, but there didn’t seem to be quite the power struggle we had before. And most times, one or two carrots (or a couple of extra bites) was all she ever wanted at the end of a meal.

Then we all got sick. And little Miss Eat Everything lost her appetite for an entire week. And whether it was the fact that she simply realized she didn’t have to eat or whether she just outgrew the phase at that moment, she is a completely different kiddo now when it comes to food. She’s consistently leaving food on her plate. She seems to obsess less. She seems to be registering fullness. And she’s certainly pickier about what she eats.

I honestly thought the day would never come. I’m glad she’s figured out how to listen to her hunger simply because I know now that she does have an off switch. Now, of course, it’s slightly maddening when she refuses the carrots she once ate until she was orange in the face or when she acts like her broccoli has offended her. She’d still sit at the dinner table for hours if we’d let her, but now if she’s just picking at her food, I’ll leave the room, and she always decide to move onto something more interesting.

It just goes to show you that the job of kids is to keep you on your toes. That the idea you always hear about of the “picky eater” may not be at all the hand you’re actually dealt. That they can change their minds with the tides. That you really know nothing and that they are in charge. That they’re becoming little people who want to make their own decisions.

Do you have a toddler with an insatiable appetite? Has it driven you to the brink of madness? —Erin 

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  1. Ivori Rose says:

    I did not experience a toddler with an insatiable appetite, but this does remind me of how all 6 of us when through a phase where we would eat butter. Our Mom never understood why all 6 of her kids would just eat butter at the toddler age. I was thoroughly grossed out when I walked into the kitchen to see my baby sister sitting on the kitchen floor, fridge open, scoping butter from the tub into her mouth =D Mom just laughed and said, “You did the same thing at that age Ivori.”
    This crazy butter eating frenzy only lasted two days for each of us…so weird !

  2. Erin says:

    Ivori – That is bizarre, and hilarious! Proves my point–kids are WEIRD! 🙂


  3. Jenn says:

    Erin, I am SO happy to find this post, thank you so much for sharing your story! I’ve had this exact same experience with my son. He has had an insatiable appetite since birth. He’s not overweight but I think it’s only because I limit his intake. I think he would sit there eating all day if I let him! The most frustrating thing for me is like you said, when well-meaning friends say, “It must be a growth spurt.” If that’s the case he should be a 6-foot 3-year-old!

    I am definitely going to try the method you used for a couple of days. I’m really hoping I have the same results as you do. This is driving me crazy!

    Did your daughter cry a lot while waiting for her food? For example, my son will beg me for his breakfast while I’m making him eggs. He’ll constantly ask if it’s ready yet and cries when I tell him it will be a few minutes. It’s as if he thinks I’m not going to give it to him – and I’ve never not given him breakfast!!

  4. Erin says:

    Jenn: How old is your son? My daughter is now 3 and some change, and she’s still what I’d call a hearty eater. But she has definitely grown pickier, will leave food untouched, and doesn’t always finish everything. She’s still way more into food than my son though, and some days it seems like I’m her personal chef! But yes, she is very impatient when hungry….I think that’s a very normal kid thing although it makes cooking very difficult when someone is screaming at you. Ha! Good luck; email me if you have any other questions or want to chat!

  5. Dahliana says:

    I am experiencing a similar situation with my 15month old. She just will not stop begging for food, even after eating a mountain for her main meal. I am particularly annoyed when people say to me “well at least she eats”, but she also does not stop eating and begging and to keep the supply coming can be tricky when out and about! (we live in China where finding things out and about can be challenging too if we run out!)

    My daughter has never been fat but is head and shoulders above her peers so I do hope it is about growing, although the idea that she may be worried the supply will stop, for whatever reason, may be a factor to address too. Shame she will not chew carrots, perhaps will try with apples as they have a chemical which decreases your appetite, apparently.

    To give me a break while cooking I always offer fruit first, which is better for digestion it turns out.

  6. Vero says:

    Hello so good to know Iam not alone. My 30 month old girl have the same problem since she was 18 moth old. She cleans her plate every time, she begs for food all day long, eating out with her is a nightmare, she screams while we cook, she steals food from her classmates at daycare. I check with my pediatrician she told me not to worry, went to therapist (day care suggested) She told me it’s her way to respond to anxiety (I am a doctor and my work includes long and night shifts), went to a nutritionist, but nothing seams to help. In the search for answers I found the book “how to raise a mindful eater author Maryann Jacobsen” which helped a lot and I recommend to you! My girl is better she’s still a heavy eater but her attitude toward food have change! I hope the book could help you too. If you have figure out new ways that could help please let me know.
    Sorry for my English Is not my first language
    Bye Vero

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