Toddlers…there’s no denying that it can be a challenge to figure out how to handle some aspects of family dinner with a 2 or 3-year-old. And I think all moms can relate to the frustration that comes when their toddler won’t eat dinner.
I’ve been there with you. I’ve spent the better part of the last year finding my way leading family dinners as a mom of a toddler. As I Dietitian, I know there is no denying the importance of family dinner. Kids who grow up eating dinner with their family not only seem to eat better nutritionally, but family meals are also shown to be related to psychological and academic success in adolescents. It’s important to me that I make mealtimes pleasant (as much as I can) for my kids. I want to enjoy them and I want them to enjoy them.
From talking to other moms and watching my own toddler, I’ve realized a lot of dinner time drama relates to kids not eating what they are served. In order to improve dinner, you need to assess what is going on with your child – why they won’t eat dinner and then consider my 9 strategies for creating a plan before it happens again.
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Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner
There could be several reasons your toddler won’t eat dinner. Figuring out all the possibilities will help you perfect your dinner time strategy on any given night. Here are a few of the most likely situations that could be contributing to your toddler’s refusal of dinner.
1. Your toddler is tired.
This was a big one when my son first started eating as a baby through the time he was 1 year old. On many nights, right around dinner time, he would be fussy, exhausted, and barely touch his food. In fact, I still notice on days when he takes a poor nap or didn’t sleep enough, everything falls apart at dinner.
2. Your child is simply not hungry.
There are several reasons your toddler may not be hungry for dinner.
Consider if their afternoon snack is too filling or possibly even too close to dinner time. You may need to cut back the afternoon snack or space it out longer from dinner.
And remember, if it seems like your busy toddler eats less than they did as an active baby, it’s likely true! Because of the rapid rate babies grow, your child actually needed more calories as a baby than she does as a toddler. Dinner is at the end of the day and it could be they have simply met their needs from breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
3. Your toddler is testing their power.
Toddlers are trying to figure out the world around them. Often this means testing boundaries with us and our daily habits. It could be dinner time has become a tense meal with your family and your toddler feels it! Perhaps, they are simply testing their boundaries with different foods. If you feel this may be the cause of dinner drama and meal refusal, you should focus on implementing the Division of Responsibility first, which I discuss below.
What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner
1. Implement the Division of Responsibility
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility can help take the pressure and tension off dinner making it less about a power struggle and more an enjoyable family mealtime. It may be helpful to read more about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding online or pick up one of Ellyn Satter’s books such as Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family.
The basics of the Division of Responsibility are,
At dinner, parents are responsible for:
- choosing what foods are offered.
- deciding when meals and snacks are served.
- choosing where the child eats.
Your toddler is responsible for:
- deciding whether they want to eat.
- choosing how much to eat of the foods provided.
Remembering what you are responsible for as the parent will help take the pressure off. Satter also highlights the importance of making mealtimes pleasant and having an understanding of your child’s lack of experience of food without catering to their likes or dislikes.
2. Change up their afternoon snack.
If you suspect your toddler won’t eat dinner because they are not hungry, evaluate what their afternoon looks like. When is their afternoon snack? What are you serving for the afternoon snack? Do they graze on food in the afternoon?
- When the afternoon snack is too close to dinner. -Typically, there should be about 2-3 hours between meals and snacks. Therefore if you serve dinner at 5 and are serving afternoon snack at 3:30, perhaps your toddler isn’t hungry because her snack is too close to dinner time. Try moving up the snack or move dinner back if you suspect this is the case.
- The afternoon snack is too large. – I find serving my son a mix of protein and carb is especially important for his mood in the afternoon and (you guessed it) even at dinner. However, if the snack becomes too large it can certainly impact dinner appetite.
- Grazing on snacks in the afternoon. – If your child is snacking all afternoon it can cause them to not feel hungry before dinner. If they need something to hold them over before dinner is served, you could allow them to snack on veggies in order to maintain their dinner appetite.
3. Serve dinner earlier if possible.
An earlier dinner can work better for many toddlers as they may not be as tired and able to participate. For example, if your family typically eats at 6 and your toddler goes to bed at 7, try moving dinner to 5 or even 5:30 and see if it makes a difference.
An over-tired toddler can have a harder time focusing, more tears, and basically be too tired to feel hungry or eat.
4. Try serving dinner family style.
If you typically serve everyone by dipping for them – try serving family style dinner at the table. Place all the dinner items on the table for everyone to serve themselves. Let kids (yes, even toddlers) dip their own plates. You can help with more challenging items as needed, of course, but giving your toddler this rein of control may help them feel more adventurous to try some new foods along the way. If you have a small table, you can allow your toddler to serve themselves from a buffet style dinner as well.
5. Always offer at least 1-2 foods they know and are comfortable with.
Offering 1-2 “safe foods” you know your toddler often chooses can help them feel more comfortable and relaxed. They will likely choose to start eating the well-known food before moving on to the new or less accepted foods.
I find that it helps my son to stay calm and excited for a meal if there is a food he recognizes and loves. He almost always starts eating the safe food first, but often moves to on to trying other foods on his plate as we continue with dinner.
6. Change the way the meal or food is served or make dinner fun!
Make it pleasant by lightening pressure. While it is your child’s job to decide IF and HOW MUCH they choose to eat, it’s YOUR JOB to create boundaries that help make mealtime a pleasant experience. This doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, it comes down to the DOR (Division of Responsibility) in Eating – see #1 above. You will likely find that mealtimes feel more comfortable once you and your child both know your roles and expectations.
Make dinner more fun. However, even once expectations are in place dinner can start to feel mundane from time to time. Decide what you can do to make it feel fun or lighten the mood a bit. You could try a picnic (outside or inside), have a food theme, listen to music, use dinner conversation starters, or pretend you are at a restaurant by printing menus and having the kids serve you.
Make the food more appealing. This can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. Change up how you serve it, for example, try serving veggies, fruit, meat, or even peanut butter and jelly on a charcuterie board. Add hummus or yogurt alongside veggies for a fun dip. Turn produce, cheese, even meat into kabobs. Even giving food fun names can add to the appeal for toddlers.
Decrease the amount you serve. If you dip the plates or help your child serve themselves, try decreasing the amount you put on their plate. Toddlers can feel overwhelmed by large portions of food and in fact, don’t need much anyway. Start small and allow seconds if needed.
7. Invite your toddler in the kitchen to help cook dinner.
If your toddler’s food refusal seems to be about food preferences, this may be your best bet. Inviting your toddler to help prepare dinner creates a fun and low-pressure atmosphere and can help kids of any age feel more comfortable with new or less preferred foods. In fact, it’s the one time I find my son munching away on broccoli, a food he’s still learning. A learning tower has helped me safely involve my son on a daily basis by giving him a safe place to land.
8. Should I let my toddler go to bed hungry?
Letting your toddler go to bed hungry can impact their sleep. However, this DOES NOT mean you should cater to your toddler’s dinner requests. This problem can typically be kept at bay when your kids are aware of both dinner expectations and your snacks after dinner protocol.
You know your child and can probably tell if they are truly hungry or just delaying bedtime. Step back when the question comes up and assess the situation before you offer a solution. When I think my toddler may truly feel hungry, I will either:
1) Save my toddler’s plate and offer it again if we had an early dinner. It could be he truly wasn’t hungry at dinner time, but is now. I love this option because it keeps him from avoiding dinner in hopes of a more fun bedtime snack.
2) Offer a boring bedtime snack. Perhaps your toddler DID eat some of his dinner or you know that your toddler just really truly doesn’t prefer what was offered. (Again, I would consider this more of the exception.) In this case, I offer a boring but well-liked bedtime snack of my choosing. In fact, some toddlers really do need a bedtime snack even when they eat their dinner due to high energy needs or if there is approximately 2 hours or more after dinner.
9. Is it okay if my toddler skips a meal?
It is normal behavior for toddlers to skip a meal from time to time. I guarantee every toddler has done it. However, by following the strategies above you can hopefully minimize it and ensure when it does happen it’s simply because your child is not hungry (and listening to their internal cues), tired, or some other normal 2-3-year-old behavior. Remember, it’s your job to decide WHAT is offered and WHEN. It’s your toddler’s job to decide IF and HOW MUCH.
Troubleshooting: Help, my toddler still won’t eat dinner!
First, assess if there are clear boundaries at dinner. If you have set boundaries and follow the Division of Responsibility, perhaps you need assess what is happening with snacks and if dinner time needs to be adjusted. If your toddler continues to skip dinner, perhaps try a boring (but well liked) bedtime snack. Remember, toddlers go through phases and next week could look completely different.
There is no arguing that toddlers love snacks. Snacks can quickly become glorified in their minds especially if they involve “snack foods” like cheerios and snack bars. In order to neutralize snacks and dinner, try serving leftovers or meal-type foods at snacks and occasionally serve a snack style food (if you use them) at a meal.
For example, when we have eggs with breakfast my son typically does not eat all of them. I will save them back in the refrigerator and bring them back alongside a different food not previously served (like a vegetable) at snack time. And every once in a while I try to include a food like Larabars or cheerios with a meal to keep meals fun and remove any labels from these foods.
If your toddler is losing weight and not eating, you should follow up with your Pediatrician or personal Dietitian to help come up with a plan and assess reasons why they are not eating.
Even though veggies are healthy and you want your toddler to eat and enjoy them, try not to worry. Continue to serve your toddler the same things the rest of the family gets, even if they aren’t eating it. Simply serve the food in small portions on their plate, and remember: it’s their choice whether or not they eat it. Who knows? They may eventually decide to try it and even come to enjoy it.
That’s ok! Even though most toddlers seem to enjoy these types of foods they don’t need them. As long as they eat a variety of other foods such as healthy carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, potatoes, fruits, or whole grains) it’s nothing to worry about.
Some days it can feel like your 2 year old won’t eat anything when in fact there are many foods they do eat. Aim to serve a variety of foods throughout the week so that they continue to have exposure to different tastes and textures. If you really feel like they aren’t eating enough, contact your Pediatrician or personal Registered Dietitian for a personalized plan.