I'm sure this has happened in your house: You make a dinner that includes foods that you know your little one likes. You get everyone to the table and bring out the food. Your toddler won't eat, throws a fit, or fusses. No matter how hard you try, this is the occasional reality of feeding toddlers. The good news is that it's normal. The bad news? It's your job to help your little one handle their angst.
I recently shared a few photos of on Instagram of a dinner that I knew my daughter liked and had happily eaten in the past, but which she totally didn't eat that particular night. Based on the response and the questions that came in, I thought I'd share some tips on what you might do if (and when!) your toddler decides they aren't interested in a meal.
I'd like to pause here to want to say that how you handle mealtimes in your house has a lot to do with your family's schedule, what parts of mealtime matter most to you (the actual food, the sitting together, the being home from work) and how you approach feeding your kids. What I say here is not to say that what you are doing is wrong, it's just to give you some new ideas that might help in the cases where what you are doing isn't working so well.
Here are some scenarios that you might encounter at the table with your toddler—and what you might want to do when you do.
1. Your toddler decides they don't like something before they taste it.
This likely won't happen with a 1 year old, but it will almost certainly happen at times with a 2 or 3 year old. When this happens in our house, I gently remind that she can't know that she doesn't like something if she doesn't taste it and I encourage—but I do not force—her to try a bite. Often, being unhappy with what is being served really means that the toddler isn't yet hungry enough to eat dinner, so you might let them go play or read for 15 minutes and try again. Or, let them know that they can sit at the table until everyone else is done and when they are hungry later, they can come back to their food.
It's entirely possible that once they have it in their head that they don't want something, they won't eat it. Whenever this has happened in our house, it's turned out that L really wasn't hungry and she nibbled a bit and drank her milk before saying she was done. Sometimes not wanting dinner is a power play, sure, but sometimes it's a way to express that they simply don't want to eat, but they haven't quite figured out how to say they aren't hungry. If this happens regularly, consider lightening up the afternoon snack or pushing dinner back a bit.
2. A child pleads for a specific food, but it's not what you had planned (or made) for dinner.
We have a pretty set meal plan each week so L isn't used to requesting dinner on the spot and having that granted, but I am sure that this is an issue in many houses. (And it sometimes happens at breakfast in our house.) The easiest way to handle this is to explain that we're having such and such tonight, but that you will make their requested food soon. Then follow through so they know they can trust you! Make sure there is something on the table that the child likes, even if it's fruit, and involve them in doing something to help get ready for the meal to distract them—helping to set the table, carrying their sippy cup to the table, or washing their hands. (Hand washing seems to be an excellent toddler-diversion tactic!)
3. They are too preoccupied playing at the table to eat their food.
I recently had lunch with a friend and her 18 month old. We sat down to a delicious lunch and it was immediately clear—by the way that H tried to put his mini muffin onto his finger and swing it all around—that he was just playing. We put him down to play (and explained that we were still eating) because it turns out he'd had a bottle of milk before an unexpectedly short nap. All of this is to say that if your child is playing with their food rather than eating it at the start of the meal, chances are they aren't hungry enough for said meal. Take a break and try again in 30 minutes.
4. They don't eat well at dinner, but always request a snack before bedtime.
L sometimes gets into the habit of requesting a pre-bed snack (and it's always, always Cheerios and raisins), but I've tried to nip that since if I know that she's counting on that, she won't eat dinner. Instead, we limit the amount of time between dinnertime and bedtime—we basically go right from dinner into the bath/bedtime routine—so that there isn't time for her to get hungry in between.
Now, if your child stays up later than 7 or there is 2 or more hours between dinner and bedtime, they very well might be hungry before bed. You could either push dinner back a bit or institute a regular bedtime snack. This is a tactic I read about in this book and it makes sense. If there is always a healthy bedtime snack, you won't have to renegotiate it every night. And you also won't have to worry about sending your child to bed hungry if you are prone to that particular worry. I'd just caution against making the snack something they LOVE because older kids will recognize that they have a dinner time safety net and might not eat the main meal.
5. They legitimately seem to not like the food.
There are times when I make a new recipe (or honestly, anything in casserole form) when L simply doesn't like the meal. And whether it's the texture or flavor, I am never certain, but in the rare instances that this happens, I let her have plain yogurt and granola. That's become our backup meal and it's something that she likes well enough, but would never ask for on her own. It eliminates any short order cooking, it ensures that she has something nourishing to eat, and it reduces drama around getting her to eat something she doesn't want to so we can enjoy our time at the table. This doesn't usually happen more than once or twice a month, but it's a really handy solution to have in your arsenal. (A friend of mine does toast with nut butter as their back up option!)
6. They won't eat because of teething or sickness.
Teething sucks and it usually impacts hunger. Try not to expect that your toddler will eat normally when they are cutting teeth (especially not with molars!) and instead offer them plenty of liquids, chilled foods and things that don't require too much chewing—smoothies, yogurt, pastina, popsicles—to help avoid irritating their already irritated gums.
And with a cold or sickness, it's very likely their appetite will go down. The general rule that our pediatrician always shares is that as long as they are drinking and going to the bathroom normally, then you shouldn't need to worry to much. Keep portion-sizes small, don't push food too hard, and trust that their little bodies are doing what they need to in order to feel better. (And of course check with your doctor if they aren't drinking or there's another red flag!)
In closing, I'd like to remind all of us that when a small child refuses a food, it is not a judgement on our cooking skills (or our parenting skills for that matter!). A lot of this has to do with the developmental stage they are in, of learning and exploring boundaries, and simply seeing how much power they have. And usually, the less you can react in the situation, the better.