Do you have a toddler who won’t eat dinner? You are not alone! If this is happening in your house, here are a few simple things to try to improve the situation.
What to Do When a Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner
This is, hands down, one of the biggest feeding challenges when it comes to toddlers and it frustrates the heck out of so many parents. And while it can be a source of daily stress, there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your toddler will eat dinner—and information you need to know to feel better when they don’t.
The biggest thing to remember with any of these tips is that you have to get into a routine and be consistent with your responses so that your little one knows what to expect. They LOVE routine and predictability, so use it to your advantage…and know that it will likely take a few days to make new strategies their new normal.
Remember: If we want our kids to eat a wider variety of foods, including the foods that we make for dinner, we need to be do better to set them up for success. If we want our kids to stop eating the same three foods over and over, it’s our job to stop making them available. Even if we know they will eat them and we worry that they aren’t eating enough. Even if our kids ask for them. Even if there is begging. It’s okay to say “no”! And we absolutely cannot expect a two-year-old to approach eating rationally—they will always choose what tastes best and is easiest to eat—so we need to show them how it’s done on a daily basis.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #1: Space out meals and snacks.
Your toddler may need longer to work up an appetite than they used to. You can try skipping the afternoons snack and serving dinner a little earlier or serving less filling snacks (think fruit and veggies instead of milk and muffins) as another idea. Aim to have at least 3 hour between meals or snacks if your toddler is regularly refusing dinner.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #2: Offer only water between meals and snacks.
If you add up all of the milk your toddler drinks in a day, it’s possible they’re drinking half of the calories they need—naturally reducing how much food they need to eat. The same goes for juice. The easiest way to move the needle is to serve more water and to limit when you serve milk, or how much milk you offer. Just because your toddler begs for milk at every meal doesn’t mean you need to give it to them in an unlimited quantity.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #3: Include at least one “safe” food.
Including a food that your toddler usually likes can help them feel happy when they sit down at the table, and that they have something to eat if they don’t love other components of the meal. Try a simple veggie side dish, cut up fruit, cheese, rice, pasta, or bread.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #4: Keep portions small.
It’s easy to forget that toddlers don’t always need that much food, especially since they can be so unpredictable with how much they eat. (Because on the flip side, some days they eat more than us adults!). And starting really small and offering seconds if needed can go a long way towards lessening the pressure to eat a whole pile of broccoli! You can really start with one piece of a food and go from there.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #5: Let them decide what of their dinner to eat.
So no commentary or coercing. No verbal gymnastics trying to get them to eat more of one thing than another. No tall tales about what a food actually is. You decide what’s on offer and when it’s served, they get to decide what of it to eat, as the well-respected feeding theory called the Division of Responsibility (DOR) teaches. Use their love of power to your advantage and let them make some decision within set boundaries!
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #6: Remember that they are likely tired.
Dinner is often the hardest meal simply because it’s at the end of the day. Keeping that in mind can help your own expectations. So maybe offer a hug or do a quick activity together before sitting down, especially if you’ve all be in separate places during the day.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #7: Do not get up to prepare another meal!
And do not get the crackers/mac and cheese/pizza that you know they will eat! If the goal is to serve one meal for everyone, they need to know they can’t just hold out for the foods they’d prefer. Use the tips above to start to get into a one-meal-for-all habit.
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #8: Time any bedtime snacks right.
Put at least 1 hour (if not longer) between the end of dinner and a bedtime snack to avoid a situation where your toddler realizes he can refuse dinner and get food that he prefers right away. And keep the bedtime snack super boring and not their favorite food so again, waiting for it isn’t incentivized. In our house this often sounds like: “If you’re hungry, you can have a banana.” And if they fuss about what I offer: “You can be hungry for breakfast then!” Both are remarkably effective!
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #9: Make snacks mini meals.
Little kids can get into the habit of LOVING certain snacky foods so much more than “regular” foods. To help shift this balance, offer more of the regular foods at snack time either instead of or along with the favorite foods. This can help to normalize all the foods as being equally as important. (We also like to save refused foods for the next snack or meal, so that’s an option too.)
Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner Tip #10: Keep your emotions in check
I’m not going to tell you not to take their food refusal personally because that is often so impossible, but I will suggest that you bite your tongue with how much emotion you show at the table when they don’t eat something you really want them too. So often, the more we want them to do something, the less they want to do it—just because of power dynamics—so stay neutral about the food and talk about other things!
Remember: You are in charge of the food that winds up on your toddler’s plate—no matter what your little one has to say about it—but they are individuals too, with thoughts, feelings, and desires. Those two things might not always line up, but these tips should help get you a little closer to helping your toddler eat the foods you want them to eat.