Do you have a toddler who won't eat dinner? You are not alone! 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. If this is happening in your house, here are a few simple things to try to improve the situation.
Toddler Won't Eat Dinner? Try these 10 Things.
- Space out meals and snacks to closer to 3 or even 4 hours.
Your toddler may need longer to work up an appetite. 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.
- Offer only water between meals and snacks, rather than milk or juice.
If you could 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 easiest way to move the needle is to serve more water.
- Include at least one "safe" food on their plate.
This helps to ensure that there's something they will (likely) eat, even if it’s a fruit they usually like bread, or cheese. It can also be reassuring if they see less familiar food on the table.
- 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 some days they eat more than us adults!). Start small and offer seconds if needed. Having just one piece of broccoli or a small spoonful of rice can also help a reluctant little one feel a little less so.
- 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, they get to decide what of it to eat. They like power!
- 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.
- 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.
- If you offer a bedtime snack, wait at least an hour.
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.
- You choose the bedtime snack.
And let your child decide if they want to eat what's being offered. (In our house, this is called "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit!" Or “If you’re hungry, you can have a banana.” Or “You can be hungry for breakfast then!”)
- Keep the bedtime snack boring.
Try not to incentivize it, so this is not the time for your toddler's favorite fruit snacks! Try fresh fruit, leftovers from dinner, string cheese, plain yogurt with fruit, cottage cheese with fruit, toast with nut butter.
Rinse, repeat, and stick with it. You have to get into a routine with this so that your little one knows what to expect, so it might take a few days to make this the new normal. 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.
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.
This post contains affiliate links.