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.
The biggest thing to remember 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.
- If we want our kids to eat a wider variety of foods, including the foods that we make for dinner, we need 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 make other foods available, easy to eat, and taste delicious.
- 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.
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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.
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. Serve more water and to limit when you serve milk, or how much milk you offer.
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. This way, if they don’t eat a food they usually like, you can safely assume they aren’t actually hungry.
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 with a very small portion and offering seconds if needed can go a long way to reduce the pressure they feel when confronted with a whole pile of broccoli!
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 boundaries!
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. Include 1-2 foods they usually like and call it good.
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. In our house this often sounds like: “If you’re hungry, you can have a banana.” Or: “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 and snacks with regular meals. This can help to normalize all the foods as being equally as important.
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 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—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, 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.
I make family meals friendly enough for my 1 year old to eat but she’s super fussy and often won’t eat it and ends up crying because she doesn’t want it. Even though she’s excited for dinner time.
Is one too young not to be making her another meal I know she’ll eat?
We typically include 1-2 foods in the family meal that the kids usually like so that I’m not in the position of needing to make a separate meal. Then if the kids don’t want to eat much, I can assume they aren’t very hungry. If you prefer to make her a meal you know she’ll eat, that is totally up to you, but it could set a habit that can be a little hard to break. Up to you though as far as what works for your child.
Thanks I’m currently sitting here all upset and I made 5 different meals and kid is refusing. So now after reading this article. I will implement starting tomorrow. Trying to make sure he has whole grains and veggies. But if he isn’t eating that. What do I do? It’s so frustrating. Sigh 😔
I would try to decide on one meal, include 1-2 foods they usually like, keep portions small, and eat with them (the same food) when you can so they can see you eat. Kids tend to eat more variety over a longer span of time, so try to take some of the pressure off of each meal. There are a lot more resources on my site if you search “picky eating”.
I just want to say how amazingly helpful your articles have been for me. Thank you!
You’re so welcome and thank you for the comment!
Hi my daughter is 2 and she is very picky with every meal lately. She only eats fruits and yogurt and at night constantly wants milk. How do I break this cycle without feeling like I’m starving her? I know that I should stop giving her so much milk at night but if she hasn’t eaten during the day. What do I do?? I need help please
Is she drinking milk from a bottle during the night? If she’s using bottles, I would start transitioning them to a regular cup (or a sippy cup) and then move them to be served with the meal so they aren’t a stand alone meal. You can also gradually reduce the amount of milk. At that age, she will have a lot of feelings about it though and it may take some time. I hope that helps a little. Feel free to email me too or respond again.
I’m hoping you still read this… 3 years later haha! Your advice makes sense, I would just love your help as when we offer our 2.5 yr old the things he likes along with something new, he always cries and throws the something new on the floor. He won’t touch anything else on his plate until the something new has gone…
Maybe try putting a tiny piece into a little bowl right next to his plate or try family style so he’s in charge of what goes onto his plate?
Hi, my 19 month old loves breakfast and eats well for it – but all other mealtimes i just can’t seem to get him to eat something that isn’t a chicken dipper/fish finger/cheese on toast/tortizza..he used to eat fine but when he was refusing food i offered him these things and now he won’t eat pasta, meat, veg…it’s really stressful as he gets really distressed if there’s something on his plate that he doesn’t want. I’ve never forcd him to eat anything but it’s as if he’s scared of it! Any suggestions of what i can do? I do still offer him other healthy options but he would sooner starve than tr yit! 🙁
Hi- I know this is frustrating. It is common for kids this age to taper their intake though, where they eat a lot in the morning and then are less hungry as the day goes on. Is it possible that he’s simply less hungry than you expect at these other meals? This age is also very common to see this issue creep up as one year olds grow less quickly than they did as babies and often eat less—which we often think is pickiness, but is really just the kids not needing as much food as they did compared to a few months ago. Maybe just do an experiment with perspective and consider him not being as hungry as you expect as the reason for not eating first? Kids are really good at eating as much as they need (outside of any medical, teething, or other issues). With the fear issue, you could help him put the food onto his plate himself, let him choose what to put on his plate, let him touch the foods as you’re making them away from the table (like help you wash veggies, for example)—ways to let him interact with the food that have nothing to do with him eating it.
I am currently struggling with dinner time for my 3 year old. He has been a pretty good eater his whole life, and often eats more and more healthy meals than I do! It seems like as soon as he turned 3 though we started having more troubles with dinner time. Lately he has just been refusing dinner and throwing a fit, even when we give him stuff he normally likes or normally would try. We don’t offer him milk or anything between dinner time and bedtime, and he hasn’t been wanting snacks after nap time even when I ask him and offer things I know he loves. He does tend to eat a large lunch, typically around 12-1, but then he won’t eat anything the rest of the day. He WILL ask for different foods after dinner, so I know he is hungry, he just is refusing to eat what the rest of us are eating unless it is pizza or something like that. I don’t know what happened to my good eater ? help lol
Hi- It might help to remember that kids go through phases and that this is normal and not a sign that you’ve lost your “good eater”. Since you know he’s hungry and is just testing boundaries by asking for other food after dinner, you could try picking one super boring bedtime snack option that is always something he can have if he doesn’t eat dinner. You want this to be something he likes fine but would probably not eat on his own. In my house, it’s “if you’re hungry, you can have a banana or you can be hungry for breakfast”. This allows you to offer him food and he can take it if he’s hungry, but there’s no incentive for him to skip dinner. (and you don’t have to negotiate different foods each night.) The idea is that you’re very consistent with this—you make dinner, including 1-2 foods he usually likes and if he chooses not to eat, that’s his choice, but he only has one option for a bedtime snack. It’s fairly straight forward and can help you have a plan, yet not feel like he’s going to bed with an empty belly. Feel free to email me if you want to chat more. This post on the Division on Responsibility may help too.
I would love some advice if possible…..
My 2 year old hasnt been eating dinner for almost 2 weeks now- will happily eat breakfast and will graze her lunch from around 11-1. Im adamant i do not want to begin offering another option so when she begins to play up at the table i get her down (multiple times as she often asks to eat but then refuses again). The strategie ive been going with is to offer her the same meal reheated when she later asks for her milk (between half hour to an hour before bed) and she will then eat it. I guess im wondering do i perservere with offering later as its been going on for so long? Ive thought maybe she is holding out for the easy option of milk and have reduced the amount but also wondered if i should cut it out altogether so that shes not just eating dinner to get the milk. Its beginning to cause arguments at the table between me and my partner which im sure will only add to the problem, so any advice would be greatly received!
Hi- Does she have the milk when she eats the meal later? If she’s eating the food later, then it doesn’t seem like she’s holding out for milk unless I’m missing something? A few suggestions: I would limit the lunch to 30-45 minutes so it’s more of a meal and less grazing. If she eats a little and gets up, remind her that she needs to sit down and eat or the meal is done. Then have a snack in the afternoon as needed. With dinner, it’s possible she’s just not that hungry when it’s dinnertime so as an outsider with just this info, there’s nothing I see wrong with heating it up for her later. Could you potentially move dinner a smidge later to try to meet more of her natural hunger time? Sometimes small timing adjustments can help.
If I put safe foods along with others he will just eat the fruit a d not touch the other stuff. Its equal to getting up and making him something else. I cant get him to take even one bight.
In my view, the goal is not to get them to eat a certain number of bites, but to help them get more comfortable with other foods so that they eventually are inclined to try foods on their own. Providing safe foods means that you can enjoy your meal without needing to get up, that he’s being exposed to a range of foods, that he sees you eating them, and that you’re doing your job of providing him healthy options to enjoy. There’s really no way (that I know of!) to force a child to eat certain foods and maintain happy mealtimes, so this is how I approach meals. I understand if that doesn’t sit well with you though!
My daughter is almost 2 and food has always been a struggle. Some days she eats a lot and other days she eats nothing. Our pediatrician always said if she’s hungry she’ll eat, and I know this to be true because I see her do it. But lately she won’t eat dinner or lunch, and I know she’s hungry. So do I just send her to bed hungry if she doesn’t eat? I’m having such internal conflict with this one. I used to give her milk right before bed, but now I’m wondering if I should just stop the milk because maybe she is just holding out for that instead of eating dinner? I don’t know what to do I’m so lost. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thank you
I’m sorry this is causing stress! Remember that this is totally normal and that the eating a lot some days and nothing others is normal too. I’d recommend looking through the resources on this post, particularly the part on the Division of Responsibility, which will help you get a framework in place to provide her structure, but allow her to honor her own hunger cues within it. The biggest thing is consistency and patience!
Great tips! I’m going to try some and see how it goes. My 2.5 year old has gone terrible with food!
Thank you so much for these tips! My 16 month old and I have been struggling with dinner time for a little while now. It seems like one day he likes something and the next day he won’t touch it. When he doesn’t like something he has taken to throwing on the floor. It’s been very frustrating. I’m going to try some of these ideas and hopefully dinner will be more enjoyable for both of us.
I hope that they help Emily!
This strategies even it sounds good, may not work with kids sensory sensitivities and texture aversion. But with ordinary toddlers, I am sure it will make a huge difference.
Possibly true–those would be more complicated situations.
Thank you so much! This was really helpful and makes me feel better that I’m not alone! My 2.5 year old has struggled with dinner time and eating regular foods almost from the time he was a baby! But I like what you said about allowing him to feel like he’s getting to choose by putting some foods he will eat on the plate. We’ve tried to get him to eat just a bite or two of a food he doesn’t want and it always goes bad and causes so much stress. Anyway – really enjoyed this! Thank you!
I’m glad that it was helpful! (And you’re definitely not alone!)
Wonderful read.As u wrote,is plain yogurt wth fruit/vege ok as bedtime snack ? I have heard yogurt is harmful at dinner r afterwards.
Anything that starts with “10”easy things lol, is written by someone who doesn’t have a clue.
That’s not very nice. I’m speaking from experience and I’d appreciate kindness since I’m legitimately trying to help parents who are struggling. Thanks!
i have the same problem with my son.Hes is 3 yrs old and is refusing the dinner for 3 days. He eats cheese and sometimes bread. How can i handle this?????????
I have a 16 month old who is struggling with his tea time meal! He sits and plays with it more than eating it and it does get really frustrating. We then feel guilty as like at tea time tonight, he has had a pot of spaghetti bolanaise a dish he usually loves yet never touched any of it. We give him his yogurt which he loves and then offered his spag Bol which he refused and started playing with it again. We don’t honestly have a clue what to do and feel bad for him as don’t want to make him anxious ? Do you have any ideas that may help us. He loves mainly pasta and fish or sausage. He can be very funny with meat x he loves fruit and vegetables and we keep snacks to a minimum often either a smoothie or a malted milk buiscit. We currently feel really bad and ready to give up to be honest and feel like rubbish parents
I’m sorry this is so hard! At that age, many toddlers are naturally less hungry than they were as older babies so I would start by expecting him to eat less food at that time and make his portions really small. Keep offering him a range of foods, with things you know he prefers and things you want him to eat, and let him decide what of it and how much to eat without pressuring too much. Remember that he’s the only one who can know how hungry he is and that toddler serving sizes may be smaller than you realize. You’re doing a great job—and it’s okay to relax about this. In my mind, if an otherwise healthy kiddo isn’t eating much, it’s because they aren’t hungry not because they’re picky!
Wow that was disrespectful.
I’m really struggling to get my 2yo to eat dinner. My partner gets more stressed and angry about it than I do. Breakfast is simple, lunch can be a 50:50 but dinner is near impossible. She doesn’t even eat snacks. I’m starting to think trying her healthy snacks might be better than even attempting dinner.
It certainly is an option—there’s nothing wrong with simple foods for dinner! It’s also possible that she’s just really tired at that time of the day? (My two year old very often just eats fruit and milk for dinner and ignores the main dish…) Hang in there with this phase!
Wow Thom, you sound pathetic; these steps are all fairly easy. How a child responds to things may or may not be an “easy” situation but the author of this list gave us all some easy, practical ideas to helping make a difficult situation a bit better for those involved and is certainly someone who understands these situations.
Thank you, Amy, for this article. My almost-3yo has become fairly frustrating during dinner and only ever seems to want to eat bread. Just like tonight, she wouldn’t eat the meal except for some bread, which we ended up to the go-to peanutbutter sandwich…. it seems too often these days.
When I grew up, my parents made me sit at the table all night if need be until I ate the dinner, which i inevitably always ate after a while. My wife doesnt want to go this route and always ends up with either the PB or mac & cheese. My thought is that she, our toddler, will always refuse the dinner to get either of those 2 options- which means she’ll always win; but again, I just want to keep her in her chair until she eats what we give her.
She used to be so good with food but now? No veggies, no meats of any kind, only bread and dairy will she eat. Its frustrating.
I hear you, that is very frustrating. My advice would be to include something in the meal that she usually likes so she always has a “safe” food to eat, whether that’s some form of bread, pasta, or something like fruit. I would not get up and make her a backup meal because, as you say, she’ll always hold out for that option. If you’re consistent with your approach and allow her to eat what she wants from what you’ve served without too much pressure, things should even out and you can trust her to eat to satisfy her hunger. This approach also tends to reduce a lot of power struggles, making meal times much happier too. Hang in there, toddlers are tricky!