Picture it: it’s the end of the day. You’ve officially survived the most painful part – the hour before dinner. Plus, by some miracle you’ve gotten a meal on the table, and everyone is home to eat it.
Then, disaster strikes! Your toddler refuses to take even a single bite. The worry begins.
Is he getting the calories he needs to grow?
When will the snack requests start after dinner?
Will he be hungry and wake up overnight?
You’ve tried requiring two bites for being two years old. You’ve threatened no dessert until dinner is eaten. You’ve even tried begging, “please just take a bite for Mommy?” It’s not working, and dinnertime is more painful than ever.
Don’t let this scenario keep playing out at your house! Read on to learn ten reasons why you’re saying, “My toddler won’t eat dinner!” Plus, exactly what you can do about it.
Table of Contents
1. Problem: Your toddler isn’t hungry
It might seem obvious now, but parents often overlook the fact that your toddler may have eaten a snack recently, and they are not hungry. Even a snack one to two hours before a meal or an abundance of milk or juice between meals could mean a toddler’s small stomach still feels full.
Try This: Adjust snack timing or contents
Aim to have two to three hours between eating times to maximize hunger when coming to the dinner table. This timing is not so long that your child will be melting down, but also produces enough hunger to motivate eating. Think about moving snack and/or dinner times to achieve this time schedule.
Sometimes schedules make this timing difficult to execute, and the whining is too much to tolerate before dinner is ready. If this is the case, consider giving a light snack that doesn’t fill them up too much. Veggies or fruit are always good choices.
Alternatively, you can use the part of dinner that’s done first as an appetizer. Then what they are eating is already a part of what you had planned. It can make for a happier kid and happier parent!
If you are thinking, “my toddler won’t eat anything but milk,” this could be to blame for a lack of hunger. Check out the Planning Meals for Picky Toddler post to do a check-up on how much milk your toddler is drinking, and compare it to what’s recommended.
2. Problem: Your toddler prefers a tasty bedtime snack
Toddlers are smart. Sometimes they learn that what you are serving for a bedtime snack is much more appealing than what’s on the dinner table. They know they can wait just a bit and eat something that is more preferred.
Try This: Make meal and snack contents the same
The simplest way to avoid having kids that hold out for snacks is to make the types of food you serve at both meals and snacks the same.
That means serving the foods you typically have at snack times included as a part of dinner. That also means making bedtime snack (if you are serving one) contain some foods you would typically serve at meal times.
Although it’s tempting, I don’t recommend serving the same food from dinner. This sends the message that they are being punished for opting not to eat dinner, when the reality is, they may just be listening to what their body needs. Ultimately we want to preserve their ability to do this!
3. Problem: Your toddler isn’t experiencing natural consequences
If your toddler is refusing dinner and then asking for a snack 20 minutes later, and getting one, they have no motivation to change their behavior. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you keep doing things that produce the results you want? I’d bet the answer is yes.
Try This: Stop providing a rescue snack
Yes, the meltdown might be epic, but feeling hunger after refusing to eat dinner is a natural consequence. It is one that you can help your child work through and learn from, so that different choices can be made in the future.
You have the opportunity to be with them, comfort them, and show them you are on their team. Avoid saying something like, “I told you so.” Instead, say something like, “I know your belly feels hungry now and that’s uncomfortable, but it’s just a little while until bedtime snack. Let’s play in the bathtub until then.”
If you are worried about sending your child to bed without dinner, plan to have a scheduled bedtime snack. Offer it regardless of the outcome of dinner, with no strings attached.
4. Problem: Your toddler is front loading their day
It is very common for a toddler to eat the largest quantity of food at breakfast and eat less and less with each meal. That means by dinner, they could be eating a few bites or nothing at all. This is normal and OK.
Try This: Plan contents of meals and snacks accordingly
If you are finding this to be true for your toddler, take this information and go with it! Serve a wide variety of foods early in the day, especially those that your child finds more challenging or are not preferred.
Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to serve foods at breakfast that are non-traditional, like veggies or leftovers. These rules are made up and something kids don’t understand. While a cucumber at breakfast might sound weird to you, your child likely won’t think twice when they see it.
Even if they don’t end up eating the non-preferred foods when served earlier in the day, it’s still great to expose them to it. Plus, they are more likely to engage and explore it when they are fresh in the morning. Exposure and engagement are huge wins when it comes to expanding the foods kids accept.
5. Problem: Your toddler is tired
Toddlers are learning all day long. So much is new, and even just an average day can result in a child that is exhausted by dinner time.
Plus, eating is hard work. They are using muscles to hold themself up in their chair, hold utensils and cups, chew and swallow. Additionally, their brain is working to plan and execute these movements, take in the sensory input of touch, smell, and sound, and probably engage with you too!
Try This: Lower your expectations
Prepare yourself for the fact that it’s likely your toddler will eat a small dinner or maybe no dinner at all. Also, plan to serve well-rounded options at other meals and snacks, so you can feel good about them getting what they need.
One easy place to start is to add a veggie to breakfast. This is often the food parents most want their child to eat at dinner, so giving them another opportunity to try it can help. If you’re ready for an even more ambitious goal, aim to offer a small serving of veggies at every eating opportunity.
6. Problem: Your toddler doesn’t want to be at the table
Refusing a meal can sometimes not even be about the food. Your toddler might just be on a mission to leave as soon as possible to get back to playtime. It can be hard to sit after sitting for other parts of the day, and they may like to be walking or wiggling.
It’s also possible if mealtime is stressful or negative (think – being required to eat foods they don’t like), they want to leave to avoid this scenario. Mealtimes filled with pressure to eat can be scary and stressful and turn into a negative association for a toddler.
Try This: Address the root of the problem
If your toddler is wanting to get back to play or is extra wiggly at dinner, it can help to implement a routine before meal time. Doing the same set of tasks helps toddlers transition and know what to expect.
A routine for before dinner could be something like a 5 minute warning, 1 song dance party (for help with sitting still), wash hands, and then sit.
It’s also important to set the standard that dinner time is family time. This means whether your child is eating or not, they have to sit with everyone that is eating. If you are having trouble knowing how long they should sit, start small and work up to a goal of 20-30 minutes.
A child can be expected to sit for a baseline of five minutes, plus two minutes per year of age. A two year old could start with the goal of nine minutes and a three year old with a goal of 11 minutes.
On the other hand, if you suspect mealtimes have become a negative time for your child, it’s time to focus on turning that around. Focus your efforts on family time and connection and don’t pressure or force your child to eat.
7. Problem: Your toddler is overwhelmed by the food
A full plate of food, some of which your toddler may not like, can be overwhelming and cause a decrease in appetite. Toddlers may also be unhappy that a parent plated their food and they didn’t have any control over what or how much went onto their plate.
Try This: Let your toddler serve themselves
I know – this feels like a mess waiting to happen! However, toddlers are capable of so much more than we allow them to do. Toddlers can scoop with a spoon or pinch with small tongs quite successfully.
When we allow toddlers to start with an empty plate and then serve themselves, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the food. They also get the chance to engage with food before they eat it, helping them to warm up to the idea of putting it in their mouth.
Plus, the “can-do” attitude we foster in this situation carries over to eating. With time kids see that they are autonomous and can eat various foods because they want to and because they are capable.
8. Problem: Your toddler is seeking autonomy
It’s possible that your toddler is feeling out of control and they are attempting to exert their control at dinnertime. Since they have the ability to say no to dinner, that is what they’ll do.
Try This: Consider what else is going on
Get curious and see if there could be another reason you’re saying “my toddler won’t eat dinner!” Have there been other life changes, restrictions, or a lack of choice – these can be related to food or other areas of life.
For example, sometimes toddlers feel unheard. They are asking for favorites at dinner, and the answer is always no. Consider changing “no” to, “That’s not on the menu tonight, but we can have it tomorrow.” Then follow through to build trust!
You can also give some control to toddlers by engaging them in planning one dinner per week from a few limited choices. This is also a great opportunity to start teaching them the important life skill of composing well-rounded meals, because the best way to teach healthy eating is by living and modeling it.
It doesn’t need to involve a lot of thought. It can be a simple question of, “What favorite do you want to have on Monday night?” Then a follow up question of, “We need two sides. Should we have broccoli or carrots? And applesauce or mandarin oranges?”
9. Problem: Your toddler doesn’t see something he likes
A meal filled with non-preferred or challenging foods can be a total deal breaker for a toddler. Even if it contains food that’s just sort of OK, if it’s not prominent, you can lose a toddler before they even land in their chair. They aren’t exactly at a “give it a chance” stage.
Try This: Serve at least one reliably eaten food
It’s important to serve at least one, better yet two, foods your toddler reliably eats. These foods are important to give them a full opportunity to fill up on something they are comfortable eating.
They also can act as what I call a “gateway food.” Many toddler will eat their favorite and then move onto the next best thing on their plate. If they hadn’t been served a food to “open the gates,” they may have refused the whole meal.
If you feel like you do serve reliably-eaten foods, and they are rejecting them too, consider making a small change. Alter the way you cut it, or even leave it whole. Try it with a dip. Put it on a new plate or in a new bowl. Sometimes these small changes are enough to keep your toddler curious and reignite their interest!
10. Problem: Your toddler is feeling pressure to eat
Pressuring kids to take bites or bribing them to eat certain foods creates a power struggle and negative mealtime. Whether it’s incentivizing vegetables by promising dessert, sticker charts to earn toys for bites, or marble jars to get extra screen time based on new foods eaten, it’s all pressure.
Pressure causes many kids to feel stressed at meals, and a stressed kid does not want to eat. There are many strategies to help kids learn to eat and expand their food choices that are not pressure based.
Try This: Remove pressure from your table
It can be hard to watch your toddler not eat their dinner or not eat the healthy food you want them to eat, but pressuring and requiring them to do so will only make things worse. Providing external reasons for kids to eat overrides their ability to regulate eating the amount that is right for their bodies. It’s also a disservice to shaping their ability to feed themselves for the rest of their life.
Even when you are thinking, “but my toddler won’t eat anything but fruit,” pressuring them to select other foods does not serve the long term goal.
Instead, change the focus of dinnertime to family time. Emphasize everyone coming to the table, having an opportunity to eat, talk, and connect. Use strategies 1-9 to feel confident that you are doing what you need to do to give your toddler the best chance at eating what they need at dinner.
Your Toddler Might Still Not Eat Their Dinner
In the end, you may find that no matter what you do, sometimes you might still be left saying, “My toddler won’t eat dinner!” Complete meal rejections are totally normal in the toddler years, as it’s a period of slowed growth (especially compared to the first year of life).
If your child is going to their routine well checkups and growing steadily, it’s likely fine. The best thing you can do for yourself is focus on providing variety at each routine-eating opportunity, eating together as much as possible, and being consistent in your strategies.
You’ll want to avoid making it a big deal, as this is often a cue for toddlers to keep doing what they are doing. Each time they get a rise out of you, you send the message to do it again.
If you need help planning a meal for your little one, check out Planning Meals for Picky Toddlers: 10 Strategies to Success. If you are still worried, feeling overwhelmed, and are tired of picky eating, join me inside the Mastering Mealtimes Membership.
This comprehensive library for parents of picky eaters walks you through steps you can take right now to stress less, enjoy family meals more, and watch your child learn to enjoy a variety of foods.
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Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian and founder of On Your Table, LLC. She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to expand the foods they eat. Kim has helped many families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her from her about page.