What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner

Published by Mama Knows Nutrition on

Toddler won't eat dinner

How maddening is it when they won’t eat what you made?? UGH! I’ve totally been there. And I’ve been getting lots of questions lately about toddlers outright REFUSING to eat dinner, so I know it’s happening to you too! One parent asked, “What am I supposed to do when my toddler won’t eat dinner at all?!” Another sent a message asking me why I don’t talk about using pressure to get kids to finish their meals, because they see so many of their friends and family doing it.

It’s soo frustrating when toddlers won’t eat dinner, and it can be scary too (especially for new parents). After all, it’s our responsibility to feed them, right? And what if their low appetite means they’re sick, or that something’s wrong?

These worries are totally normal, but I’m going to use this post to teach you why it’s actually totally okay if your child doesn’t eat that much at dinner sometimes. I’ll explain what’s likely happening for them in these moments, and teach you how to respond to their refusal without instigating a battle royale at the kitchen table. (It’s possible, I swear!)

Force & Pressure

There are 2 important rules for feeding children:

  1. Never use force or pressure to make them eat
  2. Respect their body’s needs and recognize that only they can know those needs

When we force or pressure a child to eat, a few things can happen, and none of them are particularly positive. Here’s how it starts:

Lucas (just a random name I’m choosing to represent our toddlers, today) isn’t hungry. He’s having a low appetite day (which is very normal for a toddler, even a few days a week). He only had one bite of his dinner. His body is just not asking for food because it’s already gotten all the calories it needs today. And we can trust his body to know that, because it’s really, really smart. 

But, Lucas’s mom doesn’t know this or isn’t thinking about it in the moment, so she says one of two things (if your toddler won’t eat dinner right now, these are probably very familiar!):

#1 “You have to finish what’s on your plate for dinner!”

Been there, right? But even though this phrase is relatable, it’s not particularly helpful, because it’s likely to elicit one of these responses from Lucas:

  • Getting upset and yelling or saying “NO!!!”
  • Saying the food is gross and he doesn’t like it
  • Crying
  • Throwing food
  • Aiming to please (Maybe he knows his mom will be upset with him if he doesn’t do what she says, so he decides to eat the food even though he’s not hungry.) 

And in the end, Lucas ignores the messages his body is giving him– the ones saying that he doesn’t need to eat. He learns that:

  • It’s more important to listen to what Mom and Dad say about how much to eat than it is to listen to his own body
  • He can’t trust his body to know what it needs
  • He has to rely on external cues (people or other things) to tell him how much he should eat

#2 “If you finish your plate, then you can have dessert.”

In this case, Lucas chooses to ignore his internal cues that he’s not hungry because he wants to earn the prize: dessert! This teaches Lucas that:

  • He has to do something to please you in order to get his favorite foods
  • Dessert is something much more desirable than regular food

So even if he has to make himself eat this other food in order to get to it, Lucas will do whatever it takes to get. that. treat!!

Hunger & Fullness Cues

As you can probably see, these responses teach our kids to ignore their hunger and fullness cues. Instead, they listen to what we say they need to eat.  

This is a problem because the best way for us to eat a normal, healthy, balanced diet, and to eat the right amount of calories for our body, is to be in tune with internal hunger and fullness cues. 

These cues are there for us from birth, but many of us learn to ignore them or not to trust them, especially those of us who grew up around someone who dieted, or read magazines or blogs about healthy eating and staying in shape (their focus was probably on restricting calories). These types of media have internalized messaging that says things like “EAT LESS,” and “Oh, you feel hungry? IGNORE IT.” 

And this is just not what we want for our kids!

P.S. – if you are in a place where you are SO OVER dieting and want to be in a better place with your own relationship with food to be a good role model for your kids, I highlyyyy recommend the No Food Rules in 30 Days online course by my dietitian friend Colleen Christensen. Check it out here.

The Division of Responsibility

From the time that our babes are born, it’s our job to make sure they get enough to eat. As the parents, it’s our responsibility to feed them because it’s something they physically cannot do on their own. I mean, they would die if we left it up to them, and that’s a BIG responsibility for us parents. And, when they’re that young, you can pretty much directly tie their growth and development to whether or not they are getting enough breastmilk or formula (no pressure!).

But when your baby makes the transition to toddlerhood, a lot of things change. Even though it probably still feels like you have to do basically everything for them, they are becoming more independent. During this transition more than ever, it’s important to be aware of your job vs. their job. 

The Ellyn Satter Institute describes the Division of Responsibility in feeding like this:

Our responsibility as parents/caregivers is:

Their responsibility is:

  • IF they eat at the meal
  • HOW MUCH they eat at the meal

Our kids can tell when they need food and when they are full. If you think about it, they’ve been doing it since they were born. (Sure, we did the feeding, but only when they cried out of hunger!) And, they are fully capable of making these calls as toddlers, too.

The problem is that it’s harder for us as the parents to let go, because there are so many other things at play. We want to make sure they get a good healthy diet, not eat too much junk, get enough protein, eat enough fruits and veggies, etc. And this leads us to overstep and want to take over, telling them how much to eat at mealtime.

The Best Thing For Them

I know this can be a big switch if you’re used to being actively involved in how much your child eats, but I promise, keeping this division of responsibility is THE best way to make sure they’re eating right. Offer options from the different food groups at most of their meals, let them choose what they want to eat from that meal, and then have faith that their body will guide them to get what they need from the foods you provide.

When parents offer a balance of foods from all food groups, most children will get the right balance of nutrients when you look at their diet over the course of a few days or a week.

What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner

It can be really nerve wracking if your toddler won’t eat dinner, especially when they’re young and can’t communicate well. As a parent, you get a little desperate to know if they just aren’t hungry, or if there’s another reason they may not be eating their dinner, right? And, you probably worry that they’re not going to sleep well if they didn’t eat their dinner!

Not knowing what to do is the worst feeling, but thankfully, you don’t have to feel like this anymore. Here are 4 things you can try if your toddler won’t eat dinner:

Solution #1: Offer At Least 1 Food They Like at Dinner

I always recommend offering at least one item that your child regularly eats and likes at every meal. This way, you know there is something available for them, even if they decide they hate the rest of the meal, or if all the other foods are new or unfamiliar to them. This one trick can save you from going back to the fridge or to the pantry, pulling out foods (and your hair) until you find something that they actually say yes to!

If your toddler has a food available that they like and still wants you to offer them other things, they probably just aren’t hungry. And if you give in and find something they like a lot, they’ll eat it just because it tastes good, ignoring their fullness cues and making you crazy at the same time! 

These are the little moments that start out innocently enough but turn into mealtime toddler manipulation before you know it, so watch out! If you give in regularly, your toddler will probably make a habit of rejecting dinner so that they can get something they like better.

Solution #2: Add a bedtime snack to the daily routine

If you really worry about them not getting enough before bed, add a bedtime snack to their normal routine. This way there’s not as much pressure on dinner as the one opportunity they have to get calories in before the end of the day. 

I like to limit bedtime snack options to a few simple things, so they don’t get in the habit of skipping dinner to get something better. I recommend keeping it to choices of:

  • Whole milk yogurt
  • Fruit with nut butter
  • Cheese
  • Oatmeal
  • Toast with butter or nut butter or cream cheese

Solution #3: Change Up Dinner Time

If dinner is happening too late, your toddler could just be too tired and cranky to eat well. In this case, I recommend moving dinner up by 30 to 60 minutes to see if anything changes.

Solution #4: Let Yourself Off The Hook

Remember, you’re not going to get it right all the time. Some days dinner just won’t be a success. Ultimately, if there’s an occasion or two where they do go to bed hungry– it’s okay, and you’re not a bad parent. Honestly, sometimes they need that experience to learn that they need to eat at the times you make food available if they don’t want to feel hungry. It’s a pretty powerful natural consequence!

That said, if your child is regularly waking up at night hungry, you may consider talking to a professional. Depending on the specific issue, a pediatrician, sleep consultant, or a dietitian could help.

Is dinnertime a constant struggle? I can help!

My Dinnertime Survival Guide and Meal Plan is a game changer for busy parents. You get 6-weeks worth of meals that are ready in 15 minutes or less– with NO prep! Use it as a meal plan or as mealtime inspo that helps you keep things interesting (and easy!). Grab your copy now!

Dinnertime Survival Guide

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