It’s maddening when your toddler won’t eat dinner but wants a snack instead! Here’s what to say and do in the moment–and how to survive this season of life.
There’s so much to love about toddlers: The snuggles. The chubby cheeks. The hilariously mispronounced words.
But toddlers can also be maddening: The tantrums. The hostage-crisis-level negotiations over brushing teeth. The refusal to wear clothes when leaving the house.
Feeding kids is hard. But toddlers bring their own unique set of challenges to the table. Literally.
One of the most common challenges: Your toddler won’t eat dinner but wants a snack. Deep, cleansing breaths. Let’s walk through this together!
Why your toddler won’t eat dinner
Dinner seems to be the meal that parents struggle with the most when it comes to their toddlers.
No, your toddler isn’t purposely trying to drive you batty (though boy, it REALLY seems that way).
There are legitimate reasons this meal is rarely their time to shine:
- They’re tired. So tired. The day is long for a toddler, particularly if they’re giving up their nap.
- They’ve kept it together all day. That’s especially true if they attend preschool or daycare. They’re ready to let it all hang out in the place (and with the people) they feel the safest around.
- They’ve snacked too much. Or snacked too close to dinner. So they’re not even hungry.
- They’ve had too much to drink. Milk or juice, that is! It’s common for toddlers to fill up on liquids, leaving little room for food.
Why your toddler wants a snack instead
In short, snacks are fun. And easy.
Dinner can be hard. There might be unfamiliar foods, chewy pieces of meat, casseroles with all manner of things mixed together, and veggies that taste a little bitter.
On the flip-side, snacks are uncomplicated, easy-to-eat, familiar things–for many toddlers, those are items like puffs, yogurt, fruit, crackers, cheese sticks, and maybe even sweets like graham crackers or mini-cookies.
They know they already like these foods. There are no risks involved. And they can eat them on the go while building Magna-Tile castles.
What to do when your toddler won’t eat dinner but wants a snack
There are a few things you can do in the moment, when your toddler is refusing dinner but insisting on Goldfish crackers. And there are a few things you can implement tomorrow to get through this season of life a little easier.
What to do in the moment
Toddlers know how to push buttons, and saying “no” is an easy way to do that. As hard as it is (especially after making their “favorite” dinner), stay neutral.
Here are a few phrases you can say right now:
- “You don’t have to eat it”: If your toddler is used to drama when she says “no” at the table, she may be surprised by your new, cool-as-a-cucumber-reaction. This powerful little sentence instantly defuses tension at dinnertime and removes pressure.
- “There’s XYZ on the table if you want that”: Make sure there’s always something on the table they tend to like–a side dish or meal component like plain tortillas or fruit. If they refuse dinner, point out that item on the table in a matter-of-fact, zero-pressure way.
- “Looks like you’re not hungry right now, that’s okay”: Eating just isn’t in the cards? State this calmly and let your child be excused from the table–or ask that they stay at the table for a few more minutes with the family.
Wrap up their dinner.
We started doing this when my younger son went on a dinner strike as a toddler. We saved his (untouched) dinner plate and offered it to him later when he asked for a snack.
This is important: A saved plate is not a punishment. It’s just a way to offer dinner when they’re hungrier.
At first, our son didn’t want his leftover dinner (he was holding out for something better!). But soon enough, he was scarfing down his spaghetti or soup, just an hour or so after the rest of the family.
Offer a boring bedtime snack.
If they won’t eat their leftover dinner, here’s a strategy I got from from Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli. She advocates for having a “backup”, which is a boring but nutritious food that your child likes but doesn’t love. Rose suggests something like:
- A cup of cottage cheese
- A glass of milk
- Plain yogurt (not flavored)
What to do starting tomorrow
Be sure there’s something on the table they usually eat.
Put at least one item on the table that your child (usually!) likes. So if she doesn’t want the main dish, she can have a helping of the veggie, rice, or other side items.
This item isn’t a replacement for dinner, it’s something that’s served with the meal.
Put a cushion between snack time and dinnertime.
As a dietitian, I think snacks can add a lot of value to a child’s (or grown-up’s!) day. But it’s easy for snacking to get out of hand with toddlers, who love to nibble on the go.
Snacks too close to mealtime can sabotage dinner because kids aren’t hungry when they come to the table.
So try to avoid snacks in the hour before meals. Ideally, have a rough snack schedule, like mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Asking your toddler to wait may be tricky at first if she’s used to snacking whenever she wants. But by sticking to dependable meal and snack times, she’ll feel reassured that there are lots of chances to eat.
What if your toddler’s hunger doesn’t sync up with your family’s regular dinnertime? Consider moving dinner earlier or serving your child a portion of the meal (such as the veggies) while you finish preparing it.
And remember this is a season of life that will pass. You won’t always be cooking dinner at 4pm!
Center more snacks around “meal foods”
“Snack” has come to mean packaged, processed foods like pretzels, gummy fruit snacks, and granola bars.
Those foods are perfectly fine to have sometimes! But kids shouldn’t think “treat” when they think “snack”.
Most of their snacks should be built around the kinds of foods you serve at mealtime–I call those “meal foods”–like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, beans, nuts, and dairy (or non-dairy) foods and drinks.
That way, they’re getting foods that are more nutrient-dense, filled with the nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium that they need for growth.
And they’re being exposed to those less “exciting” foods more often and seeing vegetables outside of dinner.
Some “meal snack” ideas:
- Hard-boiled egg and crackers
- Half a sandwich
- Hummus with cucumbers and pita
- A small bowl of dinner leftovers
What NOT to do when your toddler won’t eat dinner but wants a snack
- Don’t…Get angry. Prioritizing a pleasant (ish!) dinner table is most important. As much as possible, avoid negative emotions at the table.
- Don’t…Insist they eat. Forcing a child to eat or demanding on a certain number of bites can mess with a child’s internal ability to regulate hunger and fullness. It may also cause them to dig in their heels even more. In one research study, preschoolers ate more and made fewer negative comments about the food when they weren’t pressured to eat compared to kids who were pressured.
- Don’t…Punish them for not eating. Eating (or not eating) should never be connected with punishment. Kids shouldn’t feel “bad” or “good” because of what they ate (or didn’t eat). Don’t withhold favorite toys or privileges because they didn’t eat dinner.
Your trouble-shooting guide to toddlers and mealtime
Help, my toddler won’t sit at the table!
Maybe your toddler won’t eat dinner because they simply don’t want to sit still–and would prefer a yogurt-tube-to-go instead.
Sitting still at the table can feel boring to a busy toddler. So adjust your expectations (no long, leisurely meals) and start with 5-10 minutes at first. Remind them frequently that sitting at the table is what your family does at mealtime.
Also, be sure their seat is comfortable and appropriate. Would they benefit from a booster or some foot support?
Help, my toddler wants the same thing to eat every day!
When kids want the same foods meal after meal after meal it’s called a “food jag”, and it’s very common at this age. But it’s also important for your child to experience a variety of foods so she doesn’t fall into a cycle of only eating a handful of favorites.
Remind your child that you have different foods on different days and that you’ll have her favorite again soon. You can even pick a specific day and show him on the calendar if that helps.
Help, my toddler won’t eat dinner but wants dessert!
Sounds counterintuitive, but serving dessert WITH dinner may actually help in this case. Here’s why serving dessert with dinner can work–and how to do it.
Help, my toddler won’t eat foods she used to love!
This is an especially frustrating part of picky eating: refusing foods they’ve previously eaten happily. If you’ve ever said “But you LOOOVE (fill in the blank)” this has happened to you!
Toddlers have independent streaks and enjoy the power of “no”. Keep calm and stay the course. Continue to offer these foods with the reassurance that “You don’t have to eat it”.
Help, my toddler ate a ton yesterday but hardly anything today!
This is normal. After a growth surge in infancy, your child’s growth has slowed down, which means her appetite is smaller, too.
It’s best to trust your child around how much they want to eat, instead of insisting on a certain number of bites. That interferes with your child’s ability to honor her hunger and fullness and could set her up for overeating.
Help, my toddler is throwing food at dinnertime!
Babies throw food to explore and figure out cause and effect, but toddlers often do it to get attention. Be clear and calm. Tell your child “we don’t throw food” and remove the food he’s thrown (instead of putting it back on his plate or tray and creating a game).
If he keeps going, tell him “looks like you’re done eating” and bring him down from his chair. Next time, put smaller amounts of food on his plate or tray, making sure he knows there’s more if he finishes that portion.
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