Frustrated that your toddler refuses to eat dinner? Here are the top five reasons your toddler won’t eat dinner–and what to do about it.
There’s a lot to love about toddlers, like knee dimples and sloppy kisses. There are also things that make you crazy, and refusing to eat dinner ranks at the top of that list for many parents. In this guest post, pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko of Tribeca Nutrition, breaks down the top five reasons your toddler refuses to eat dinner–plus practical tips for how to handle it.
Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner
by Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD
“I’m not hungry!” you hear your toddler proclaiming whenever you present him with a plate of food. Skipping meals is one of those exasperating eating behaviors few parents can take well. There is something ultimately comforting in seeing your little one eat a meal. It is an evolutionary mechanism that evolved to ensure the survival of the young many thousands of years ago.
Of course, living in caves is in the past, food scarcity (at least in this county) is not common in most families, and you know that the next meal will be served sometime soon. But you are still worried that your child will miss important calories and nutrients or just get up hungry in the middle of the night.
As a mom and a dietitian, I assure you that skipping meals occasionally is pretty normal for young children and especially toddlers and preschoolers who respond naturally to variations in appetite. Did you know that after the age of one, children need fewer calories per ounce of weight than babies because their growth is much slower?
But I also see, both from research and working with hundreds of families, how your feeding strategy may make meal skipping happen more often than is developmentally appropriate.
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5 Reasons Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner (And what to do about it!)
1. Too tired to eat.
It has been a long day and your toddler has been busy playing, learning and, yes, eating. Does she look “spaced out”, keeps rubbing his eyes or is increasingly cranky by mealtime? Then it is too late for her.
Solution? Try serving dinner 30 minutes earlier so he eats when his energy levels are a little higher.
2. Snacks are too close to dinner.
If you’ve had a toddler in your house for a while, you know that the hour right before dinner can be hard. Your child is hungry, and you are in a rush to put something on the table. Giving him a few crackers or a glass of milk or juice seems like an easy way to buy some time. But even a couple of bites may be enough to get their little appetites spoiled, so no eating will happen at mealtime again.
Solution? Serve a good snack of at least two food groups 1.5 – 2 hours before dinner so they can comfortably wait. Need examples? Cheese and crackers, half a sandwich, fruit and yogurt, hummus and veggies, an egg, and breadsticks are all great choices
3. Your toddler is grazing all afternoon.
This is another pitfall I see happening all the time. A bag of goldfish on the way from school, a plate of cheese and fruit when you get home, and some cookies at a playdate? That’s it, your toddler may have eaten enough calories to last him till the next morning (or at least 3 o’clock in the morning), so do not expect him to see any eating come dinnertime.
Solution? Stick to ONE planned and balanced afternoon snack, and make sure it is not too close to dinner.
4. Dinners are boring, snacks are fun.
You serve chicken, rice, and veggies for dinner. You dole out crackers, cookies, and juice for snacks. You expect your child to eat meals and not beg for a snack instead. Really? I wouldn’t.
Solution? Mix things up a little bit to elevate dinner status and decrease the lure of snacks. Serve more regular food for snacks and include your child’s favorite treats in meals. Maybe one day, dinner can be crackers with cheese and some fruit, and a snack could be a bowl of vegetable soup.
5. You’ve confused your jobs when it comes to feeding and eating.
As a result, you take too much responsibility for your child’s eating, tend to micromanage each bite, and cannot see the bigger picture. Your child, in return, does not do his job of eating very well because he feels under pressure and has even less appetite for meals.
Solution? Make sure to keep the mealtime environment pressure-free, as negative emotions interfere with appetite. Also, try serving meals family style and include at least one food your little one eats in each meal, so he is more willing to come to the table and has something to fill up on if everything else is too challenging.
Meal skipping can be normal and even somewhat expected when babies turn into toddlers. But your feeding strategy can help avoid this stage (or make it pass sooner) instead of turning it into a long-term eating pattern and a mealtime struggle.
Kristy at Chocolate Slopes
Excellent tips! Feeding kids at meal times does NOT always have to be a struggle!
Thanks for your comment, Kristy!
Katie @ Mom to Mom Nutrition
Yes, yes, and YES! How can I repurpose this on my blog?! Lol. This is exactly what we are experiencing at my house… gotta love those little eaters!
I went through it too, Katie. It’s easy to fall into not-so-great habits (in my case it was too many snacks) without even realizing it. I hope Natalia gave you some good ideas!
Fern Gale Wdtrow
Excellent points. Well done Natalua Stasenko!
You forgot a big one: teething.
Mine won’t eat anything solid at that time. If it’s really bad, he won’t eat much at all. If he swallows too much saliva, for some reason, he will them vomit (excessive drool swallowed all day upsets his stomach for some reason).
If you combine teething with a heatwave, he will be even LESS food.
I resort to those prepackaged veggie, grain, and fruit pouches (he likes them), putting purred food in a cup with a straw, or making him snooothies.
Great point Trisha!
So what do you do when none of these points are helpful? My son (4.5) and daughter (2) NEVER eat dinner. I’m pretty sure my daughter is just following her older brother. Nonetheless, anything I cook for dinner is “yucky”. They literally walk away from the table and go to bed hungry. I know they are hungry because they will ask for other foods. They do not get juice, crackers, or other junk on a regular basis either. So what other tips you got?
Thank you for this post! So helpful for me as I navigate motherhood. My son is almost 15 months and has had a bad cold and I wanted to cry after he had a tantrum and wouldnt eat at dinner. So thankful you’re not just a mom but also know nutrition! Thank you!
My child will eat breakfast and lunch cereals, porridge , bread. And will only eat pasta for dinner anything else I put on the plate he will throw on the floor. Do I continue making him pointless meals every evening or just feed him pasta, he won’t eat meet or anything else. He’s 1 and a half
Nicole Lo Bianco
My son is the same age and I am currently going through the same exact thing as you! Every time he won’t eat( just about every day, lately), I get more and more stressed because I don’t like seeing him not eat like this.
My 4 yr old goes to grandma house and eats there comes back home saying she is hungry do i ignore her being hungry cause she ate at grandmas house or do i make her something to eat
My son turned 1YR October 4th.
Somedays he eats better than others. Well at night he will wake up 1 to 2 times for milk. (he’s on whole milk now) His doc says he might just require more calories but I can’t force him to eat so i just offer food and milk more often.. What can I do? Or is there something I can offer him that will fill him up more?
Hi Starla–I think it’s normal for kids of this age to still be waking up wanting to be fed, and my guess is that he will outgrow that over time. But I would take your concerns to your son’s pediatrician.
Your snack guide link doesnt work.
Jami–thanks for letting me know!
Hi Sally! I’m also a RD, but not much experience in pediatrics. Therefore, I find myself second guessing myself when it comes to my 4 year old. Thank you so much for this article, it’s super helpful!!