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 won’t eat dinner–plus practical tips for how to handle it. Like what you see here? Natalia and Adina Pearson of Healthy Little Eaters offer online classes on feeding kids. Find out more here.
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 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, 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.
Here are 5 reasons your toddler is skipping meals and what you can 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 too close to dinner.
If you’ve had a toddler in your house for 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, egg and breadsticks are all great choices
3. 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 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 snack could be a bowl of vegetable soup. For more snack ideas, get my practical snack guide here.
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.
Feeding job confusion is one of most common reasons for meal skipping and also the toughest to handle alone. Most parents need more help to figure it out in their specific situation. Our online classes on feeding kids provide this support. It has been very helpful for many families who used to struggle with meal skipping and other feeding problems. You can learn more and register here.
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.