10 ways to help a toddler not eating dinner
These are ten great ways to support a toddler (and older children) to eat evening meals and work even if they are fussy!
I’m a big proponent of routines, consistency, and expectations. Long-term these are what support better eating, especially for children who are a little less comfortable around food.
I’m writing this today as I had so many calls over lock down from parents who were really concerned as their toddler’s eating had become noticeably worse. Given that stress, anxiety, or change can easily impact on eating, this doesn’t surprise me.
Toddlers can seem to eat less than ‘normal’ when we are either comparing them to a baby or some idea that we have in our head of what they should be doing. Charts showing toddler portions can really mess with us.
We see a breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack plates portion chart and panic as our child is not eating anything like that. Which is perfectly ‘normal’:
– Toddlers, unlike babies, are not going through a rapid growth phase and so are less likely to inhale food as they did when under 12 months. Their stomach is the size of their fist, so they don’t need kilos of food.
– They do often eat in fits and starts. They may have a massive breakfast and lunch and be pretty much done for calorific intake by dinner. Or eat masses one day and then not be particularly hungry for the following days.
It is important we take these into account when worried about dinner not going according to plan.
Plus, and this is something I always discuss with parents of toddlers before I agree to work with them, the toddler years are a roller-coaster of emotion.
Children are learning to say ‘no’ and love to exercise that power.
It is perfectly developmentally normal for them to refuse things, and often because they are ‘seeing what happens’ rather than because they do not want to do something. It is critical to keep this in mind as often our stress/frustration over a missed dinner can build into a power struggle.
Many toddlers love to see the reaction they get when they do something that they know pushes buttons – and refusing dinner is a great one for this!
But the toddler years are also a critical time for learning and getting good habits into place. The ten steps below are great building blocks for doing this effectively!
10 ways we can support a toddler to eat dinner
1. Are they hungry? Ensuring they are hungry enough coming into dinner is important. Having no food for about two hours before the meal (even if there is a lot of whining) can really help.
If they are nagging and driving us crazy and we give them a handful of snacks, it can easily knock enough of an edge from their appetite that they can happily refuse dinner (and then be ravenous half an hour later).
Remember, milky drinks can be really filling. Many toddlers – especially when fussy – prefer to drink than eat and milk can easily fill tummies and cover calorific needs. If drinks replace food they can miss out on valuable learning.
2. Staying at the table. Many parents despair as their toddler is not interested in coming to the table and once there does not want to stay.
Pre-dinner routines can be super helpful for staying at the table. You can read about them here: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/picky-eating-support/pre-dinner-routines-for-picky-eaters-and-fussy-eaters/
Toddlers have notoriously short attention spans and can easily get distracted. They are also busy with fun things to go and do. If eating is not a priority, those other things seem twice as important!
However, if they are not eating at the table many of the tried and tested ways to support them to eat well and eat variety are really difficult to put into practice.
I always make meals part of the family routines (now I have giant toddlers, aka teens who are also not always enthused about sitting at the table either) so make it a priority that we do that on a regular basis.
When our toddler comes to the table and especially if eating is not their favourite thing, how else can we engage them? Perhaps it’s singing a song or telling a quick story.
Toddlers can build up to sitting well, but we may have to do this over time, gradually increasing how long they stay at the table.
3. Serve a familiar food. It is important for anyone to come to the table and see something they like. If I went for dinner and nothing was appetizing, I would not be excited about staying at the table.
Having a food option that a toddler likes can help get them to the table, enable them to sit for a while and in doing so have the opportunity to eat other things.
4. Change it up. Another way to create curiosity around the meal is to change up presentation.
For example, if bread is usually in squares, serve in triangles. Or put things directly on the tray if it’s usually in a bowl, or vice versa. Load up a fork with food on it or even serve it in a truck or dolls cup.
Generating interest may be enough to get someone to the table and help to keep them there happily.
It also generates interest in the food itself, which is an important first step in getting food accepted and then liked.
5. Play with food. I know this sounds like a nightmare but learning to eat food is about becoming comfortable with it and so touching it is a key part of that. This is not an invitation to throw things or be deliberately naughty, but squishing peas for example, is important.
There are ways we can make things more fun, so our child is likely to interact with foods and that again, is a great way to support their learning. Winner Winner I Eat Dinner has a host of suggestions: https://theconfidenteater.com/winner-winner-i-eat-dinner/
6. Expectations/ consistency. Setting expectations can be super helpful. Letting our child know what we would like them to do and then giving specific praise when they do so creates a positive feedback loop.
Knowing what to expect, when, and how everything works, and why is comforting for a toddler. Our brains love routines, and we feel safe when we know what is going to happen. This is even more important around food if we have a picky eater.
Once we establish routines, it is important to do things consistently.
7. Serve our food. Part of long-term eating competency is learning to eat the family food. If we have a child that doesn’t like dinner, this may seem counter intuitive.
However, our child watching us eating and doing it pleasurably is a key component in helping them, over time, to eat it too.
I speak to many parents who have become disillusioned with dinners as their child consistently doesn’t eat. It gets challenging to then eat happily although it is critical to show our child how to do this!
8. Support independence. Our child craves independence. Part of managing this is to get them more involved in all of the feeding routines.
This may be giving them their own shopping list, letting them pick things from the garden (or choose things at the supermarket). It might be helping to decide what is on the menu.
It can also be helping in the kitchen and being an important part of preparing for the meal. Perhaps setting the table, carrying a plate of food or being in charge of rounding everyone up.
Empowering our child helps to get them invested.
9. Create a positive environment. No one is happy at the table if there are arguments or people look miserable. The more fun and relaxed the table is, the more everyone wants to come and sit and participate.
As the parent it is our responsibility to create a warm and loving atmosphere (even if it’s not how we really feel at first!).
One piece of advice that I always give to parents is ‘dinner is not the place to teach someone to eat’. If we stop trying to make sure our child eats the broccoli at dinner it can really help.
Sure, we want them to eat vegetables, but making dinner miserable in trying to do this works against us, not for us and makes a child less likely to eat.
Dinner is when we’re all a lot more tired and often over everything. If we can remain calm, smile and be positive it will make a massive difference over time.
One way to do this effectively is to find praise for our child. There is usually something we can reward. Maybe it’s sitting quietly or thanking them for helping to carry things to the table.
10. No ‘option’ B. When we have a child who doesn’t eat dinner, and especially if they are little, it is tempting to fill them up afterwards.
I am not a big fan of sending children to bed hungry, but if our child knows that refusing the broccoli will mean the favourite crackers/toast/cereal later, there is little incentive to taste and learn to like new foods.
How to make this work for a family can be quite complex so I like to advise on a case-by-case basis. If you’d like some personalized advice, you can always book in to speak to me one-on-one: https://theconfidenteater.com/contact/
Following the ten ideas above consistently for a few weeks could make a huge difference to how well dinners work for your toddler – or fussy/picky older child!
Which ones do you have in place already?
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/