What do I do when my child won’t eat dinner? Should I let them go hungry? Give them something I know they'll eat? Are they eating enough? Will they sleep through the night? How picky is too picky? We’ve all asked these questions at one point, and I truly hope this article will help answer them and give you the confidence to navigate through the situation.
Let’s consider 2 possible scenarios when it comes to your child not wanting dinner. Here’s how to handle each of them in a way that is least stressful for the parent (and the child) and most effective in encouraging your child to build healthy eating habits and positive associations with food.
1. It’s not just dinner that your child is refusing to eat.
Your toddler doesn’t seem all that interested in eating regardless of what time of the day. They were champion eaters during their first year (a.k.a the honeymoon phase) and all of a sudden turned into a picky eater.
Vegetables may have become an archnemesis, although they may find some to be acceptable. Chicken is ok but beef is not. Foods can’t touch each other. Will obsess over a food only to be disgusted by it the next day. Will eat as much as you at breakfast and eat hardly anything for the rest of the day. And on and on.
These erratic and unpredictable eating habits are a NORMAL part of development and to-be-expected. Check out my post “Help! My toddler won’t eat” where I shared top reasons why your child might push the plate away.
This phase is definitely not fun, but it’s just that – a phase. And the less we interfere and make a big deal out of it, the quicker this phase will pass. I know as moms, being told not to worry is like being told not to breathe. But that’s what we must do in this situation. Worrying only makes things worse so let’s try our hardest to leave the emotions aside.
Instead, Follow the advice I suggest in this post. And rest assured - while it may seem like your child isn’t eating anything and meeting their nutritional requirements, when you consider their intake over a period of several days or weeks (don’t look at each day in isolation), most toddlers consume the necessary nutrients to grow and remain healthy.
Again, try not to obsess or worry about it too much. Most picky eaters grow to accept and enjoy a variety of foods.
When to worry:
On one end of the spectrum is the typical picky eating as I described above. It’s annoying and frustrating for the parents to see but the child is continuing to grow and develop appropriately. On the other end of the spectrum is extreme picky eating, or ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder).
ARFID, previously referred to as “Selective Eating Disorder”, is a relatively new diagnosis in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It’s similar to anorexia in that both disorders are associated with limitations in the variety and the amount of food consumed. However, AFRID doesn’t involve anxiety around body shape or size, or fear of fatness.
So how can you make the distinction?
- Observe significant weight loss, nutritional deficiencies
- Not meeting developmental milestones
- Very limited in the number of foods they will eat and that becomes narrower over time (picky eating that progressively worsens)
- Extremely sensitive gag reflex when tasting, or even looking at foods. May even vomit
- Have extreme sensory aversion - the way it looks, smells, feels, tastes, etc.
- Appears very anxious and emotional around food
- Reports consistent, vague gastrointestinal issues around mealtimes that have no known cause (e.g. “upset stomach”, feels full)
- Consistently eating differently than the rest of the family
- None of the general feeding tips and advice work
- Dependence on enteral feeding or oral nutritional supplements
- There’s a level of social isolation for the child
If you’re reading this and thinking “that’s my child!” talk to your healthcare provider first. This website also has incredible resources, including a directory of feeding therapies in your area.
2. Dinner seems to be the only meal of the day that is consistently being refused.
You might’ve tried all the tips that I suggest here, but your child continues to skip dinner. Then it’s time to re-evaluate your eating schedule. Perhaps the dinnertime is too late and your child is overtired by then. Or perhaps what they ate throughout the day really was enough. Whatever the case might be, here’s what you can try:
A. Switch up dinnertime
So if you’re normally eating dinner at 7:30 pm, try 7 pm instead (or earlier). That would mean the rest of your eating schedule would have to be adjusted a bit so that meals and snacks are spaced out to every 2-3 hours for toddlers (older kids can go longer).
And if you move up the dinner time to where there are more than 2 hours between dinner and bedtime, consider adding a bedtime snack (if necessary. Follow your child’s lead)
you can find all of our past mealtime schedules here.
B. If unable to do an earlier dinner
1. Make the afternoon snack as well-balanced and nutritious as possible. Don’t just offer those typical “snack” foods (e.g. cereal, crackers, chips, etc.). I always like to encourage parents to consider snacks as mini meals and use this opportunity to fill nutritional gaps from meals.
That means you are :
- Offering at least 2 food groups always including a source of protein/fat (so protein/fat + fruit and/or vegetable or protein/fat with a whole grain food). This will ensure that the snacks are filling and will keep them full until the next mealtime.
- Offering a variety of foods, not just their favorites. Don't make snacks "exciting" for them by offering special foods. Instead, offer what you'd normally serve during mealtimes, just in smaller quantities.
- You don’t have to do this, but I personally strive to include some type of vegetable (even if it’s just one piece) for the sake of exposure. Veggies can be a hard-sell at this age and I want to take every opportunity for my child to see and decide what he wants to do with it.
Here are some specific examples:
- Apples and broccoli with peanut butter
- Egg and avocado toast + cucumber
- Yogurt with blueberries, grated carrots, ground nuts/seeds
- Savory oatmeal with chopped zucchini and melted cheese
- Whole grain crackers and carrots with hummus
- Smoothie with milk, spinach, banana
Head on over to my Instagram feed for more snack ideas!
2. During regular dinnertime, continue to offer food and invite them to join the table regardless of whether or not your child eats dinner. This will be a great opportunity to connect as well as exposing them to family meals. And who knows? They just might eat something on the plate.
3. Provide a bedtime snack, following the suggestions above. Chances are, they will be hungry before bed and will need something extra to tide them over through the night. I want to emphasize here that a bedtime snack is not necessary and shouldn’t be given if your child is occasionally skipping dinner.
Why? Because your child might start to hold out on dinner so that he can enjoy a snack instead. Which brings me to my next advice - don't offer "exciting" foods, like I mentioned earlier. Now, your child might still refuse to eat the snack you served.
Honor their choice, enjoy the remaining time together, and give your child a big squeeze and a goodnight kiss. You just might be surprised to find that your child will sleep through the night just fine ;). Hallelujah!
Hope this was helpful! I'd love to know - what do you do when your child refuses dinner? What strategy would you like to start implementing today?