When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner

Snacking Vs. Dinner

It’s no secret that toddlers can eat…a lot. It’s amazing the amount of food such a tiny person can consume in just a week. Crackers, fruit cups, string cheese, the list goes on and on. Actually, I think snacking is my daughters favorite thing to do (okay, maybe mine too). Home from Pre-K – snack. Bored – snack. Favorite show on tv – snack. The child is a bottomless pit!

The problem is, as much as she likes to eat on the go, when it’s time to sit down at the dinner table and have a meal she turns up her nose. Though we still have our days that are challenging, we have begun to overcome this with a little bit of trial and error. This list of do’s and don’ts is some of the things that have worked for us and others that were a huge fail. You know your child best, so some things that worked for mine may not work for yours. I hope you find some part of this helpful and you and your family can pass up the tears at the dinner table and trade it for some laughter.

When Your Toddler Won't Eat at Dinner



1. Give options

Kids love options. If they have a sense of independence and choices they will be much more likely to eat up. So you made a side of steamed broccoli and your child won’t touch it (even though they ate it no problem last week). Let your child have a choice between that and an equally healthy alternative. If they have the choice between the broccoli or green beans that might just do the trick. I’m not saying you make a totally different meal for your toddler, but if you need to add a side for them to get excited about eating, I don’t see the problem.

2. Positive Reinforcement

This may seem incredibly simple, but sometimes that’s all it takes. We all like to have a little pat on the back when we are doing something good, children are no exception. “You are such a big girl to eat your food.” or “I’m going to be so proud of you when you eat those potatoes.” are some examples.

3. Incentives

I feel like this is one of those things that you say BEFORE you have kids, like, “I’m not going to be one of those parents to bribe my kids every time I want them to do something.” So, I guess now we can sit back and laugh at ourselves for having parenting all figured out back then. I know some people are totally against this, but it’s just little stuff. Come on guys, we aren’t promising a trip to Disney World for a clean plate. For some it could be their favorite sweet after dinner or an extra 15 minutes on their device or tv. I always find myself promising my daughter extra time in the bath to play. Hey, whatever works, right?

4. Cooking Helpers

Let your little one have a part in the cooking process. Not only would it be fun, they will learn so much too. Just by helping to mix something or measure a teaspoon of salt. When dinner is served it suddenly becomes more interesting to eat because they helped make it.

5. Keep a Schedule

I know, I know. Easier said than done. We are still working on this one too. Between soccer, dance or whatever your family has going on, eating at the same time every night seems pretty much impossible. Heck, sometimes it is impossible. We at least make an attempt to eat around the same time for dinner and if it works out that night, awesome. If not, it will be okay.



1. Snacks Before Dinner

Duh, you’re probably saying, but if your child is anything like mine the snacks are constant as soon as she walks in the door in the afternoon. When your toddler is whining for a snack and you are trying to get stuff done, sometimes it’s easier to just give in. Lately, I’ve started letting her pick one snack for after school and then she has to wait for dinner.

2. Feed Your Toddler

I seriously don’t know why I ever started doing this other than I was desperate to get her to eat at mealtime. Basically, when she wouldn’t eat I would say “Do you want me to feed you?” Of course she would say yes, and guess what? She would eat! Here’s the thing though; I was feeding my 3 year old like a baby! I’m sure part of what she loved about this is the attention. The new baby was receiving a lot of that (but that’s for another post). ¬† ¬†Once I did it, I found myself having to feed her more and more. So, yes, I know it’s tempting, but find another way guys.

3. “You’re going to sit there until it’s gone.”

I think this is probably one of the most popular tactics parents use. If you disagree with me please feel free to cross this one off your list. My husband loves using this. I just don’t like to for a few reasons. First of all, do you really want to spend your evening forcing your child to sit at the table when the food basically only gets pushed around the plate anyway? It’s not going to make them say, “hey, next time I better eat my food or I’m going to have to sit here all night.” In my opinion, it’s only going to make them have a worse attitude about mealtime in the future. Instead, if nothing else we try works, I tell her to leave her plate on the table. She can’t have anything else that night unless she comes back and finishes it. If she starts wanting that snack bad enough, she’ll come back to it later.

4. Large Portions

As I said before, toddlers eat a lot, but they eat small amounts at a time spread out through the day. Pay attention to how much you are asking your child to eat at dinner. If your toddler starts playing with his food or losing interest, it could mean that he is full.

5. Punishments

This kind of goes along with what I talked about before about it giving your child a bad attitude about mealtime. You don’t want her to associate eating with getting in trouble. I just don’t think it could be truly helpful in the long run.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now and I wish you the best of luck. I sincerely hope some part of this can be helpful to you and your family. I ‘m definitely not an expert mommy and our mealtimes are still very far from perfect. Just remind yourself, it’s just a phase!

And hey, there’s always wine!

How to get your toddler to eat at dinner time. Dealing with picky eaters.

5 Ways To Gat your Toddler to Eat At Dinner

2 thoughts on “When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner

  1. I love all of these! We’re guilty with snacking, but both my son and I are usually hungry for dinner around 4. I’m thinking about cooking a lot more crock pot meals so we can eat an earlier dinner rather than snacking. I agree with you about not forcing a child to sit until they finish their dinner. I know that some kids would be up and down and up and down and that’s why parents are strict on that. But in my household, if I say something like that, I’m going to lose and my toddler’s going to win. I try to avoid arguments like that that are unnecessary.

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