Quick Tips for When Your Toddler Refuses to Eat Dinner

Published January 6, 2022
By Renae D'Andrea

Once your toddler turns 1, there is a large chance that you will encounter times when they refuse to eat a meal. It may not happen immediately, as it tends to be more common after 18 months of age. But almost all kids will have a period where we might consider them a "picky eater"!

Why Won'y My Toddler Eat Dinner

Having a picky toddler is a completely normal occurrence! There are several fairly common reasons for this.

Turning pickier happens even with babies who are completely open to new foods. Many of them love the dinner table in their first year of life. Once they are 1 year olds, it can be like a switch flips and they enter a picky eating phase.

Decreased Nutritional Needs

One of the biggest reasons that eating changes is that their nutritional needs simply decrease. Between birth and a year of age, your baby's body is growing rapidly. Right about one, they stop growing as fast. That means that they simply don't need as much food anymore.

Now that doesn't mean that all babies and toddlers have the same needs and will have the same food intake. But by and large, it takes much less food for kids after the age of one to get enough calories to meet their needs.

We as parents don't know specifically when this change will take place for our own toddlers. As a result, making sure that we are fostering their ability to listen to their own internal cues is really important. 

When you're used to your baby eating a lot of food, it can be hard not to put pressure on them to eat more!

If your baby never ate that much, that can also lead to worry and too much pressure. So often we're told about how much toddlers need. If our toddler doesn't fit within the standard amount, it can really make us think that they need more food.

That is more often than not not the case!

Drinking Too Much Milk

Another common issue I see is when toddlers are drinking too much milk. When they were under a year old, milk was their main form of nutrition.

toddler with lots of milk

Between one to two years, milk helps to make the transition to a full food diet. It still plays a part, but milk is no longer primary. When they are about two, most kids can easily get enough calories from food to meet their needs. Even without milk.

When toddlers continue to treat milk like it is their main source of nutrition, it crowds out food. If they are filling up on milk, then it makes sense that they are not very hungry for anything else.

Food Neophobia

Neophobia sounds like a big word, but it simply means a fear of the new. In the case of food neophobia, it can even show up as a fear of foods that they have been exposed to at some point before.

Food neophobia is a phenomenon that happens to most kids. It typically peaks between 3 and 4 years of age. But at any point in toddlerhood you might start to notice it.

It usually doesn't last very long and kids typically grow out of it. The key is to have a strong mealtime environment. A plan for how you will handle food in general is also a good way to see you through it.

They're Tired or Full

All of these scenarios can happen at any time of the day. But more often than not, dinner time is the biggest issue.

Dinner is at the end of the day, and so often it is simply that they're tired. Or that they have eaten enough food throughout the rest of the day that they don't need anything else.

toddler sleeping in chair

Your baby's appetite isn't steady. Sometimes, they'll be really hungry at dinner. Other times they won't. Maybe they were really tired one day and didn't feel like eating. Then maybe the next day they ate a ton. Or maybe not.

Like I mentioned above, one of the best things we can do is foster their internal cues! So that when we provide a good environment and mealtimes conducive to eating, they are able to eat what they need.

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Tips to Implement When Your Toddler Won't Eat Dinner

Tip #1: Set a Schedule

Some young children would eat all day long if they could. But it's not about them needing the calories! 

More often than not, it's because they don't know what it means to be anything but full.

Or because there isn't a rhythm set up to their day. Without a rhythm, they aren't actually sure when the next full meal will be. Which means they eat when they can to make sure they're satisfied.

When you eat throughout the rest of the day, it makes sense that you won't be hungry at the end of it.

When you set up a schedule, it's not about rigidity. It's about a flow to the day. After breakfast we get dressed, then we play or go to school. Then there is snack. And so on.

Toddlers don't understand time like we do. But they do thrive on consistency and patterns.

This means that having a specific snack time in your day is key. Set a morning or afternoon snack time, and keep to it. 

Keep it 2-3 hours from dinner or any other meal. And offer a balanced snack to help them get from one eating opportunity to another.

By having a schedule and keeping eating opportunities consistent but not one right after they other, you will allow your child to eat what they need. 

They won't get overfull because they aren't sure when the next meal is coming. Or under eat because they're waiting for a snack or dessert that happens right after a meal. 

They will eat just the amount that they need. And yes, sometimes that might mean nothing at dinner! That's okay.

Tip #2: Offer a Safe Food

When you have a toddler who isn't eating dinner, it's easy to fall back on always offering favorite foods for a meal. If you know they'll eat chicken nuggets, it can be easier to just always offer chicken nuggets.

kid not wanting to eat

But if we dwindle the foods down that we offer them, we aren't doing them any favors.

So instead of offering a separate meal to them, plan to serve the main meal that the rest of the family is eating. With a few food preferences kept in mind.

When you're planning a meal, start with what you want to eat. And then think about different foods that your child will reliably eat to add. This will be their safe food. It doesn't need to be a favorite food, although it can be sometimes. 

Think about things like adding bread as an easy way to give them something to eat at the meal. Or maybe rice as the high-calorie option at the meal.

Don't serve the same safe food every meal. And don't worry that most safe foods are things like bread, grains, and fruit. That's okay!

By planning to serve a food they will generally eat ahead of time, you are preventing the need to be a short-order cook. And if they still don't eat with a safe food, you can pretty reliably assume they aren't hungry.

Tip #3: Take Off the Pressure

Our kids not eating a meal or a certain food tends to be pretty triggering for many parents.

It's really easy to fall into the habit of putting pressure on our kids to eat.

We do it from a place of love and concern. We want them to get everything they need! But putting pressure on our kids, subtle or overt, is usually at the root of most feeding problems.

Pressure can lead to a power struggle. Or our kids eating more or less.

No matter how you look at it, it's not the best way to actually help our kids eat what their body needs.

So what is? Using the division or responsibility to help yourself stick to your jobs in feeding. And allowing your child to stick to theirs.

I know that we're constantly told that a balanced diet with all the food groups is important. And offering it is! But it's offering that's important. Not whether they actually eat it or not.

Because if you have the other things in place for a healthy feeding relationship, eating a balanced diet will come in time.

Tip #4: Serve Family Meals

Family dinners can be hard to manage from a time-standpoint. But they are actually one of the best, and most important, ways to help with your child's eating.

Family meals help to take the focus off of the food. Instead, they place the focus on enjoying family dinner time with the rest of the family.

kid at family table

When we remove the focus on food, it actually helps our kids to eat more!

Take It Further with Family-Style Meals

While family meals are a great way to start, an even better approach is to actually serve family-style during meal times.

Serving family style means instead of you dishing up your toddler's plate, you bring the food to the table and everything is dished up there.

This means that your toddler is exposed to a wide variety of foods without them actually needing to be on their plate. It might mean they take less food on their actual plate, or fewer kinds of foods, but it is an easy way to take pressure off of them.

Family-style meals also avoid a lot of the pitfalls that can come with pre-plating your toddler's meal. Often times adults will serve large portions of something when their child wanted small portions.

Or they will put something on their plate that the child really doesn't want to try.

While most adults think of that as simply encouraging the child to try a new food, it is actually a form of pressure. 

Sometimes, you can pre-plate meals with your child's guidance on what to serve and bring to the table on their plate.

But many times, toddlers will say no to something or not be hungry at first. If they are at the table with the food around them and everyone else eating too, more often than not they will decide to eat something.

Focus on the End Game

At the end of the day, there are endless tips out there for how you can turn things around.

But more often than not, it is actually a combination of ALL the tips that will start to help. 

Because feeding dynamics and how kids eat is a complex, moving object. One tip may work for a bit, or it might not.

For help with implementing all the tips, and figuring out how to get them working together to make mealtimes less stressful, make sure you check out Mastering Mealtimes, the toddler course!

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From how to set up mealtimes so they aren't stressful, to how to quickly and easily get food on the table that meets all their needs. Grab the course to set your toddler's relationship with food up for life!

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