My Toddler Wouldn’t Eat Dinner. Here’s What Changed Everything.

A mom shares how she went from fearing her child to being confident that he would eat his dinner.

“toddler won’t eat dinner but wants snacks” is a common problem that many parents face. Here are some ways to help your child eat their meal and not want more food later.

My Toddler Wouldn't Eat Dinner. Here's What Changed Everything.

I was in a bad spot with supper ten years ago.

Our children were 7 and 3 years old at the time, and mealtime was not a joyous time for us.

Here’s what I wrote back then on this blog:

Supper, oh dinner. I faintly recall an event that took place every evening about 7:30 p.m., during which my spouse and I ate at a leisurely pace and actually heard each other talk.

What happened to the lunch, I’m not sure. Many of our meals have recently devolved into a frustrating exercise.

The explanation is that Sam (our 3-year-old) has not eaten his meals for many months. That is, more than a few bites. And other nights, he doesn’t eat a single forkful.

I was at a loss for words.

We had some dinnertime restrictions as well:

  • Come to the table with clean hands and sit for at least 5-10 minutes with your family. Even if you don’t intend to consume anything. Dinner is a time when we (at least try to) sit peacefully together and follow a family tradition.
  • Do not use the words “yuck,” “disgusting,” or any similarly derogatory versions. A simple “no thank you” will enough if you don’t want anything.
  • Before leaving the table, ask to be excused.

Doesn’t it seem like a good basis for enjoyable family meals? But other evenings, when Sam was begging for a banana 30 minutes before dinner, I had three pots on the stove, the phone was ringing, and Henry couldn’t locate his minuscule Lego policeman’s handcuffs, it all seemed too much.

I felt completely beaten by the 30-pound redhead some evenings after spending 45 minutes making a great and well-balanced dinner only to have Sam shove away his plate once again.

I kept telling myself that this too shall (probably?) pass. But in the meantime, I was at a loss for words..

As a result, we made some adjustments.


Change #1: Allow both kids to share their opinions about the meals I provide.

Though children should be taught to be considerate of others’ emotions, it’s equally critical that they feel heard.

“If you don’t want Sam to say icky, give him alternate words,” said Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli. “I don’t like the way this tastes” or even “This pasta looks like worms” enables youngsters to express themselves honestly and, more importantly, “gives you a doorway into their thinking.”

If your kid refuses to eat spaghetti because it resembles worms, for example, instead of thinking she doesn’t enjoy pasta, try penne or bowties next time.

Change #2: Remove the “no-thank-you bite” label from the package.

We had a “no-thank-you-bite” request of our kids at the time. Dr. Rose liked the term because it let my kids know they didn’t have to eat anything they didn’t like, but it also “pre-programs the concept that it’s probably not something they’ll appreciate in the first place.” It was like a light bulb went off!

Instead, I could encourage children to be food explorers by asking them questions such as:

  • What is the scent of this food?
  • Is it similar to anything we’ve had before?
  • Is there anything that it reminds you of?
  • I should let them spit it back out if they take a taste then decide they don’t want it (politely in a napkin, of course). “Why would a youngster want to try it if they didn’t like it yet had to swallow it?” she wondered.


Change #3: Be more savvy when it comes to food.

Sam was a serial snacker, as were many toddlers and preschoolers. I was so desperate that I began referring to lunch as a “snack” in order to get him to eat it!

As a father, I was all too familiar with the pre-dinner snack dilemma: Feed them too much and they won’t eat dinner. If you feed them too little, they can have a tantrum, which might spoil dinner for the whole family.

I landed on serving raw veggies with some dip after some trial and error (apple slices were too full, a “few of crackers” was a slippery slope). It’ll be frosting on the (carrot) cake if they come to the table and eat even more vegetables with supper.

“Would you prefer red peppers or broccoli before dinner?” Sam used to say. by quickly reaching into the cabinet for cereal or granola bars

On most evenings, though, he’d consume a small portion of vegetables without any fuss. (Though, to be honest, there were evenings when he just drank the dip.) Read this article to learn how to solve the pre-dinner snack dilemma.


Change #4: Reduce the amount of food served.

Dr. Rose advised that I start placing less food on Sam’s plate after seeing my before-and-after photos of his plate, such as two pieces of fish and one bite of broccoli. “When he looks shocked, tell him that he doesn’t appear to want to eat a lot of supper,” she advises.

She said, “I should also tell him that if he wants more, he just needs to ask and I’ll get it for him.” “This strategy will shift the atmosphere during dinner in an instant, and many youngsters will react favorably to it.”

At lunch one day, I tried this with Sam, placing just two bits of sandwich on his plate. And, as Dr. Rose anticipated, he was taken aback. And after he’d eaten his two bites, he demanded more.

Change #5: Have a good time at the dinner table.

When the grandchildren refused to eat their food, my mother-in-law would play a game with them. “Don’t eat that broccoli!” she’d say, her voice somewhere between severe and comical. “Don’t eat that!” says the narrator. The youngsters began by laughing hysterically. They then proceeded to eat the broccoli.

To be honest, I used to believe it was all a load of nonsense. Until I had my own children and began doing silly things on a regular basis.

We began playing this game with Sam at some point, maybe out of desperation. It was a resounding success. And my husband and I shared a glance that screamed, “Really?” with each mouthful he took. Is it really that simple?”

Dr. Rose approved our supper game, despite the fact that it seemed a little like cheating. “Even when eating, kids prefer to play and engage with their parents,” she noted.

Yes, it was approved. And we made it through.

For a few months, Sam ate just ketchup licks and bits of melon for supper, which upset me emotionally but didn’t damage him medically. His dinner strike was a brief period in his life that, like all seasons, came to an end and was replaced by something new. 

Both boys are now hungry adolescent lads who come to the table to eat supper. There will be no games. There will be no ruses. I didn’t want to rip my hair out or flee the place screaming. 

Sure, there are still dinner disasters and foods that I like that don’t work out. There have also been some stumbling blocks, such as when my son’s hunger waned and his development slowed. (For more information, see What I Learned About Feeding An Underweight Child.)

However, we now enjoy a (usually!) stress-free dinner table, and I believe some of the methods we used back then built the groundwork for that.

These tactics evolved in tandem with my children.

  • Instead of using words like “yuck” and “gross,” ask them, “What would you alter about this dish next time?”
  • We completely abandoned the “one bite rule.” A “Taste Plate,” on the other hand, was a fun method for items they were unsure about.
  • Sam’s unused dinner plate was saved, which relieved a lot of strain and offered him another chance to eat when he was ready.
  • Putting less food on my children’s plates evolved into family style or buffet dinners every night, allowing everyone to serve and eat whatever they want. (For more information, see How To Serve Dinner To Your Picky Eater.)

Are you right in the middle of things?

Whether you’re in the same boat as me, wondering if all the family dinner drama is worth it, sign up for my free e-mail course, The Finicky Eater Problem Solver, where thousands of Real Mom readers have gotten even more comfort and tactics for surviving picky eating.

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The “plates for picky eaters” is a plate that has been designed to help parents who have children who won’t eat certain foods. The plate has been created to make it easy for your child to learn how to use and enjoy new foods.

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