Help, my toddler won’t eat dinner! We’ve got you covered with 5 quick tricks you can start using right away to help your toddler at the dinner table. Plus, some toddler approved dinner ideas too.
Little Jack was lifted into his highchair while his mom was hoping with all her heart that he would eat tonight’s dinner and not just throw it all over the floor. She was getting worried. Jack ate okay at breakfast and lunch, although he wasn’t the best eater. But, dinner? Forget it.
Sometimes, he seemed angry and would throw everything on the floor. Other times, it was like he could have cared less what food was in front of him.
His mom worried though that he’d wake up in the middle of the night if he didn’t eat. She didn’t understand how he could just skip dinner and not be hungry.
Help! My Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner!
It’s stressful when your toddler won’t eat dinner. You worry about their nutrition and if they’ve had enough calories to sustain them. Maybe they used to crush 3 jars of baby food just a few months ago and now they eat nothing.
In this post, I’ll help you understand what’s going on with so many toddlers skipping dinner and give you some quick tricks you can start using right now to help your toddler eat their next dinner
Why Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner…
While it might seem strange and disconcerting that your toddler sometimes (or always) doesn’t want to eat dinner, it’s actually quite common. At 1 year of age, a child’s caloric needs decreases.
That means that they literally don’t need as much food as they did when they were a baby.
Even though they’re physically bigger now, their growth slows down considerably compared to the first year. Think about the exponential growth your baby went through in that first year of life. It’s A LOT.
Couple that with a toddler’s increasing cognitive and mobility skills, and they can’t be contained.
Toddlers are curious. They want to move and interact with their environment continuously. That’s what they’re supposed to do, and eating isn’t always a priority for them.
In fact, it’s quite normal for toddlers to eat a really big meal one day and then hardly eat for several meals or days afterwards. It’s like they store up all their calories and will only bother with eating when they absolutely have to.
You Might Not Need to Worry About Your Toddler Not Eating Dinner
That means if your child is eating well the rest of the day, with 2 main meals, 1-2 snacks, and 16 oz. of milk, then it’s probably okay if your toddler is barely eating dinner. But, if they’re skipping dinner every night, then run it by your doctor to make sure they’re a healthy weight and height. Chances are they’re right on track.
If your child is skipping a lot of meals and isn’t eating well in general, then you will need to work on them eating better across all their meals.
The 5 tips below are a great place to start!
We also have two workshops that could help, depending on your situation. If your child is still on baby foods or just milk, then grab a seat in the free 5 Accidental Mistakes Parents Make When Feeding Their Baby Table Foods workshop. Or, if your toddler is eating table foods and they’re just P-I-C-K-Y, then grab a seat in the picky eating workshop here.
5 Quick Tricks to Get Toddlers to Eat Dinner
#1. Change it up!
My favorite thing to do as an occupational therapist when toddlers aren’t eating is to change up their food. That does NOT mean going to the pantry and continuing to pull out different foods until you find one they agree to eat.
That’s an easy trap to fall into, but one you’ll want to avoid, because it reinforces that they don’t have to eat what you provided.
Instead, change their food in some way. If you gave them a whole piece of buttered bread with dinner, try cutting it into slices or small squares. Or, if you already cut it all up, give them a whole piece.
Toddlers often love to eat big pieces of food like adults.
If they have a ton of food on their tray, remove a bunch of it, leaving just a few pieces of each type of food.
You can also change it up by grabbing a bowl if the food is just on their tray, and placing the food inside the bowl. Or, by giving them a different fork or by piercing a piece of the food onto the fork and leaving it lay there.
The point in changing it up is to re-direct and re-engage. This is one way we can leverage a toddlers short attention span. When you change something on your toddler’s plate or tray, they’re curious about what you’re doing and often want to explore it.
As you make these small changes, stay calm and even a little nonchalant, letting your child discover what you’ve changed.
#2. Make sure they’ve had NOTHING to eat or drink, except water, for at least 2 hours before the meal
Toddlers would rather graze all day long then sit and eat a meal. Unfortunately, if we let them do that, they don’t learn to eat meals well. They can also get into the habit of demanding a snack or milk at random intervals throughout the day.
Although a handful of puffs wouldn’t stop our appetite, it often does for a child, especially a toddler.
They’d rather be playing so if they can just take the edge off their appetite enough so they’re not starving they’re content. A couple of sips of milk or handful of crackers will do just that.
Their stomach is only the size of their fist.
Try to only let your child have water for 2-3 hours before dinner and see if that makes a difference with them eating!
#3. Serve something they typically like to eat
Toddlers, just like older kids, don’t like to come to the table and see a bunch of new food they’ve never tried. It can get overwhelming, and they may immediately shut down.
But, if they see just one thing on their plate or tray that they typically eat, that could save the whole dinner.
This one food that they typically eat doesn’t necessarily need to go with the rest of the dinner, but it would be great if you could eat some of it too. This sends the message that the food isn’t just for them.
#4. Keep them in their chair
If your toddler throws everything on the floor and is then crying to get out, try to re-engage them at the table. Sing a little song. Give them some water or milk to drink. Let them have a bowl and spoon with a little bit of food in it.
Encourage them to stir the spoon. To play with their food or utensils.
Ideally, we’d like toddlers to sit in their highchair for around 20 minutes, although up to 30 minutes is appropriate if your toddler can tolerate it. If they’re only lasting 2 minutes, then slowly increase the time that they’re in their high chair or booster.
Aim for 5 minutes, then 8, then 10 and so on.
If you need more help getting your kid to tolerate sitting at the dinner table, then head to how to keep your toddler seated for meals.
The reason this is important is because they may begin to eat after initially refusing, but if they’ve got down and started playing, it’s unlikely to happen at all. Plus, bringing them to the table and expecting them to sit there teaches them the importance of meals.
#5. Give them a dip for their food!
Toddlers love dips. They’re fun and giving them a little bowl of ranch, peanut butter, or ketchup can get them interested in the meal again. You can have this set up at the start of the meal or use it in conjunction with the first trick and pull out a dip when they’re refusing to eat.
Demonstrate how to use the dip and give them a fork to use if they don’t want their hands getting messy (although mess is good for them and over time, encourage it).
Get a list of 47 dip ideas to try here.
Dinner Ideas for Toddlers
Need some inspiration for some toddler friendly dinner ideas? Here’s a quick list, but you can get a huge list of toddler meal ideas and a printable right here.
- Cheese and chicken quesadillas with slices of avocado
- Mini meatballs in spaghetti sauce and elbow macaroni noodles
- Homemade tender chicken nuggets, cubed potatoes, and pan fried green beans in olive oil
- Fish cakes, naan bread torn into pieces, watermelon cubes, and cooked carrots
Do you have your game plan together for the next dinner with your toddler? Remember to talk to your doctor if your child is really struggling to eat and get a seat in our free workshop. Choose some of the quick tips to try today so you can enjoy your dinner too.
Yes, that’s possible.
Tell me in the comments which trick you’re most excited to try!
More on Toddler’s Eating
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.