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Your Toddler Is Not Eating Dinner, Here’s Why.

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Inside: Toddlers not eating dinner is common. In this article I’ll explain why toddlers would rather not eat dinner. Plus, I’ll explain how to make dinnertime better and what to do the rest of the day to make sure your child is getting what they need.

You’ve made it through the tough hour before dinner time. You got dinner on the table. Now your toddler is not eating dinner. Not at all. Not even a little bit. You’ve tried “eat 3 more bites and then you can get down!” and the good ol’ “No dessert unless you eat your dinner!” You’ve tried “You have to eat it!”

Basically, you’ve tried everything, but your deliciously cute toddler is not eating.

Believe it or not, this is common, and here’s why.

Related: Get your Picky Toddler on the Road to Eating More Foods

1. The Number 1 Reason Why Your Toddler is Not Eating Dinner

Your toddler is tired!

Toddler life is exhausting. All that running around and getting into things. All that exploring. All those opinions to protect. All that eating. All that napping. Exhausting. So, exhausting.

By the time toddlers get to dinner, they are actually tired. Eating takes a lot of energy. Balancing yourself upright, coordinating eating and drinking and swallowing, using hands or utensils, chewing, and all the things that go into mealtimes use a lot of your toddler’s concentration and energy.

After a long day, they may not be hungry or be interested in trying to do mealtime, because they are tired.

What to do about a tired toddler

Instead of sweating it, plan ahead that your child is just going to be tired at dinner time. Don’t have high expectations that they will eat a great meal.

That’s not the only reason your toddler is not eating at dinner time, though.

2. Your Toddler is Not Eating Dinner, Because That’s Where the Veggies are Served

Often parents do not serve fruits, veggies, or “grown up” food throughout the earlier part of the day. Maybe the parents serve more processed foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Then, at dinner time, they bring out the veggies, chicken, and rice.

Toddlers may not eat dinner because they haven’t had as much exposure to foods that aren’t highly processed. They may not have had enough exposures to veggies to learn to like them yet, and so they just refuse to eat dinner.

Some toddlers require hundreds of exposures to various foods before they learn to like them.

What to do about lack of food exposures

Start serving fruits and veggies throughout the day, so that your child gets more exposure to them. If you’re struggling knowing what to feed your toddler, this article may help:

Six ways to add veggies to breakfast when your toddler is not eating dinner. In oatmeal, on the side of yogurt, a tiny exposure amount with a meal, in a smoothie, leftovers from dinner as a lunch side, and a variety of veggies served with dip.

Related: Reverse Picky Eating with our Picky Eaters Food Guide

3. Grazing Is Making Your Toddler Not Eat Dinner

Grazing is when your toddler eats every hour or so all day long. They eat whenever they want and wherever they want. Grazing prevents kids from getting hungry for meals. It can lead to kids eating too much or too little for their bodies.

What to do about grazing

A strong toddler feeding schedule is set and enforced by the parents. This means that a toddler is not eating all the time. Instead, the toddler eats at some times and does not eat at other times, and learns to be hungry for meals.

4. Toddlers Don’t Eat Dinner Because Parents are Pressuring Them

When a parent pressures a child during a meal, to eat more or take a bite, the toddler often will further refuse to eat the meal. Parents engage their child’s will and try to use force to get the child to eat more.

The problem with this, is it doesn’t work very well. You may eek out a few more bites from your toddler, but over all, they will eat less, they will like healthy food less, and dinner time may explode into chaos.

What to do about using pressure

What to do about this? Stop using pressure to get your child to eat food. Often parents don’t want to stop pressuring their child to eat. When parents in my BetterBites picky eater program stop using pressure, they often say it was one of the most powerful things they learned.

5. A Rescue Snack Is Making Your Toddler Not Eat Dinner

Another common reason toddlers refuse to eat dinner, is because their grown ups are giving them a rescue snack right after the meal. For example, during the meal, the child refuses to eat whatever is being served for dinner. Instead they demand something else.

Initially, the parent stands firm and doesn’t give them any different foods during the meal. Ten minutes after the meal, however, the parents worry that their child hasn’t had enough to eat and will be hungry over the night. They quickly make a snack for the child and the child gets what they wanted.

When toddlers know they can get whatever they want 10 minutes after a meal, they often just wait for dinner to pass and hold out for the rescue snack.

What to do about rescue snacks?

Stop using rescue snacks. Instead, if your toddler is not eating much, make sure that you are providing the proper structure for your child at mealtime. You choose when the food is served, where it is served, and you also choose what food is served during the meal. Make sure they have a food they usually like at the meal, and then hold firm when the meal is over. They can eat at the next routine eating opportunity.

Related: The 1 Thing You Need to Know About Feeding Toddlers

Hope this has helped you get a better idea of why your toddler is not eating dinner and what you can do about it!

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hanna Armstrong

    Which age range of toddler is this applicable to?

  2. Shikha Shankar

    Hi Jennifer. Being tired is making my 5-year old become a fussy eater at dinner time, and this blog post helped me understand that. Thank you so much for this helpful post 😉

  3. Jenna

    I love this!

    I’ve read and heard advice about toddler eating that you referenced above, such as providing one item that they like, but I found the last portion of the post to be especially useful. Thank you for giving suggestions of what to say to kids who don’t want to try food! Also, it’s helpful to know that if I don’t provide a rescue snack, my child will be ok…especially if they eat at the other meals.

    I think I’m going to try the responses with my 8-year-old too, who often makes comments about dinner. 🙂

  4. Megan

    So if the answer is that the toddler is tired, should I try to get dinner served sooner? I have not given in with rescue snacks and he seems fine with not eating anything- sleeps through the night. Should I let him just not eat? I worry because he seems excited for dinner when I say it’s time, then as soon as he sees it- he immediately shuts down and won’t eat.

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