When Your Toddler Won't Eat: How to Handle a Dinner Strike

When your picky eater refuses to pick up a fork, it's maddening (but normal). Here's how to handle it.

When my son was two years old, he went on an epic dinner strike. He ate little more than a lick of ketchup or a bite of bread at dinnertime, if he ate anything at all. To make matters worse, he clamored for snacks just before (and just after) the family meal.

Sound familiar? Toddler dinner strikes are a maddening, but fairly typical phase. The sudden growth surge of the baby years has slowed, so your child isn't as hungry as he used to be. He's learned the word "no" and the power that food refusals have on mom and dad. It's also exhausting being a toddler. Dinnertime, at the end of a long and busy day, is not usually a toddler's finest moment.

But even though it's normal, it can still be frustrating! So here's how to survive a strike:

toddler refusing to eat
Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (1)

Limit snacks. Pre-dinner snacks can sabotage the meal if your toddler is coming to the table already full. Keep snacks at least an hour away from dinner. If your child regularly melts down before dinner, move the meal forward, if possible, during this season of life. If all else fails, serve a bowl of microwaved peas, some carrot sticks, or a component of the meal (if ready).

Include well-liked foods. Don't cater to your toddler's whims for nightly nuggets. Serve one dinner to everyone, but be sure there's something on the table your child reliably eats, even if it's just rice or fruit. If your child demands something different, explain that this meal is what you're having and remind him that there's rice or fruit if he doesn't like the other foods. It's okay if your child has seconds or thirds of that well-liked food. You are creating a safe space at the table, and your child will eventually branch out.

Stay cool. Don't let what your toddler eats (or doesn't eat) affect your emotional state, because reacting may make things worse. If your child declares she doesn't want dinner, tell her that's okay but she needs to sit with the family at mealtime. If she says she's done after one bite, remain neutral and make sure she knows when the next chance to eat will be.

Have a bedtime snack strategy. There are two schools of thought on this: If a child doesn't want to eat dinner, he can eat again at breakfast (a more tough love approach that I was personally never able to execute). Then there's an idea I picked up from sociologist Dina Rose, author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Serve something boring but filling, like a cup of milk or some cottage cheese (or some dinner leftovers for that matter) so your child doesn't go to bed hungry—but also doesn't get rewarded for skipping dinner with a fun bedtime snack.

Be consistent. If your child is used to on-demand PBJs at dinnertime or favorite foods as bedtime snacks, these changes may be rough-going at first. But your child will adapt if you stay the course.

Most of all, hang in there. I can assure you that your child will eventually eat more than a lick of ketchup (my toddler who wouldn't touch his dinner is now a tween who happily scarfs down supper). And believe it or not, family dinner will someday be an enjoyable experience for everyone.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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