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

Ten years ago, I was in a dark place with dinner.

Our kids were 7 and 3, and dinner was not a happy time for us.

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

Oh dinner. I vaguely remember an event that occurred around 7:30 every evening and involved eating at a leisurely pace and my husband and I speaking to each other and actually hearing all the words.

I’m not sure what happened to that meal. Lately, many of our dinners devolve into an exercise in frustration.

The reason: For the last several months, Sam (our 3 year old) has not eaten his dinner. More than a few bites, that is. And some nights, not a single forkful passes his lips.

I was at my wit’s end

We also had some dinnertime rules:

  • Come to the table–with clean hands–and sit with the family for at least 5-10 minutes. Even if you don’t plan to eat a bite of food. Dinner is a time when we (at least attempt to) sit together calmly and observe a family ritual.
  • Do not say “yuck” or “disgusting” or other equally disrespectful variations. If you don’t want something, a simple “no thank you” will do.
  • Ask to be excused before leaving the table.

Sounds like the sensible foundation for pleasant family meals right? But some nights, when Sam was clamoring for a banana 30 minutes before dinner, I had three pots going on the stove, the phone was ringing, and Henry was whining that he couldn’t find his microscopic Lego policeman’s handcuffs, it all felt just too hard.

Some nights, after spending 45 minutes preparing a delicious and well-balanced meal only to have Sam push away his plate yet again, I felt utterly defeated by that 30-pound redhead.

I kept telling myself that this too shall (probably?) pass. But in the meantime, I was at my wit’s end.

So we made some changes

The Truth About Family Dinner -- Real Mom Nutrition

Change #1: Give both kids permission to express themselves about the food I serve

Though children should certainly be taught to be mindful of other people’s feelings, it’s also important that they feel like they’re being heard.

“Give Sam replacement words if you don’t want him saying yuck,” said my friend Dina Rose, PhD, author of the book It’s Not About the Broccoli. “I don’t like the way this tastes” or even “This spaghetti looks like worms” allows kids to honestly explain why they don’t want to eat something–and equally important, “gives you a window into their minds.”

For example, if you find out your child won’t eat spaghetti because it looks like worms, you can try penne or bowties next time instead of assuming she simply doesn’t like pasta.

Change #2: Drop the “no-thank-you bite” label.

At the time, we had a “no-thank-you-bite” ask of our kids. Though Dr. Rose liked that the name let my kids know that they didn’t have to eat something they didn’t like, it also “pre-programs the idea into them that it’s probably not something they’ll enjoy in the first place”. Lightbulb moment!

Instead, I should encourage them to be explorers with new foods by asking them questions like:

  • What does this food smell like?
  • Does it look like anything we’ve eaten before?
  • Does it remind you of anything?
  • If they take a bite but decide they don’t want it after all, I should let them spit it back out (politely in a napkin, of course). “Why would a child want to try it if they thought they might not like it but have to swallow it?” she said.
Snacking Insanity -- Real Mom Nutrition

Change #3: Get smarter about snacks

Sam, like many toddlers and preschoolers, was a serial snacker. I was so desperate once I started referred to lunch as a “snack” to get him to eat it!

As a parent, I knew all too well the pre-dinner snack dilemma: Feed them too much and you’ll ruin their appetite for dinner. Feed them too little and risk a meltdown that could ruin dinner for the entire family.

After some trial-and-error (apple slices were too filling, a “couple of crackers” was a slippery slope) I settled on offering raw vegetables with some dip. That way, if they come to the table and eat even more veggies with dinner, it’s just icing on the (carrot) cake.

At first, Sam would respond to “Would you like red peppers or broccoli before dinner?” by climbing into the pantry and frantically grabbing cereal or granola bars.

But eventually, he’d eat a little dish of veggies without much fuss on most nights. (Though truth be told, some nights he simply drank the dip.) Read: How to Solve The Pre-Dinner Snack Dilemma

Change #4: Serve less food

When Dr. Rose saw mybefore-and-after shots of Sam’s plate, she suggested I start putting less food on his plate, like just two bites of fish and one bite of broccoli. “When he looks surprised, tell him that he doesn’t seem to want to eat too much dinner so you want to respect that,” she says.

I should also assure him that if he wants more, all he has to do is ask and I’ll get it for him, she said. “This technique will instantly change the dynamic at dinner, and many kids respond very positively to it.”

I tried this with Sam at lunch one day, putting just two bites of sandwich on his plate. And just as Dr. Rose predicted, he was surprised. And when he finished his two bites, he asked for some more.

Change #5: Have fun at the table

My mother-in-law had a game she played with the grandkids when they wouldn’t eat their dinner. “Don’t you eat that broccoli!” she’d warn in a voice that somehow straddled stern and silly. “Don’t you eat it!” First, the kids giggled hilariously. Then they ate the broccoli.

Frankly, I used to think it was all ridiculous. Until I had kids of my own and started doing ridiculous things all the time.

At some point, likely out of desperation, we started playing this game with Sam. It went over like gangbusters. And with every bite he put in his mouth, my husband and I exchanged a look that said, “Really? It’s that easy?”

It all felt a bit like cheating, but Dr. Rose gave our dinner game the green light. “Kids like to play and interact with their parents, even while eating,” she explained.

Yes, it passed. And we survived.

Sam eating only licks of ketchup or bites of melon for dinner for a few months may have rattled ME emotionally, but it didn’t harm him physically. His dinner strike was a short season of life that, like all seasons, passed and made way for something new. 

Today, both boys are hungry teenagers who come to the table and eat dinner. No games. No tricks. No wanting to tear out my hair or run screaming from the room. 

Sure, there are still dinner fails or meals I love that they just don’t. There have also been other bumps in the road, like the period when my son’s appetite shrunk and his growth faltered. (Read: What I Learned About Feeding An Underweight Kid.)

But these days we have a (mostly!) stress-free dinner table, and I know some of the strategies we put into place back then laid the foundation for that.

These strategies also grew and changed along with my kids.

  • Asking them to express themselves instead of “yuck” and “gross” became “What would you change about this recipe next time?”
  • We dropped the “one bite rule entirely”. But a “Taste Plate” was a fun strategy for foods they were skeptical about.
  • Saving Sam’s untouched dinner plate took a lot of pressure off and gave him another opportunity to eat when he was ready.
  • Putting less food onto my kids’ plates morphed into family style or buffets every night, freeing up everyone to serve and eat what they wanted. (Read: The Best Way To Serve Dinner To Your Picky Eater.)

Are you in the thick of things?

If you’re in that bad place where I was, wondering whether all the family dinner drama is even worth it, you’ll get even more reassurance and strategies for surviving picky eating by signing up for my free e-mail course that thousands of Real Mom readers have taken: The Picky Eater Problem Solver.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.