What to do when your child won’t eat dinner? Or maybe it seems like your child won’t eat anything but junk food? Tips for managing mealtime when your child doesn’t want to eat.
Dinner can be a stressful time of day for parents and caregivers (and kids!).
If your child is refusing dinner, you may be feeling frustrated or at a loss for new ideas. After all, we know your goal is to feed them well and help them thrive, which is really hard to do when they don’t want to eat.
Understanding why your child may be refusing dinner is important. Then, incorporating some new approaches may be helpful as you navigate this mealtime together.
Why Dinner Can Be Challenging for Kids
When your child is pushing peas off the table, or flat out saying “NO!” to the plate you’ve prepared them, it can be hard to try and look past the behavior to uncover the why behind it.
Kids refuse meals for a number of reasons.
For instance, they might be:
- Full from snacks and/or beverages throughout the day
- In a boundary-pushing stage and practicing their independence
- Feeling too pressured to eat
- Bored (of the food choices or in general)
- Overtired from school, activities, etc.
- Simply not hungry
If you can identify whether your child is experiencing one or more of these, that may help you reach a solution more quickly. However, regardless of the reason(s), putting some new practices into play can work wonders. And remember, this isn’t usually a quick-fix, but some small changes can help set everyone up for success in the long term.
What to Do When Your Child Won’t Eat Dinner
1. Work around their schedule
If your child refuses dinner, think about what kind of day – or week – they had leading up to it.
If their schedule is full of activities, they may be worn out, distracted, overstimulated or overwhelmed by the time you set a plate in front of them.
Some parents have success moving dinner to an earlier time. This can be helpful if your child refuses dinner and then asks for a ton of snacks before bed, or if you notice that your child tends to have heavy eyelids during your typical dinnertime.
Filling their bellies a little earlier, when they’re more receptive to food, may help them receive the meal while also preventing late-night snack attacks.
2. Remove distractions
One of the things we love most about meals together as a family is that it’s about more than the meal.
Help your child learn to focus on mealtime by removing any potential factors that distract from the food and the meal experience.
This means turning off the TV, putting away phones and tablets, and placing the attention toward time together.
Having meaningful conversations, sharing funny stories about the day, and asking questions can help create a positive environment that reduces pressure around eating while also encouraging kids to eat at the same time.
This also helps encourage a healthy relationship with food, and teaches your child to be present while eating, so they can learn their hunger-fullness cues.
3. Incorporate food play
We’re advocates of food play to help encourage kids at mealtim, particularly during seasons of selective eating.
This is a curiosity-provoking, creative approach to presenting food that aims to minimize pressure and remove stress from meals.
As a result, food play helps encourage kids to use all of their senses to explore the food in front of them, and often eat it, too. It creates a positive environment that may be just what many kids need to feel more comfortable and less pressured at meals.
See this post for food play ideas.
4. Have a clear start and end time
Kids need routines, and having a clear start and end time to the meal can be part of that.
With their short attention span, it’s important not to invite your child to the table unless it’s time for food to actually be served.
At the end of the meal, or when you start to notice that they’re done eating, you can help bring closure by saying something like “It looks like you’re done eating; would you like to be excused from the table?” This allows them some independence of making a decision for themselves without pressure.
If they’re done, you can ask them to clear their plates to the kitchen sink and provide options for nondisruptive activities while everyone else at the table finishes too.
Somes families have success using a “sit at the table” timer, like the ones you can use to indicate to your child that they can leave their bedroom in the morning.
This can help place boundaries around time expected to sit at the table (to eat, talk, or just interact with one another), while also teaching your child that the window of opportunity to eat is during that time.
5. Consider a bedtime snack
A bedtime snack isn’t the answer for every family, but sometimes it may just be what your child needs temporarily.
If your child isn’t eating dinner night after night, and you’re concerned that they may not be getting enough, offering a bedtime snack can provide one more opportunity to fill their tummy before bed.
If this is the case, try to prioritize healthier snack options like fruit and nut butter. Keep them as “boring” as possible as not to create a situation in which your child automatically refuses dinner in hopes of getting a sugary pre-bedtime treat.
To go along with that, avoid using bartering around snacks. Saying things like “if you eat your dinner, you get X snack tonight” can backfire. Instead, don’t draw attention to it. You can offer a generic snack around the same time every night by placing it on the table and allowing them the chance to decide whether they need it.
6. Serve smaller portions
Some kids find themselves overwhelmed by having too much food on their plate. If they’re not eating much, it may be because they’re full and not able to eat everything that was served.
An easy way to handle this is to serve your child smaller portion sizes, and letting them know that they can always have seconds if they’re still hungry.
Using smaller plates for kids can help, too.
What do you do when your child won’t eat dinner? If you’ve experienced this, or felt like your child won’t eat anything but junk food, you’re not alone! With patience, consistency, boundaries, and a new approach where needed – this too shall pass. Overall, it’s about finding what works best for your family which can take trial and error.
Chime In: Have you experienced trouble with your child not wanting to eat dinner? What has worked for your family?
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