“My child isn’t eating dinner!”, “He refuses dinner and only wants snacks”, “Will he be okay if he doesn’t eat dinner?”

These are all questions and concerns we have heard from loving parents who have a toddler who has refused a meal, or two. Before discussing strategies for how to help this behavior, it is important to take a step back and identify, is this a problem or our your expectations too high? There is a lot of information available to parents on what mealtimes should look like, what food your child should be eating, and how your child should grow. This is helpful, but can also add a lot of pressure for a parent to feel that every mealtime has to be “perfect”.  For a child who has a healthy relationship with food, and no past medical trauma that would inhibit their ability to self-regulate, it is okay to start accepting their “no” and looking at the big picture of their eating habits.  

So what’s normal? 

As children learn to self-regulate, meaning that they know how to take in enough food over time to respond to what their body needs, their intake may be up and down. Every meal is not going to look the exact same and it is important to focus on long-term changes to know if your child is getting what they need. By focusing on their growth, development, participation, and social interactions during mealtimes, you can identify if your child is getting what they need. Instead of focusing on meal to meal, try to look at the big picture across a week and identify if there is a trend during a certain mealtime, or if there is a real problem. 

As children develop into their toddler years, there is a big push for independence in all areas of development. This is specifically noticeable during mealtimes when they want to start to exert independence as they are learning to respond to what their body needs. It is developmentally appropriate for your child to refuse food sometimes! Remember, your child knows their hunger more than you do and saying “no” is not always a need for independence, but also their way of telling you that their body does not need food right now. 

How much do they need? 

Parents almost always over estimate what a child size portion is and how much their child needs to eat. A toddler sized meal is different than an adult sized meal, as they have different energy needs and therefore, need less food. When a child is served an adult portion, this can be overwhelming and sometimes feel like pressure to “finish their plate”. Your child may be eating plenty, but when the portion size given is so large, it may seem that they didn’t even make a dent. We often recommend parents look at visuals of what a child size portion really is, as this is often very eye-opening to both therapists and parents. We found a great resource here!

What do I do? 

The Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility states that parents decide the what, where, and when of the mealtime and the child decides if, and how much they are going to eat. It is important to keep this in mind during mealtimes and snacks. Here are a few strategies to help with refusing food during mealtimes: 

  • Make sure your child knows the routine and expectation of their schedule so they are prepared when there is not another opportunity to eat. For example, if the routine is afternoon snack, dinner, then bedtime, your child will recognize that routine. 
  • In your no, offer a yes. For example, “We already had dinner, but I’d love it if you could help me with breakfast”. This gets your child involved in the next meal, but also shows that you are listening to your child and hearing their complaint. 
  • Save a fun activity for after dinner such as reading for a book, going for a walk, or helping to prepare breakfast for the morning. 
  • Focus less on your child who is refusing and more on your family mealtime. Talk about things other than food at the mealtime and although you do not want to ignore your child, you also do not want them to feel as though they are being “interrogated” for not eating. 
  • Looking at your general mealtime routine and making changes if you notice a trend. For example, if your child loves their afternoon snack, but is tired and often refuses dinner, maybe move your “dinner” to their snack time and give them a small snack with their family at dinnertime.

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