If there is one situation every mother dreads it is her child going to bed hungry. We worry what if he wakes up in the middle of the night, and can’t get back to sleep after that.
Most moms must have faced this situation at least once in their mothering stint. So, what to do when your toddler won’t eat dinner? Do you force-feed him? Do you bribe him with cookies? Do you go with the flow and pray you don’t have another sleepless night at hand?
5 Tips For When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner
Assess daily routine and make modifications
Let us start by assessing the situation first.
How frequently does the child go to bed without a proper meal?
Does dinner need to be moved to a more earlier or later time?
Is the child still full at dinner from the last snack? Maybe consider lighter snack options like fruit or move dinner to later in the daily routine.
If the child is skipping dinner regularly, it may be time to change the routine to accommodate a proper time for dinner.
In my experience, the days when our toddler has got a good amount of outside active play time he eats a bigger dinner. Make sure to include enough time outside so the child can work up an appetite.
Offer a favorite food at dinner
One way to make sure that skipping dinner does not become a habit is to offer at least one of your toddler’s favorite foods at dinner. That way you know he will try what’s on the plate and most likely finish dinner too.
Make sure that the favorite food offered is something healthy not a treat food like cookies, or muffins.
Tackle hunger pangs at bedtime
Many times the child skips dinner and then demands something to eat at bedtime. By now, most mothers have wrapped up dinner and the usual go-to bedtime snack ends up being some sort of a treat food like cookies.
When this happens routinely we are unknowingly sending a message to the child that if he waits long enough he will get a treat food instead.
This becomes a vicious cycle and every day at dinner the child expects the treat food instead of dinner. You lose your temper, he persists with the demand and you give in at the end, not wanting the child to sleep with an empty stomach.
So the next time your toddler won’t eat dinner and is hungry at bedtime offer a simple but filling and nutritious snack. Options to try;
-a banana with some nut butter,
-an apple with nut butter,
-a bowl of oats porridge (Read here for oats recipes for kids)
-a glass of milk
Banana and oats are foods that are known to promote sound sleep. Here is an older post on toddler sleep tips that includes an in-depth list of sleep-promoting foods and food combinations.
When the toddler goes to bed without dinner
Which brings me to the point, what do you do when the child is tired at dinner and only wants to sleep. You know he is going to be hungry sometime in the night and this may disturb his sleep. But at the same time, you don’t want to be force feeding your child.
In this particular situation, I would say just breathe and let it go. We need to respect the child’s body rhythms. These situations don’t happen very often and what is better, a child crying at the table over his plate of food? or sleeping peacefully?
Most likely he had a really long day and is too exhausted to eat. On such nights I have noticed my son doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night. He usually has a huge breakfast the next morning.
And if he does wake up in the middle of the night, oh well, I have a glass of milk and some fruit and nuts waiting for him in the fridge.
Honestly speaking in the last 3 years, from the handful of times our son went off to bed without dinner he only woke up once in the middle of the night from hunger. All the other times he was so tired he slept through the night.
All I am saying is, that these situations probably happen a couple of nights a year and you should not stress yourself and your child over dinner.
But, if this looks like a recurring theme in your home, you need to move dinner to an earlier time or make sure your child has a heavy snack at least.
Until then, your child is learning to regulate his appetite, understand his appetite and hunger and will slowly get into a meal routine.
At other times, when you can predict that your child may skip dinner altogether, example when at an evening party or a late play date, you can offer an early snackable dinner before you head out.
Fill a snack tray with fun but nutritious and filling options for your child to fill up on before the party.
This idea is a great way to avoid your child from overeating on sugary treat foods at the party and you are assured that even if he skips dinner altogether at the party he had something nutritious earlier in the evening.
At social gatherings, little children get excited around their peers and are more interested in play than the dinner offered.
Example of foods to offer as snackable dinner: quick eats like boiled eggs, chopped carrots, cucumbers, whole wheat crackers with hummus, a little fruit, nut butter, or energy bites. I always stock my house with these essentials and prep such ingredients regularly to be able to quickly build a plate of food when needed.
To sum it up
All I want to leave you with is to relax and learn to trust your child’s appetite. This is the foundation for building lifelong healthy eating habits.
Force feeding, shaming, blaming, and lecturing on the quantity of food is not going to help.
As a mom, go with your gut feeling, you know when things are actually going south. For all the other times they are doing just fine. We don’t have the same appetite every day of our lives, do we?
Since I get asked this question many times, I hope I have been able to answer adequately. If you have more doubts or queries regarding toddler feeding, do leave me a comment below and I will try my best to provide solutions.
Here is a previous post on common toddler feeding habits, problems, and solutions.
What do you do when your toddler won’t eat dinner? Let me know in the comments below.