3 Strategies to Use When Your Child Refuses to Eat Dinner

This might be a surprise to hear, but it is 100% normal for children to begin to refuse to eat certain foods or particular meals (especially between the ages 2-5 years old). Why? Toddlers are at the age where they start to assert their independence and crave more control over their day-to-day agenda. This naturally extends to their decision to eat and try different foods.

We know this as “picky eating” and kids often flow in and out of this phase as they grow. It is normal for their eating patterns to seem random and completely unpredictable at times. There will be days when your child does not eat much at all, and days when they can’t seem to get enough food. The fact is kids grow in “spurts” and their energy and nutrient requirements fluctuate along with these growth spurts.

However, there are also a variety of behavioral reasons why your child may be refusing to eat dinner. As a dietitian and mom of three, I have 3 strategies for you that can help identify and address the underlying cause of your child’s mealtime refusal. I also want you to know that as The Learning Tree’s Registered Dietitian, I help the caregivers and staff at the Learning Tree understand the below philosophies and implement them at the Learning Tree at meal and snack time to help nurture your child’s relationship with food!

1) Follow the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding
The DOR is an evidence-based feeding philosophy that promotes a positive mealtime experience and fosters intuitive eating in children. It defines the caregiver’s feeding role as having responsibility over what, where, and when food is offered. The child’s responsibility in feeding is to decide if they eat, and how much of the offered food they eat. Yes, you heard that right. With this strategy, your child has 100% control over whether or not they eat! This can feel like a scary concept for parents who feel an obligation  to make sure their child eats at least “a few bites” of dinner before they can leave the table. You are not alone in this. As parents, we do have the responsibility of offering a variety of nourishing foods to our children. However, the act of pressuring your child to eat or approaching supper with an agenda in mind (although well-intentioned) unfortunately backfires in the long run.

Here’s the thing: It is not your job to get your child to eat! I give you full permission to hand that job back over to your child. By taking a step back and allowing children to explore, smell, and eventually taste foods in their own time, they are shown patience and trust in their ability to feed themselves. Empowering them with the independence of choosing how they desire to eat; kids will feel a sense of autonomy, reducing their need to assert control (which shows up when they refuse to eat dinner). It’s a win-win! They will learn how to eat intuitively while feeling safe enough to explore foods at their own pace (without feeling the need to retaliate against pressure)!

2) Avoid negotiation at the dinner table and focus on connection
Creating a positive and enjoyable experience at the dinner table is definitely an underappreciated strategy when it comes to preventing meal refusal. As mentioned above, many well-meaning parents develop the habit of micromanaging their child’s intake at meals (especially supper!), through persuasion, bribery, or even direct punishment. Unfortunately, dinner table negotiation to get your child to eat often results in the opposite outcome. To avoid this pitfall, here are some ways to create connection instead:
• Incorporate food exploration to help engage them in their meal but in a fun and pressure-free way. Try engaging in pretend play by saying things like “Look I’m a big monster eating this tiny tree!” while you take a bite of broccoli. Or ask curious questions like “Hmm I wonder what the layers look like inside my cheesy lasagna.”
• Tell them about your day, but more engaging like it’s story time!
• Ask them about their day, their friends, and what activities they did.
• Comment on how proud of them you are.
• Finally, aim to have no distractions during mealtime by turning off or putting away phones and other devices.

The research shows that children who experience positive family meals regularly are much more likely to have higher self-esteem, as well as a better relationship with food and body image as they grow!

3) Include your child in mealtime decisions without abandoning structure
Including your child in mealtime decisions will help them feel a sense of control and involvement in their eating. They are much more likely to try and *possibly even eat* a meal that they feel they were involved in planning. Here’s how to do it without fully relinquishing what is served feeding role to your child:
• Ask them how they would like their meal served. For example, they may prefer deconstructed tacos to everything wrapped together. Or maybe they prefer the stir-fry sauce on the side.
• Allow them to dish their plate themselves by serving each meal component “family-style” in the centre of the table. This allows them to choose which foods they want to eat and how much.
• Give them a structured choice between 2 dinner meal options. This way you still have control over what is served, with the benefit of your child feeling involved in the decision. For example, you could ask “Which meal would you prefer tonight: tacos or pasta and meat sauce?”

With that said, your parent intuition is extremely valuable when it comes to your child’s health. If you feel there is something deeper going on when it comes to your child’s eating, be sure to connect with a pediatrician and book in with a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition.