Healthy Kids

Mealtime Struggles: What To Do When Your Kid Won’t Eat Dinner

Dinnertime can be a stressful part of the day, am I right? 

I mean, think about it. You and your kids are likely at the end of your ropes after school, work, errands and everything else that happens throughout the day. 

Now it’s time to eat the last meal of the day, and many kids want nothing to do with dinner. 

If you’ve found yourself in this position with your own child, you’re likely feeling frustrated and at your wit’s end. 

After putting in the time and energy to feed your family, having a kid who straight up doesn’t want to eat dinner can feel like downright rejection. 

I know it doesn’t end there, though. If your child doesn’t show interest in wanting to eat dinner or is complaining about the food before you even had a chance to put it on the table, it can trigger something inside you that sucks you right into a power struggle. 

Before you know it, you’re negotiating with your kid to sit at the table. Stay at the table. Try one bite. Eat some of this, you might like it! Come back and sit your bottom down at the table…right now! 

And so the cycle goes, on and on, leaving you frazzled and frustrated, and your child fuming. 

I understand because I was right there, too. As a mom of 5, I’ve been around the block a time or two and have had my fair share of mealtime battles with my kids. I know the pressure we feel as parents to make sure our kids eat something before sending them off to bed and how unnerving it can feel when they don’t have any interest in eating. 

Especially if you have a child who’s a pickier eater or more selective about the foods they’ll eat, it can be super worrisome if they’re rejecting a meal and flat out uninterested in eating anything you’ve offered them for a meal. 

I’ve been there and want you to know you have tools to help you through this so mealtimes don’t feel like such a battle for you anymore.

Because the reality is, if you’re stuck in a power struggle with your child and trying to get them to eat when they don’t want to eat, it’s a lose-lose scenario for both of you. Not to mention, this approach to feeding our kids can unintentionally create negative aversions around food, making them more likely to want to avoid eating in the first place. 

Negative associations with eating can also make it harder for your child to build a positive relationship with food. Helping your child build a healthy relationship with food starts with the mealtimes you’re having together and the environment of those mealtimes. If it’s stressful and anxiety provoking for you, your child is likely going to feel that too. 

So what is it about dinner that can feel so challenging at times? And what should you do if your child doesn’t show any interest in eating dinner?

Let’s dive into this topic more so you can have the tools you need to navigate this. 

Why Dinner Can Be a Challenging Meal for Kids

First, let’s look at the dinner meal itself. Why can this meal be so much harder for kids to eat? And why is it often a meal that many kids would be happier with skipping out on altogether? 

Well, there’s a few reasons why. 

As alluded to earlier, you and your kids are at the bottom of your capacity, simply because it’s the end of the day. You’re exhausted. Your kids are tired. There’s still a daunting bedtime routine that stands between you and sleep. You likely have a million other things on your mind and tasks that need to be done. If your kids are in school, they’ve had a lot on their plates over the course of their day too. 

All that to say, your energy levels may be pretty bottomed out, and your tolerance for things that are challenging and stressful is pretty next to nothing. 

Now let’s look at your kids, too. Your children have been eating all day around the clock. Especially if they’re at school – breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and now they need to come home and eat all over again. 

For some children, especially those with lower appetitive tendencies, eating another meal might just be that straw that broke the camel’s back. They might be checked out and over it, and they might not even really feel hungry for a big meal at the end of the day. 

Many children tend to front load their calories during their earlier parts of their days; meaning, their appetites might be higher earlier in the day, making them better able to get in what they need (calorically and nutritionally). 

If you think your child might be in this camp, you may notice they tend to be more willing to eat at breakfast, for morning snack and at lunch compared to eating times that are later in the day. This pattern of eating isn’t uncommon for children, which can also lead to waning interest around food as the day goes on. This means by dinner time, your child may be feeling tapped out when it comes to eating, as they’ve likely gotten a majority of what they’ve needed in the earlier part of the day. 

We also tend to put a bigger emphasis on dinner compared to other meals, and sometimes, we can have the expectations that our kids need to be eating more than they realistically can do.  

The formality of dinner compared to other eating times during the course of the day can create unintentional pressure for kids to eat. And remember, if children are feeling any sort of pressure to eat at mealtimes, this will only backfire and likely make them more resistant to eating anything at all. 

Other things to consider are your children’s attention spans and capacities. 

If your kids are in school, keep in mind they may be tired of sitting and complying for dinner after a day full of having to do so in their classrooms, which may leave them with little bandwidth leftover and shorter attention spans at the end of the day.  By the end of the day, the constant input your kids have had can also lead to dysregulated moods, irritability and even meltdowns before the meal has even started (hello – witching hour!).

The combination of where your children may be – emotionally and physically – in addition to the expectations you may have around how or what they should be eating at dinner time, can add up to a chaotic combination that results in power struggles between you and your kiddos. 

If you’ve been stuck in this cycle for some time, you may even come to dread dinner time, and I can bet your child feels the same way. 

So in understanding some of the reasons around why dinner can be a challenging meal for children, what can you do about it to avoid these battles and mealtime struggles? 

Check out these tips in the next section to help you through this! 

What To Do When Your Kid Won’t Eat Dinner

  1. Adjust Your Expectations: 

In order to help you create an eating environment that feels safe and more positive for your children, it’s important to adjust your expectations about what your kids can realistically do – both eating-wise and around their behavior at dinnertime, too. 

Remember what we discussed earlier, about how kids may be disinterested in dinner if they have the tendency to front-load their calories and nutrient needs earlier in the day. Shortened attention spans and decreased emotional capacities by the end of the day can also leave your children with more limited abilities to sit at the table for any significant lengths of time. 

Keep these things in mind as you come into dinnertime with your family. 

What are your current expectations for your children at dinnertime, and are these expectations realistic for your kids, given where they might be by the end of the day? Laying down your own expectations can help you meet your kids where they’re at and create an environment that feels more supportive of their capabilities. 

Adjusting expectations for your children can also help you take the pressure off yourself. You don’t need to feel the need to micromanage what your child is eating at dinner. It’s not actually your job to get your child to eat certain foods or amounts. Which leads into the next point. 

2. Trust your child to eat what is needed: 

When looking at this situation, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. 

The goal with feeding our kids is not to raise compliant children who will eat whatever we put in front of them. The goal is to raise competent children who have a healthy relationship with food and who are able to self-regulate what their bodies need from a variety of foods. 

This is not going to happen if you try to micromanage what your child is eating at any given meal time or pressure them to eat in a certain way. Remember, the only person living in your child’s body is your child. 

Children have the innate capabilities to self-regulate what they need from the foods you provide. 

It comes down to this: Parents provide, children decide. 

Meaning, it’s your job to provide regular eating opportunities to your children, and it’s your children’s jobs to decide: 1) Whether or not they even want to eat at a given meal or snack, and 2) What they want to eat from the foods you’ve provided, and 3) How much they want to eat from the foods you’ve made available to them. 

Trust them to eat what they need from the foods you provide, even if that means it’s only a bite of something or a gulp of milk. If they say they’re done, don’t pressure. 

Research has shown that when children feel pressured to eat or comply with a caregiver’s agenda for eating, this can create aversions to the very foods they might be pressured to eat – even just eating anything altogether. In addition, pressuring children to eat can be associated with lower fruit and vegetable intake and higher pickiness.

At the end of the day, you want to continue exposing your children to various foods but don’t pressure them to eat those foods.  

3. Create a positive environment: 

If your mealtime environment is stressful, chances are your child won’t really want to be part of it (not willingly anyhow). 

So how can you ensure you’re creating a more inviting environment at mealtimes, especially during dinner, when this meal may already be challenging for the little people in your life. 

A couple ideas to consider to help you create a more positive eating environment include having safe and accepted foods for your child as part of your meal and focusing on connecting with your child over worrying about what/how they’re eating. 

Let’s talk briefly about the first part. 

Having at least 1-2 food components that are accepted can help your child feel safer coming to the table. This doesn’t mean you want to cater your meal to be only foods your child will eat, but you do want to include some of their preferred foods at mealtimes to help them identify at least something they’re comfortable eating. 

The second part of this is that you want to make mealtimes more about connecting with your child in a positive way. If you feel pressured to get your child to eat in a certain way, it’s going to be harder for all of you to actually enjoy the time together. 

Creating a positive eating environment is more beneficial for your child’s health than them actually eating (yes, even those vegetables!). 

Try not to make mealtimes about getting them to take so many bites of broccoli or any other foods you might have on the table. 

Instead, try to focus on connection over nutrition, trust they process, they’ll get what they need from the foods you provide. 

Switch up the environment if you need to, to create a more enjoyable and relaxing mealtime for everyone. If a meal and the family dinner table just feels like too much for everyone, go for something different, more doable. 

This might look like a pizza night picnic on the living room floor or pulling up your chairs to the kitchen island if that feels like less pressure. There’s no one right way to approach family meals, and the most important thing is that you’re creating an environment that feels positive for your family. For more on this, be sure to check out this blog post here: “Healthy Eating For Picky Eaters Starts With Connection Over Nutrition

4. Bring closure to the meal: 

For many families, dinnertime can feel like prolonged torture of getting kids to eat and stay at the table. You might observe your child leaving the table because they’re not interested in eating, only to come back, begrudgingly, because they were told to eat more, try another bite of something, etc. 

This is where it’s important to remember that for many kids at this time of day, there may not be a huge attention span for dinner or the capacity to sit at the table for any significant amount of time. 

And that’s okay! 

Rather than forcing your dinnertime to be something that it’s not, consider allowing your child to end their meal and be excused, if they truly have seemed to have finished eating what they needed and are no longer interested in being at the table. 

How will you know if your child has reached this point? Typically, kids won’t show any interest in their food anymore. They’ll start to leave the table and wander around, they may want to go into another room and play with toys. 

Instead of forcing them to stay at the table when they’re clearly done or pressuring them to come back and eat, consider bringing some closure to their part of the meal, even if you and the rest of your family are eating. 

This can look like simply prompting them with a question: “It looks like you’re finished up with dinner. Would you like to be excused now?” In this way, they can decide whether or not they’d like to come back and eat rather than feeling forced or pressured to. 

If they decide they’re all done, you can ask them to take their plates to the kitchen or whatever your family might do at the conclusion of a meal. You can ask your child to do something quietly while the rest of the family finishes eating. 

You can also let them know they’re welcome to stay at the table for family time (conversation, etc). In this way, it feels more like an open invitation, rather than a punishment or pressure for not eating or wanting to leave the table. 

5. Offer a bedtime snack: 

Depending on your family’s schedule and circumstances, it may be appropriate to offer a snack to your children before bedtime. 

Generally, if it’s going to be more than 1.5-2 hours between dinner and bedtime, you may consider offering a snack to your child. 

Make it part of your routine and schedule, regardless of what your child may have eaten at dinnertime earlier in the day. This can give them a final opportunity in the day to eat what their bodies may need, especially if they may’ve been distracted earlier or didn’t have much capacity or interest in eating dinner. 

Keep snack times low key and offer nutrient-dense options to help promote satiety before they go to sleep. Some combination options might include things like: toast with peanut butter and milk, yogurt and granola, fruit with milk, crackers and cheese, or cottage cheese and fruit. If your child is hungry, they will eat what they need from the foods you provide. 

A bedtime snack can also be helpful if your child is having a harder time eating at dinnertime. Again, the key is to offer and incorporate it as part of your daily routine and not make it dependent on how or what your child ate at dinnertime. For more help on this, be sure to check out this blog here: “Snack Time Versus Grazing Table: How to Snack Better as a Family

End Mealtime Struggles and Enjoy Dinner Times Together

With a couple of picky eaters in our own home, I’ve learned firsthand about the importance of how we approach dinner times with our children. 

Taking a more relaxed approach to dinner, adjusting my own expectations, and focusing on connecting with our children rather than micromanaging how and what they’re eating have all proven to be effective strategies in creating more positive mealtime experiences. 

Dinner used to be a meal I’d dread, especially when mealtime battles were a regular occurrence. But now, they’ve come to be a sweet and enjoyable experience where our family can reconnect after a long day of being apart. 

I know these strategies can be helpful in your own home, too. If you’ve been struggling with meals with your children, especially dinner times, consider incorporating some of these tips in your approach to family meals. 

If you need more individualized guidance or are concerned about your child’s overall nutritional intake, please connect with me today. If your child has a consistent pattern of avoiding eating, skipping other meals or is having visible distress and difficulty around food, it is important to have professional help to guide you and your family through this. Support is available – you don’t have to struggle through this as a family anymore. 

If you have any questions about these approaches, please feel free to leave your comments below – I’d love to hear from you and learn more about how I can help you!