4 Reasons why kids don’t eat dinner, and what to do about it
“What should I do if my child doesn’t eat dinner?” As a dietitian working with young families, this is a very common question.
Should you be worried that your child isn’t eating enough? Bribe him with dessert so he finishes dinner? And should you still give her a bedtime snack if she doesn’t eat dinner? I’ll answer all of those questions for you here!
Why don’t kids eat dinner?
First of all, know that you’re not alone if your child often doesn’t eat dinner. Dinner is the most challenging meal of the day for most young children for a few reasons:
- They’re tired by the end of the day.
- Your child is excited to be home after daycare or school. Or because mom or dad are home from work!
- Your child is not hungry, because they’re full of snacks.
- Or maybe they’re not hungry because they have eaten enough during breakfast and lunch for their little body!
Appetite goes up and down in young kids. Some days they seem to subsist on thin air and other days they can out-eat an adult. Your child is the only one that knows whether they are hungry. And it’s a good thing to listen to their appetite. Let them!
So, should you worry if your child consistently doesn’t eat dinner? No. Don’t judge their nutrition or food intake on a meal-by-meal basis. Or even day-by-day. Over a week, most young kids will take in enough of a variety of foods to meet their needs.
And yes, you can still offer your child a bedtime snack. If there’s 1.5-2 hours or more between dinner and bedtime, I would encourage it. If not, then they likely don’t need a snack, and will just eat more at breakfast the next day. But don’t make the snack contingent on whether they ate dinner or not. And snack doesn’t have to be the earlier-refused dinner either. Unless they truly weren’t hungry at dinner and wouldn’t mind eating it now for a snack! Just make sure to offer two food groups per snack (such as greek yogurt and fruit) and it can be a great chance to get in some extra nutrition.
What to do to make dinner easier to eat
While we never want to force or pressure our little ones to eat, there are a few things that might help them come to the table with an appetite, and take more interest in the food:
- “Close the kitchen” for 2 hours before dinner. Water is ok. If your child is super hangry, and really can’t wait until dinner, offer sliced veggies. It is okay to get in more veggies, and they’re not too filling.
- No pressuring, bribing or making your child eat 3 bites at dinner. Research shows they will actually eat less, the more pressure you put on them. This makes sense. I wouldn’t want to eat if someone was trying to force me either. Stress hormones go up – and nobody wins this battle!
- Don’t be a short-order cook. This means making a favourite food you know your child will eat, after they’ve refused the dinner you offered. This quickly turns into the child that only eats fries and chicken fingers. Because they know they can get it!
- Make it fun! As a busy parent, I know it’s not often we have time to make meals more “fun.” But even fun names like “super-sight carrots” or “trees and cheese” will get kids more excited about food.
- Serve family-style meals. If your child has the chance to add what they choose to their plate, they have ownership in the decision and often are more interested in trying the food. Dishes like Tacos are a perfect example of this – your child can choose what goes into their own taco!
Struggling with picky eaters? Watch my free training “How to teach kids to try new foods without struggles at dinnertime.”
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.