I get this question time and time again in my nutrition coaching practice. Many parents worry if their child doesn’t eat their dinner. They worry their child will get hungry and as such tend to cook the meals the child eat which can make fussy eating worse on the long-term.
Dinner time can become such a stressful time for some families but I have a few tips to share with you to help make meal times more enjoyable and I will share my views as a nutritionist and mum on what do to if your child won’t eat dinner.
- Is your child hungry at dinner time?
If your child is refusing dinner, not very interested or not eating much – is it because he or she isn’t hungry? It is best to keep snacks light before dinner and 1-2 hours away from dinner time. Let’s say you eat dinner at 6pm as a family, the last proper snack should be before 4pm.
2. Try removing distractions
Eating dinner as a family usually goes much smoother with the whole family sitting at the dining table, with no phones, no colouring, no ipads and no tv on. Children when distracted tend to really not eat much.
Now what to do when your child doesn’t eat what the rest of the family eats?
First of all, I strongly believe in serving the same meal to everyone (my cookbook was based on this philosophy) in the family with small adjustments made to the side (for example meat/cheese for omnis in the family), less vegetables or greens to the children who are still learning to like them etc. So even if you have not already please serve a little bit of the family’s dinner along with the “safe” foods.
Persistent exposure, patience and role modelling are going to be the key to help diversify their diet. No need to force them to eat the family meal but depending on their age they should be at least trying a little bit.
Your goal as a parent is to try to get your child to eat as many different healthy foods as possible so they have a nutritious and diverse healthy diet to get all the different nutrients and are able to adapt to every meal and situations as adults as well as teach them how to eat a healthy diet to practice for the rest of their lives so they are healthy.
The Division of Responsibilities: I am a firm believer in this feeding theory which states that the parents are responsible for choosing what to serve for meals, where meals are eaten and what time. Children get to pick how much of the meal they choose to eat.
BUT what happens if you feed your child half a plate of the family dinner and he or she only eats a few mouthfuls of the “safe food” (for example pasta and that’s it) or refused all of the dinner:
In that case I recommend not forcing your child to eat but gently reminding him or her that this is the only dinner you will cook. Don’t get angry, don’t wait for hours, don’t force to sit at the table until the plate is cleared and don’t bribe with dessert or anything else. Trying to stay neutral helps.
(All of this is proven to hinder healthy eating behaviours in the long-term – for example bribing dessert for eating broccoli only reinforces in the child’s mind how bad broccoli is and how delicious dessert is.)
Instead, once dinner is done and everyone is away from the table you can offer a small snack to your child or if he or she ask for it – ideally 30 minutes after dinner time to avoid association between the snack (reward) and not eating dinner. Do not make it a big deal. I recommend offering something he or she likes to eat that is not sweet but quite basic instead and does not require anymore cooking! A good option is a slice of bread with peanut butter, glass of soy milk, bread with vegemite or a banana. If your child doesn’t want the snack you are offering then depending on age can go to bed without. (If hungry enough they will eat the simple snack you are offering. If asking for chocolate/ice-cream or something else it is not hunger then. )
I hope these tips for kids who won’t eat their dinner will help you a little bit as a parent- if you need more help or coaching I am available for consultations. Send me an email: [email protected]