Q Help! No matter what I do I can’t seem to get my kid to eat dinner. He is quite happy grazing all afternoon, eats a good lunch and breakfast but, come dinner time, it’s a battle ground. What can I do?
A It is easy to assume the reason children won’t eat dinner is because they don’t like the food on offer or that they are just trying to be difficult for the sake of it (I know that feeling). But in my experience, particularly with younger kids, there are two main reasons they refuse dinner.
Either they aren’t hungry enough or they know if they refuse what’s on offer enough times there’s a chance they’ll be given something else they prefer.
Children are born with a very good ability to regulate the amount they eat and they will have some days when they want to eat and others when food seems very unimportant to them. Sometimes my four-year-old and one-year-old can wolf down two bowls of dinner and want a huge banana afterwards, and on other days, after four bites, they’re done.
It is important to offer children food regularly to be able to meet their nutritional needs, because of their limited stomach capacity.
However, how much they eat needs to be under their control rather than encouraging them to eat the amount we ‘think’ they should be eating at that time. If you don’t want to waste food, or feel like they will only want something else in half an hour, then simply keep the food you offered the first time and offer it to them again when they are actually hungry.
A great idea is to create the habit of sitting down and eating meals together as often as you can. If it can’t always be dinner time, then breakfast is a good opportunity. If your children frequently refuse to eat at the defined family ‘dinner time’, remember, this might be because they aren’t hungry enough. You can try giving them a lighter afternoon tea or offering only veges to snack on in the hour leading up to dinner to see if that makes a difference to how much they eat.
Also, consider what they’re eating throughout the day. If they’ve eaten a balanced variety of foods, it may be they don’t need much dinner because they’ve already eaten enough. Daycare centres often have a cooked meal at lunchtime and then a big afternoon tea, so it’s not surprising the little ones don’t want much dinner. Also, if dinner is late and near bedtime, it could be your kids are too tired to focus on eating.
When it comes to dinner time, the rule in our house is you have to sit at the table with the rest of the family. If you don’t want to eat anything, or only want a few bites, that’s fine but there will be nothing else other than what I have made, until tomorrow. This calm, kind approach, delivered without frustration will also weed out any ‘I think I will get something more tasty if I am difficult enough’ behaviour.
Article sources and references
- Cecil JE et al. 2005. Energy intakes of children after preloads: Adjustment, not compensation. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82:32-8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16087972