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Toddler Food Wars: Dinnertime Hunger Strike Edition

Toddler Food Wars: Dinnertime Hunger Strike Edition

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

So I have an eating issue that I am not sure you have covered. My daughter is three and a half. She’s around the 25th percentile for height, and about the 5th for weight. She’s 28 pounds. Teeny tiny. The doctor isn’t too concerned — she is growing slowly, but growing, and I’m from small stock. Still. She ain’t got a pound to lose, is all I’m saying.

She’s never been a big eater, but most of what she did like to eat were fruits and veggies, with occasional whole carbs (she asks for “the brown bread” and refuses white). Not a big meat eater, but we used to be able to get her to eat sausage, bacon, and eggs.

Note the last tense.

She has now decided she will not eat dinner. At all. Nothing, no matter what it is. This is not a sudden thing — she’s always had a tendency to flake out one night, but she always seemed to be ok. (She would eat all day and I’d be ok with her not being hungry — or she’d eat a lot the next day.) She still eats snacks, breakfast, and lunch ok.

It’s my policy not to short order cook for her, because we all know that’s a no no, but … If she does this more than one night in a row, She can’t make it through the night without dinner. She wakes up at 3 am hungry, and can’t go back to sleep, and so I’m up too. For an hour, or two. And mama needs her sleep. (Note: she sleeps GREAT, through the night, when she eats.) and without food and sleep, she is a nightmare, and she gets more and more crabby and then doesn’t eat the next day and …. Gah. More of the same.

So we have decided that sleep is important, as is breaking the cycle, and we’ve been making her her own dinners. Also — see above — she can’t really afford to lose any weight. We don’t make anything elaborate — toast with cheese and an apple. But now — we will do this, and she knows it, and still refuses to eat dinner. Even if it’s something she would willingly eat at lunch. And I’m tired of making two meals and catering to her, but also tired of being woken by a hungry kid. How do I get out of this cycle? Or is this just something I have to wait out?

Any ideas???!

Thank you!!

After reading your question, I immediately reached for my trusted, beat-up, dog-eared copy of How To Get Your Kid To Eat…But Not Too Much and had a good laugh when it miraculously opened to the appropriate chapter all on its own. “Chapter 9: Is Your Toddler Jerking You Around At the Table?”

It opened to that chapter because I have read that dang chapter so many, many times. With each of my toddlers (and on behalf of many Advice Smackdownateers’ toddlers), when they all went through some random power trip at the table. Because yes, your toddler IS jerking you around at the table. The table is where just about every toddler ever decides to start asserting themselves and testing limits and seeing exactly what they can get away with. They’re too young to steal your car keys, but they are the perfect age to say “I won’t eat” and watch you dance like a frustrated monkey.

I just read the chapter again about a month ago, when my 2-year-old decided to refuse about 75% of his previously accepted foods. And then he stopped eating dinner altogether. (Sound familiar?) And THEN he stopped eating lunch. Lunch!! Who has a problem with LUNCH, I ask you? He’d wake up and eat breakfast (milk, fruit, dry cereal, maybe a waffle/pancake — farewell to the days of scrambled eggs and yogurt and sausage and bacon!). He’d have a mid-morning snack at preschool (usually more fruit and some kind of cracker-based carb), and then…yeah. That was it for the day, more or less. He’d drink a little milk and pick at whatever modest lunch item I laid out and then take a long afternoon nap. He’d wake up and skulk around the kitchen — but then refuse whatever snack I offered in a grumpy fit. And then STILL, he wouldn’t eat dinner. Milk (cow or unsweetened almond) was the only thing he’d accept post-nap…and even withholding that never led to him eating anything off his plate. It just pissed him off and made him even MORE determined to push his plate away.

That’s…um, not a lot of food. It worried me. I got paranoid that he was losing baby fat and leaning out because of a caloric deficit (rather than just A Thing That Happens Around This Age). I knew he had to be hungry (one time I found him in my office with a bag of raw almonds I keep there for my snack, stuffing his cheeks frantically like a chipmunk), but the act of sitting at the table with delicious, toddler-appropriate food in front of him invariably triggered his best power-play moves and he’d flat-out refuse to eat a bite.

So I let him.

I told him the rules were that he had to sit and stay at the table. If he got up, he’d be returned his seat. If he got up again he had a time out. Third time meant he was going in his high chair and buckled. He was not being disciplined for NOT EATING, by the way. That was okay and totally his call. He did not have to eat. But he had to follow the family rule that we sit and keep each other company until mealtime is over.  (I admit it’s probably easier for me to hold firm now, with multiple children: Not only have I played this game before and KNOW that no child in my house is going to waste away to nothingness, can you IMAGINE the uprising if I caved for one kid and not the others?)

It took a month. A long, annoying month. A couple nights ago I made chicken breasts with creamed leeks and dutifully put some small bites in front of him. Even the dog was like, U KNOW HE WON’T EAT THAT JUST GIMME ALREADY. Hand to God, he ate three helpings. He inhaled three helpings.

Since then, his portions have mostly been tiny little toddler-sized portions, but he is indeed EATING more things, more regularly. Growth spurt? Probably. But I think he also got tired of the one-sided game and moved on to the next thing. (Which appears to be potty-related, HUZZAH SEND WINE SOB.)

So, my first piece of advice is, as always, to please please please buy Ellyn Satter’s book and read Chapter 9 yourself. Not only is it chock full of advice that WORKS, it will also help you — as the kids today say — calm yo tits about how much your kid isn’t eating. I will shamelessly crib from it here but I promise the book is better.

Your doctor isn’t worried about your daughter’s weight and neither am I. And neither should you. I can guaran-dang-tee she’s getting enough calories even with skipping dinner. They might not all be super-awesome-non-carb calories, but she’s getting enough to sustain her body’s development and growth. A toddler’s portion size is less than 1/4th of what adults eat — and remember that most of us are eating portions that are much bigger than recommended. (Fun/horrifying experiment: Google around for recommended portions sizes in ounces, for both you and your 3-year-old. Then buy a digital kitchen scale and see those portion sizes live and in person. Hahahahaaaaaaaomg.)

Satter’s book comes with all kinds of awesome graphs and charts to help with portion/calorie planning, snack choices and vitamin sources. A child your daughter’s age only needs about 600 calories a day to cover her basic needs. That’s NOTHING, man. Especially for a diet of high-cal fruits and carbs. Obviously, she can eat more than that every day (to a max of about 1,200), especially if you’re hoping to pack on some weight. But like you said, the reality is that this is just her body type and metabolism. You could stuff her with the max calories every day and she’d just burn them off. (Ask me about my 37-pound 5-year-old who eats as much as I do, compared to my 30-pound 2-year-old who just finished up a month-long hunger strike. Kids’ bodies make no sense.) Likewise, she can restrict herself to the bare minimum for a fairly long time and not lose weight or suffer health problems either.

This dinner thing is a pure power play, and one that (in her mind) is worth playing even if she’s a skosh on the hungry side. In fact, that probably makes it even MORE worth playing, because it tests the limits even further, into the Toddler Danger Zone. Whattaya gonna do, Mama? I’m HUNGRY but I won’t eat. I LOVE this toy but I’m gonna throw it on the floor so it breaks. I’m SCARED of big cars but I’m gonna run out in the street. Same deal. Unlike running into the street, she’s not really in danger here. But parental limits are needed all the same.

So what you need to do is work around the rules of her game — while never letting on that you’re “playing.” Since she’s eating breakfast, lunch and snacks okay, I am 100% confident that she is getting enough food and will not. lose. weight, but if you can’t shake the nerves, go ahead and serve her a little more at those meals. Add some cheese to her snack crackers; see if she’ll eat two waffles instead of one. Make her a fruit/veggie smoothie/milkshake every now and then. Don’t restrict her food throughout the day in hopes of making her more hungry at dinner (since that clearly has nothing to do with her reasons for not eating), but stick to your established meal/snack schedule.

At dinner time, incorporate “her” foods into “your” meal. Add some whole wheat bread or dinner rolls to the table. Chop up the apples and put them on top of your salad, or serve plain fruit as a side dish. Make some brown rice or pasta to accompany your protein. You guys eat a little bit of it too. Thus, her short-order cooking expectation won’t become a habit, you’re not technically cooking two meals…and yet you’re more likely to have her eat SOMETHING, ANYTHING.

And if she won’t? No biggie. Pick the battles you can win. You will never win at forcing a toddler to put food in her mouth and swallow. However, you CAN win the battle of where her butt is sitting for a particular block of time. She needs to sit at the table and keep you company. Ask her to sing or tell you a story. Bust out a booster seat with a strap, if you have to. Keep it pleasant and happy, but keep her at the table. Model good eating habits and manners. Eventually, she might get bored and decide to eat something — especially once you’ve established that you really don’t care. (Even though you totally dooooooo.)

Now, I know you’re ready to scream at me: AMY BUT THE 3 A.M. THING OH MY GOD. I haven’t forgotten that! Here’s what you do for that: Add a pre-bedtime snack time. After dinner, away from the dinner table. A planned, set time for a wholesome, filling snack that she gets no matter what. Even if she didn’t eat a bite of dinner. It’s not a reward, not a dessert, it’s no different than a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. If you eat dinner at 6 and she goes to bed at 8, snacktime could be around 7:30 so it’s clearly its own, independent thing. Satter sings the praises of the planned (i.e. un-begged-and-cajoled-for) snacks and I really think it’s your best solution to curb the overnight hunger WITHOUT falling into unsustainable/bad habits at dinner.

If she refuses dinner and then starts whining 10 minutes later, say you’re sorry but she’ll need to wait until snacktime. She will definitely survive until snacktime, and then should hopefully make it until breakfast without begging for food again.

Good luck, stand strong, DON’T PANIC. She’ll be fine and this will pass.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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MR
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MR

My daughter was born with a congenital heart defect. She had heart surgery and is “normal”, but she still has a pretty high metabolism, and was rapidly dropping off her growth curve as an infant. We had to do the whole thing of giving her liquid whipping cream, adding butter and gravy and oil to EVERYTHING she ate, and picking high calorie, fatty foods for her. Her height jumped from about 7th to 25th percentile, but her weight percentile only went from .003rd to about 1.75th. But, through doing all this, we have been able to keep her steady at… Read more »

Csry
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Csry

Our feeding therapist has the families she works with use a kitchen timer at the table. The kids know that when the timer rings they can then be excused. For whatever reason, the kids then see the timer as the enforcer, and it removes the power struggle with the parent. Start with like 15 minutes and adjust from there. Just once the timer starts, everyone has to sit there until it has run it’s course. I have also found that this tactic works well in getting my older children to clean their rooms. Good luck.

Karen
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Karen

Please don’t stress so much about her weight! I have two nephews, ages 5 and 7, who have never been on the weight curve (i.e. <1%) their entire lives. They aren't terribly tall either. I still have anxiety about the way my SIL handled mealtimes and her stress and the effect it had on everyone when they were younger. They are healthy, happy, smart, normal in every way little boys who are just not very tall or heavy. There is nothing about that 1% mark that says if you drop below it, then you will waste away and be doomed… Read more »

Olivia
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Olivia

My daughter is 4 and a half and weighs around 33 pounds. It still amazes me how little food she needs to thrive. Even when she is sooo hungry she just can’t take it anymore she’ll eat maybe 3 tablespoons of food and declare she’s full. She also rarely eats more than a (one!) bite at dinner. And she only eats one piece of bread with jam for breakfast. Her biggest meal is always lunch and I guess she manages to pack in enough calories then.

Elizabeth
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Elizabeth

At what age is it developmentally appropriate to expect them to sit at the table through dinner, even when they refuse to eat? I read the Satter book and we serve our 18-month old son a small portion of what we’re having for dinner. Most of the time he’ll pick at his food for about a minute then wave his hands “all done.” We let him get out of the high chair then, because of we force him to sit until we’re done eating (5-10 minutes tops), there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We want to enforce the… Read more »

Autumn
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Autumn

Our daughter has sat in her high chair for meals with us since she was 7 months (26 months now).  I try to make sure part of our meal is a more preferable food for  her (read:  carbs) but otherwise she gets what we are eating.  I’m pretty hard core, you don’t get out of your chair, you don’t throw or drop food.  If she’s getting antsy, our line is, when mommy and daddy are done, we can have some fruit, which gets us another couple of minutes, and usually she will take a couple more bites while she waits.… Read more »

Kat
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Kat

We have an 18 month old too, and we expect him to sit in his high chair until we are done (like you, really only a few minutes more). To keep him occupied, we talk to him, sing songs, play games. It doesn’t make for the most grown up dinner, but it’s valuable time and we have fun. When that doesn’t work, we hand him a few of his board books and let him play with those. If he throws them down, they stay down, and he just gets to sit patiently. My thought is that 5 or 10 minutes… Read more »

Karen
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Karen

Just so you don’t despair Elizabeth, I have taken the opposite approach with my kids. I do not force them to sit in their chair at this age. My kids do not just sit quietly, they scream. That is not my battle. With both of my kids, they eat until they are done, we push a little to keep them at the table, and then are excused. Songs and books are not for the dinner table, they are for playtime. Over time we build up to a full regular dinner. Sometime around 3 ish, my older one was able to… Read more »

IrishCream
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IrishCream

We take the same approach. Our rule is that you can get down whenever you’d like, but then you’re done. You can’t come and go, and you can’t take food with you. My 3-year-old can sit for ten or fifteen minutes most nights, but occasionally she’s done after five. My 16-month-old will sit as long as her big sister is there, usually, but some nights she’ll be screaming after three minutes. We all chose our battles to fight, and for my family it works best if we don’t go into a battle of wills at that hour. Makes dinner more… Read more »

Susie
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Susie

My two year old has a mini version of a dinner/craft table in the dining room with the “adult” table. We also have a booster seat for the “big” table. He wanders a lot, but it’s amazing how dedicated he gets to eating when he wants to, and sits just great, scarfs the food down, then gets right back to playing. Then sometimes, when Mommy and Daddy (or my favorite, just Mommy) are sitting at the big table, he’ll ask to join, and sit just fine on his own. He does great at restaurants-sits, stares, participates without needing to be… Read more »

Olivia
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Olivia

We only really started making my oldest stay at the table at about 3 yrs. It’s just not a battle that is worth making my dinner miserable before then. She’s 4 and a half now and we ask her to stay seated to encourage her brother, 18 months, to focus on eating. But, we use a kiddie table next to the dining table and he comes and goes throughout. We talk to my daughter about her day but by the end of the meal my husband and I are often catching up on our day so I don’t blame the… Read more »

Susan
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Susan

HA! I have a 3 1/2 year old teeny girl, too. She’s 26 pounds and eats like a horse, so I’m not sure the math is as easy for kids as it is for (most) adults.  A few months ago we went through a ‘waking in the middle of the night’ phase just because and I had a serious talk with her about how momma needs her sleep. And If momma hasn’t slept, I just can’t play or go fun places because I’m toooooo tired. We talked about other things she could do if she woke in the middle of… Read more »

Tari
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Tari

Such a timely post for me-my 2yo is pulling the same crap at dinner time. Except she refuses everything except the boob when she wakes up hungry during the night. I’m hoping it is a growth/developmental spurt and will end soon. Because yes, the wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from a small cyclone strapped to a high chair does not make for nice dinner conversation.

MR
Guest
MR

Tari, Does she have her two year molars? If not, sounds like she is going to be getting them soon. Very normal behavior around that time.

Susie
Guest
Susie

“Huzzah send wine sob”. I’m going to have to borrow that…

carole
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carole

My daughter (18mo) has never been on the weight curve but she is following her own curve just below. She had to go through a series of tests to figure out if there was underlying problem or if she was “just petite”. At this point, she is just petite. I have always tried to cook high fat, high calorie things that she just refuses and I end up eating because I feel guilty throwing so much food away. I struggle with just moving on from the meal and accepting the “she will eat if she is hungry” motto because she… Read more »

caroline
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caroline

In the absence of a health problem, I say try the adding-her-foods to dinner and forcing her to sit there for the duration thing, but if she still doesn’t eat and wakes you up at 3am? well, I know it’s so politically incorrect, but she then gets ignored flatly till breakfast, even if that means earplugs for you. Yes. Really. Tough. She’ll do it once, and then realise that hunger pain is naaaasty. Too bad, so sad, unlikely to actually die that night so them’s the breaks!

Tessa
Guest
Tessa

I had to cringe at the title of that book chapter. Of course if you view it as situation of being “jerked around” you are going to feel emotionally manipulated by a child not eating.  But that is part of the problem, a toddler eating actually has nothing to do with you. It’s about them, and their relationship with food. At that age there is a lot of evidence to suggest that their taste buds are still developing and changing. There is nothing wrong with accommodating them, just as when something isn’t tasting right to you, you wouldn’t be expected… Read more »

IrishCream
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IrishCream

Huh. I never, ever force my kids to eat anything they don’t want to, but I draw the line at playing short-order cook. That seems to me like fertile ground for a power struggle (not to mention a missed opportunity to try out new foods!). It’s not that they’re brats, but every child will experiment with how far they can push you, with where the boundaries are. It’s developmentally healthy, and it’s also important for kids to know that there are boundaries.

Tessa
Guest
Tessa

Yes. I didn’t mean to imply that the only solution is an extreme where you are cooking up a four course meal for your toddler, or some other equally inconvenient option. I completely agree with you that because of their age they will see where the limit is, but there is a way to hold a limit with respect and in a supportive way. The first is to make sure the limit is reasonable. There is nothing unreasonable about offering an alternative, but 5 alternatives might be too much. Giving the toddler a few options, such as you can move… Read more »

Tari
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Tari

MR-I had not thought about the 2yr molars coming in! Her teeth have refused to follow anything resembling a “normal” schedule do far. That and her recent use of 3-4 word sentences is probably it. Thanks for the suggestion.

Bec
Guest
Bec

I second lots of the comments above but I just wanted to add one more thing. Are you falling into the trap of giving vastly different foods at dinner then at other times during the day? I know people who give their kids versions of junk food for most of the day (sugary cereal, crackers, PBJ’s, sweetened flavoured yoghurts etc) and then act surprised when they reject the vegies at dinner…. In my mind of course they do – kids will hold out for what they like. If you mostly serve the unsweetened, whole food option (meat and a little… Read more »

Knackered Mum
Guest
Knackered Mum

This post saved my life – thank you !!
I was ready to kill somebody as I have exactly the same problem w my nearly 3yr old. I won’t give up the battle, just will be more strategic. :£

Kelly
Guest
Kelly

My granddaughter will turn 2 on Thursday and she refuses to eat anything. If you do get her to eat she will take a few bites, start gagging then throw up. Doctor says not to worry, that she’ll eat when she’s hungry. She’s only getting calories from the milk she drinks, when she wants it. It worries me she is NOT getting enough to grow properly! PLEASE HELP!!

Isabel Kallman
Admin

We’re not medical professionals. Have you considered getting an opinion from another doctor?

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

My 4 year old son just recently became really picky with food. I am tired of him wanting to do everything else but eat even when it is a meal of his choosing. On my first day of eat or go to bed and this is for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I refuse to let electronics, TV, and my child run my life and sanity.

Jessica Kidder
Guest
Jessica Kidder

I just scheduled an appointment with the pediatrician. My two year old, (2.5 in April), is eating oddly. I mean this article definitely helps, I’m sure this is a part of it, the whole food strike persay. But sometimes it’s a lot worse than what was described above. Last Saturday for instance, breakfast was 1/4 cup of milk, a sucker at the chiropractor’s office, 1/4 cup of milk at lunch; he ate 1/4 of a PBJ and 5 crackers for snack after nap then refused dinner. There is no way he got enough calories in (honestly it’s more like the… Read more »