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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.


If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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