Tips for Getting Kids to Eat More at Dinner

September 13, 2018 | Malisa Lieser

Mealtimes can be a real struggle with small humans that are learning independence and figuring out what the adults in their lives will put up with. Some days it's hard to get them to eat more than goldfish crackers and string cheese! 


Here are 7 of my favorite tips for getting kids to try new foods and eat more at meal times: 

1. Two-bite club: A few years ago, my day care provider gave out a book called Two Bite Club that was about some cats (kids) who thought they didn't like the food that was offered, but once they tried two bites, they realized they did like it. The story struck a cord with my older daughter and we used it as an incentive to get her to at least try the meal. She was in this habit of turning up her nose before even trying it, but if we sid "Well, you don't get to be in the two-bite club then," she generally would take at least two bites (and usually more).

2. Limit snacks: If your kids are anything like mine, they will not turn down a snack, no matter that they just had one 30 minutes ago. They get a snack after their nap at day care, so we really try to not give anything once we get home because we've found that it will result in them not eat much at dinner. Yes, there is some whining, and yes, we do occasionally give in when we know dinner will take longer to prepare than usual. Once we stopped doing a post-daycare, pre-dinner snack, the kids have definitely eaten more at dinner consistently.

3. Dinner time is family time: Even if they refuse to eat the meal, we still require our kids to stay at the table with the family. Dinner time is family time, and that means sitting with the family whether you are eating or not. With this rule in place, our kids will usually decide to eat at least a few bites because they get bored just sitting there while the rest of the family is eating, or decide they are actually hungry.


4. No alternatives: Time for some tough love. We make one meal each night, no exceptions. If they don't eat it, then they don't eat it. Kids won't starve themselves, and I know that my kids eat plenty throughout the day, so if they barely touch dinner, I don't sweat it (too much). When they know there is no other alternative, they will eat something from their plate if they are truly hungry.

5. Make food fun: Getting your kids involved in making their food is a great way to get them to eat more of it. My kids are constantly in the kitchen on their stools/learning tower while we make dinner, whether to watch us chopping veggies, to seeing the meat cooking in the pan, to swiping food off the counter while we cook. And they love to dump ingredients into a bowl or mix something up for us. Doing a twist on meals that you know they'll like is another way to make it fun. We love making homemade chicken nuggets and oven fries at home because 1. it's delicious 2. it's healthier than a Happy Meal and 3. we know the kids will chow down. Lastly, investing in a few small cookie cutter shapes could help turn boring cucumber slices or other foods into hearts or stars, and maybe that's just the thing your toddler needs to get him/her to eat.

6. Give them an easy win: We almost always plan to have something with the meal that we know they will like and eat, especially if we're making a new dish or something with a little spice. A roasted vegetable is almost always a win, or quinoa/brown rice, or some kind of sauce to dip the food in. This way, we know that at least they will eat a little bit off their plate and not go to bed on an empty stomach.

7. Sticker chart: My older daughter had a sticker chart on the fridge with boxes to place stickers on when she does certain things like eat her dinner, brush and floss, stay in bed, etc. We started this when she was about 3 years old and it worked really well. Since eating dinner well is part of the chart, they have to do it to complete the sticker chart and get the special treat (Paw Patrol figurine). 

A thought on bribes:  Obviously, bribery is not the ideal way to deal with kids not eating. But we all know that in a desperate moment, it can be the easiest way to get toddlers to comply. When we do resort to this, we might say "If you don't eat your dinner, you don't get fruit." We don't say things like "take X more bites and you get a treat" or "if you don't eat, we're taking XYZ toy away" because those don't make for healthy associations with food. We really try not to use food as a punishment or reward, and I'm intentional about this because I struggled with this a lot in my college years and still do today sometimes. Yes, food can be fun and used for celebrations, but bribing kids with "treats" to get them to take X more bites isn't doing them any favors.

These things have worked out pretty well for us, and now that our kids are 3 and 5, we still use them to make dinner a little smoother! 

TAGS: Parenting tips, Kids food