Care and Feeding

Our Toddler Is Never Hungry at Dinnertime

How do we get her to eat something?

A young girl turns her head away from food being fed to her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 2-year-old has always been a pretty good eater: She eats a variety of foods and has always eaten a lot. Both at day care and at home, she gets breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a schedule, and we eat together around a table with no screens. We try not to praise her for eating, though we do praise her for trying new things, and we’ve tried to let her hunger be the guide.

Recently, she’s started saying “all done” and asking to get down from her highchair without eating much at all, then periodically asks to return to the table throughout the evening, then weeps about how hungry she is at bedtime. I think this last thing is mostly a stalling tactic. About half the time, though, I end up giving her some snack after she’s in PJs. I don’t want to police her food consumption, but it’s frustrating to keep stopping dinner throughout the night, especially when she “finishes” before us and wants to play, then melts down when we say, “Mama and Papa are still eating.” I also don’t want to send her to bed hungry.

It’s possible she’s not hungry enough when dinner starts—and it takes time to cook dinner, so she often gets a post–day care snack to prevent a meltdown while we get dinner made. I’m sure this undermines dinner, but trying to cook while someone yells “I’M HUNGEE, MAMA” is a little rough.

I feel like I’m missing something really obvious, but how do we keep dinner to the prescribed time and not be subjected to a toddler-dictated rotation in and out of the highchair all night?

—But What About Second Dinner?

Dear BWASD,

I can tell that you’re an attentive mom who wants her daughter to grow up with a healthy relationship with food. This is no small task in this culture, alas. It’s great to establish a routine around meals, which you have done, and to make this a matter of honoring her body over some arbitrary clean-your-plate nonsense.

But I don’t think you’re missing something obvious; you sort of said it yourself. I suspect your daughter’s post–day care snack is largely satisfying her appetite. Then she loses interest in dinner early, and then, cannily, pretends to regret this in order to delay her bedtime. Two-year-olds are smart.

You could try something I’ve found helpful with my own kids. I make almost every dinner in advance, the night before (after the kids are asleep), or first thing in the morning. I happen to enjoy cooking, so doing that as my last chore of the night while watching Murder, She Wrote is like … my very lame me-time. And I’m a practiced-enough cook that I can often throw a simple dinner together while the kids are eating breakfast, then shove that into the fridge before we all head out for our days. This is not feasible for a lot of families, and I totally get that, but rearranging the day thus does make it easier to go from day care right to mealtime because you don’t have to do more than heat everything up.

Kids are awful when they’re hungry, and parents want only to avoid that, so we ply them with snacks. But a 2-year-old needs only a few ounces of food before she’s full. Moving her dinnertime earlier might also help, though I understand this might mean you can’t have dinner together as a family.

Finally, I think your daughter senses your hesitation around the question of whether she’s eaten enough and is playing right to that at bedtime. I assure you that if she were hungry, she’d have eaten her dinner. And I assure you that putting her to bed without one last PB&J will not hurt her. (She’ll probably have a big breakfast the next morning, though.) So I think you can institute a rule about not going back to the kitchen once you’re finished with, say, bath time. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

A few times a year, my spouse and I take our children (6 and 4) on a full-day special excursion—a water park, the zoo, the beach. Both kids express a ton of excitement before the trip, and afterward they talk about how much fun they had.

But during the actual trip, my older kid is a nightmare. She whines incessantly about everything. Instead of appreciating what we do or give her, she complains about what she didn’t get, and sulks. On a recent trip to a beach town a couple hours away, she had a meltdown when we didn’t allow her to buy a pricey souvenir, complete with stomping on the ground and sulking for the next half-hour. If we agree to buy a snow cone, she’ll complain that she didn’t also get cotton candy. She complains about the sand even though she loves playing in our sandbox at home. Her behavior comes close to ruining these trips for the rest of us. We’re frustrated that a trip—meant to be a fun family excursion, one we spent a fair amount of money and effort on—ends up being a nonstop fight.

Before you blame bad, indulgent parenting, let me say that she does not act like this under normal circumstances. I take her to run errands, and although she might ask for treats, she takes it in stride when I say no. I’ve taken her to toy stores to pick out presents for other kids, and she has no problem with the fact that she isn’t getting a toy. We can take her to the local ice-cream store and she’ll pick out one flavor, eat it without complaint, and say thank you. She’s generally pretty cooperative, except on these trips.

We could stop taking such trips. But her younger brother seems to enjoy them, and a day at the zoo or the beach is a nice break from routine. We want to give our kids these experiences, and I’m sad the older one can’t seem to enjoy them. Any advice?

—At a Loss

Dear AaL,

Your daughter’s worst moments seem to correlate exactly with your moments of highest expectations. Is it possible that correlation explains the problem? Is it possible that your excitement about these special trips is making her feel stressed or overly excited, and her acting out is just a response to the sense that she’s supposed to be having a great time?

A couple of years ago my husband was taking our older kid to the local playground, when he had a last-minute change of heart and they instead hopped on the subway to go to Coney Island. Our kid’s response was to break down in tears. Not because he doesn’t like Coney Island, but because the excitement of a special trip, an improvised one at that, was just too much to bear.

I’m intrigued by the fact that your daughter remembers these trips as super fun; she wants them to have been just the way you and your husband imagine they might have been, but for whatever reason she just can’t handle it. Is there a way to make them feel less high-stakes and more like just that day’s family adventure and, as such, no different from the errands you describe as getting done without a hitch?

For example, instead of talking about the plan for a week, could you mention it the night before, as you would any day’s plans? “Tomorrow, we’re all going to the beach. Doesn’t that sound fun? We’ll have a long car trip and we can listen to a book, then we’ll stop and spend $5 at the store and have ice cream after dinner.” I realize you’re already setting expectations, but maybe giving her less time to mull this over will help.

Or perhaps you could get the kids actively involved in the planning—each kid chooses one particular treat, and you agree on the parameters in advance as you have been, and then see how that goes.

It does not sound like you’re overly indulgent, and I absolutely understand your frustration. But I’m optimistic that if you can make this feel more casual, like an extension of everyday life, your daughter will respond accordingly.

At any rate, I don’t think the answer is to stop doing what three-fourths of the family really enjoys. In the absence of better advice, there is this reassurance: No matter what you try now, ultimately she’ll grow out of this tough spot.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old was recently diagnosed as being on the mild end of the autism spectrum. That itself is not an issue, as we are accessing every resource we can to give him the best start. The issue is what happens when we “come out” as parents of an autistic child: Other people consistently apologize to us (“I’m SO SORRY to hear about that!”) and offer comfort (“You poor thing!”).

While I know that what they are doing is out of the goodness of their hearts (and ignorance about ASD), my partner and I have different reactions to this. I react by hugging them back and saying thank you and moving on, while internally I’m yelling, THERE’S NOTHING TO APOLOGIZE FOR! MY KID IS STILL THE SAME KID! My partner reacts with anger and defensiveness: “What are you apologizing to me for? There’s nothing wrong with my kid. He just sees the world differently.”

We don’t want our child to grow up thinking there is something “wrong” with him. Are we overreacting? And if we’re not, what can we say to politely change the way people see our child, and autism as a whole, without sounding like preachy loonies?

—Nothing to Apologize For

Dear NtAF,

You’re not overreacting! You’re being a protective parent. To that end, I assume you’ve already weighed simply not mentioning your son’s diagnosis. Discretion can be thought of as distinct from shame. But if you want to be loud and proud, that is of course within your rights.

However: You cannot police what other people say to you. The good news is you can control what you say in response. It’s not worth letting other people make you angry, and also you’re modeling something for your kid and other members of your family.

You’re only “coming out” to these folks, presumably, to help them best understand your kid. Something as simple as “Frank is the same child we all know and love” says it all. I’m sure that some people will still tender an apology or express concern for you. If you’re in the mood to create a teachable moment, you can just repeat, “We appreciate your concern, but once again, Frank is the same child we all know and love.” If you’re not in the mood—and sometimes you will not be—I would just let it roll away.

As a parent by adoption, I hear many things (some well-intentioned, some ill-informed, some downright racist) that annoy or even infuriate me. I cannot always summon the interest in educating someone else; my primary responsibility is to my kid. If I heard persistent, poorly worded comments from a close member of my family or circle, I would address it head-on. But mostly these are passing comments from people who simply don’t matter in my life or in the lives of my children. I have found that anger is simply not worth my time.

As you think about what resources might best serve your son, think, too, about what might be helpful to you and your partner. You might benefit from a relationship with other parents of a kid like yours; sometimes it’s nice to just complain to someone who gets it. I applaud your desire to mold how people see your son and all people with autism. Don’t be afraid to sound like preachy loonies—just remember to pick your battles.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2-year-old has a good friend, also 2, who lives around the corner. We spend a lot of time together—playgrounds in the summer, our home or theirs if it’s rainy or freezing—and our families get along well. My daughter is a rough-and-tumble, confident toddler, while her pal is sensitive and prone to tears. So a lot of their play sessions involve her crying, usually over nothing. (The adults are often right there watching.)

Often when this happens, the other mom or dad will encourage my daughter to apologize before everyone moves on. I understand that it’s good to practice apologizing and important to learn how to get along, but I’m increasingly irritated by this. My kid doesn’t understand what she’s apologizing for and often has nothing to apologize for. Is forcing her to tender insincere or unwarranted apologies bad form? Is forcing her to accept the blame for her sensitive friend’s hysterics a bad lesson?

—Sorry, Not Sorry

Dear SNS,

It’s obviously imperative to teach your kid to respect other people and their feelings, but you don’t want to teach any kid to navigate the world apologizing for everything. And you’re right to be annoyed if your kid is always being painted as, somehow, the transgressor. You could come to her defense if it’s especially egregious. You could indicate that maybe mutual apologies are in order.

But: If you enjoy the (relative) harmony of these two families, I would ignore it for now. At age 2, all these niceties are pretty hollow, anyway. And you have a lot of time yet to teach your daughter how to make her way in a world that wants girls to constantly apologize for themselves. The kids will either grow up and apart, or grow up and change, or grow up and remain the same as your daughter understands that her friend is a crybaby.

—Rumaan

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