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What should I do when my 2-year-old refuses to eat dinner?

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My 2-year-old son is refusing to eat dinner at night. I give him a choice, within reason, as to what he can eat at lunchtime, but at dinnertime I don't make anything extra. My husband and I are having many disagreements as to what we should do about this. My husband thinks that he should be forced to sit at the table with us until he eats, or at least until we finish dinner. My son just screams when this is done, and I don't feel that we're getting anywhere. I feel that if he isn't going to eat it, I'm not going to force the issue, but I don't reward this by giving him treats. What is the right way to handle this? Should I be offering him his dinner continuously throughout the evening if he gets hungry or offering him anything at all nutritious that he will eat?


Dinner is usually the only time in the day that families sit together and talk. Making it a time of conflict and unpleasantness destroys this precious opportunity. At the same time, a toddler's whims should not dictate what food is offered just in the interest of preserving peace. Studies show that the more intensely mothers are involved with controlling every mouthful of food, the less appropriate the child's food choices ultimately become. Many American parents think that if their child misses a meal, death or at least starvation is sure to follow. The only thing that happens is that your child will be hungrier for the next meal. You should offer a healthful selection of food and then back off, letting the child decide how much of what food he will take, if any. Make dinner time congenial and interesting, so that your 2-year-old will want to share in the conversation. Allow him a small toy if necessary, but let him know that you want him to participate. If he chooses not to eat anything, take his plate away without comment. If he is hungry later, offer him either his leftover food or some other healthful snack before bedtime. For a comprehensive answer to this question, I would refer you to The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child's Nutrition (Villard, 1999). The subtitle of the book includes "Making Peace at the Table." (I happen to be a co-editor, but it is really a good book.)  

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