As if it wasn’t already tough enough to get your toddler to eat the food you cook, now you continuously find yourself wrangling them just to sit at the table! As much as we prefer our toddlers not to grab “meals to go” while playing superheros, sometimes they just have a mind of their own. I mean come on, can’t you see they have a busy schedule?
Toddlers are busy bees and are known for constantly being on the run, exploring, and learning all about the world on their own terms. They are known to occasionally ( more often than not 😉 ) be stubborn, and will likely begin pushing allll the boundaries, and testing how much control they have in their life over everything – including food and mealtimes.
Coming from a mom of two busy boys, I get it! And trust me, it’s down-right frustrating sometimes. But, luckily I have some totally doable solutions to share with you! Implementing these tips, with patience and positivity, can go a long way towards helping to ease your frustration, making mealtimes peaceful again, and getting your child into a routine of sitting at the table for every meal!
Why is it so important they sit to eat anyway?
Besides it being annoying and they don’t always finish their food that way, simply put, it increases the risk of choking. When a toddler is up and moving around while eating, the likelihood of a food (whether it’s a choking hazard or not) falling into the airway because of a trip, run, or weird position they’re in, goes way up. So we always want them to be seated in an upright position when eating. Besides that, we also want to teach toddlers how to eat mindfully. When they’re distracted and taking bites without being fully present in the experience of eating, they learn to eat because of external factors and not internal drivers. It’s always good practice to eliminate all distractions at the table (and anywhere really) while eating.
Why is it so hard for my toddler to sit at the table?
If we know anything about toddlers, it’s that they are the busiest of the busy. They’ve got things to do, places to see, and rules to break. When it comes to keeping them at the table, it just may not be something they’re interested in for numerous reasons.
Toys are obviously much more fun than mealtime! You may find yourself constantly trying to convince your toddler to Just. Sit. Down! Toddlers have a natural tendency to keep going and going, non-stop, and the reason they won’t come to the table is because they may be preoccupied by whatever they are doing at the time, and be hesitant to leave their fun. This isn’t always because they genuinely don’t like meals. It’s just that mealtime can’t compete with the fun they are having from various other activities they may have been doing. They may initially come to the table and then realize, “wait, this is not as fun as those blocks I was stacking” and be gone like the wind. You may also find them asking for food “on the run” and grabbing bites while standing up and playing. This is normal, but isn’t an ideal eating behaviour we want your toddler to fall into. Working on the solutions I’m going to touch on below, will hopefully help prevent this from becoming a further problem 🙂
Toddlers are also naturally defiant at this age, and if you’re a parent to a toddler you likely already know that they love to test boundaries and challenge the rules. They’re testing you to try to figure out how much power and control they have by pushing you to your limit, and in turn, seeing how much they can get away with. You may ask them to come sit at the table for mealtime, and even though they are actually hungry and want to join everyone at the table, they end up refusing because, well, you asked them to and they didn’t choose to on their own terms.
In a lot of cases, the constant refusal, or avoidance of the table, that your toddler is showing could be related to picky eating. Especially if they feel uncomfortable around new foods, are experiencing yelling, bribing, pressuring, or an uncertainty at mealtimes that raises anxiety for them. If this is the case, working towards helping your toddler decrease this anxiety by avoiding any pressure to try new foods, or letting them choose the foods on their own terms, could help, along with the tips outlined in this blog post.
Whether it be getting your toddler to the table or just keeping them there, I’ve included some of my favorite solutions to help ease frustrations and make mealtimes a positive experience again!
1. Create a mealtime ritual and seat them when the time is right
Setting up a mealtime ritual can be so beneficial in encouraging them to just come to the table! Mealtime rituals are something you do repetitively, every time before you are getting ready to sit down for a meal, and can really help create smooth and easy transitions from other activities to mealtime. It signals the end of one activity, and the beginning of another. Setting up a ritual can give your toddler structure and a sense of routine so they know what will be happening and when. This can be greatly beneficial to eliminate any push-back they usually give you, and extinguish power struggles before they start. It can also make things more fun for them, and even make them feel excited when they can do things independently!
A ritual could be as simple as giving a 5 minute and then 2 minute “heads up” that mealtime is about to start, then when it’s time, washing your hands together, saying grace, and beginning a meal. It will definitely look different for every family, and it can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. But one thing for sure is, it will really help with more happily transitioning their mind and body out of one activity and into the next…especially if you notice negative behaviour anytime you announce that it’s time to eat. No toddler wants to have to abruptly shut off their TV show midway to have to immediately come to the table to eat…especially if they’re not super hungry. Instead, if you have a warning, and then a preparation activity for mealtime (like washing hands, singing a song, choosing a placemat, etc.)…your toddler’s mind will have time to accept and switch gears from one activity to the next.
Sometimes, the thought of asking your toddler to sit for even a short amount of time may seem impossible – sometimes they have enough energy for 3 people! If you have a really active toddler who can never seem to burn off all their energy and wants to wriggle and wrangle at the table, let them expend it prior to meal time as part of a mealtime ritual so they can come to the table a bit more mellow! This could be things like jumping jacks, running, skipping, or anything you can think of that will help them get their sillies out before they are expected to sit still! Tell them: “OK! It’s time to get the sillies out before we sit and eat. We have one minute…ready…go!” Time it for one minute, and then say: “Okay, now it’s time to sit!”. You can also do this to the tune of a song!
If your toddler is eager to help, letting them help you set the table in the last 10 minutes before a meal can help them feel more involved and switch them into the mood for mealtime as well. I will say that one big tip is to make sure food is ready before they come to actually sit at the table. Making them sit for 5 minutes in a highchair or booster seat while you get things ready for mealtime just took up 5 precious minutes of their already very short time span at the table….and they haven’t even received their food yet. Either wait until the food is out on the table before you start your ritual, or involve them in an active task during the ritual that doesn’t require them to sit for long before the meal actually starts.
I’ll do a whole separate blog post on mealtime rituals very soon for you to give you lots of ideas on how you can do them 🙂
2. Ensure Proper and Comfortable Seating!
This is huge! And, understandably, can be so underestimated! Ensuring proper seating for mealtimes can have so many benefits and can really affect the amount of food they are able to eat, their motor skill development, and their ability to self-feed as they grow. Highchairs and booster seats that have foot rests that allow for the feet to rest flat are recommended, as dangling feet can cause your toddler to be more restless and constantly fidget. Toddlers also don’t have a great amount of trunk stability, so making sure they have proper foot support can help them to sit up properly, and allows them to sit for longer periods of time. Making sure the highchair or booster seat you choose also has back support, and is not reclined, can also help with trunk stability and ensures a 90 degree flexion at the hips is possible.
When I mention this to parents, I always ask them to imagine how they feel when they are sitting somewhere uncomfortable, like a tall bar stool with no foot support for example, or a chair with no back support. Your feet are dangling with nothing to rest on and your back starts to slouch from fatigue. What do you do to compensate? Does it affect how much you “squirm” during a meal? If you can reflect on these, imagine that it is no different for your toddler. If you’ve enrolled in either one of my online courses, you’ll know that proper seating allows for a 90-90-90 seating position. That is, a 90 degree flexion at the hips, 90 degree flexion at the knees, and 90 degree flexion at the ankles, with feet resting flat.
I’ll have a blog post on my favourite recommendations for highchairs, booster seats, and attachable foot rests coming out very soon for you. Hang tight 😉 In the meantime, you can check out my amazon shop for some of my favs that can be ordered through there.
3. Try a Visual Timer
Once you get them to the table and have proper seating, helping them stay there is the next step! A fun and visual way that your toddler can understand how long you expect them to stay at the table for is to incorporate a visual timer. For younger children who can’t tell time yet, a sand timer is a great option, and pretty cool in my opinion! This can give them structure and provides more awareness of what is expected. For older children who can understand the concept of time, I recommend a Timetimer – both of which you can find in my Amazon shop! Given how busy toddlers typically are, it’s very normal for them to stay 5-10 minutes at the table in the beginning. Try starting with 10 minutes, and with patience, work your way up by 1 minute every few days.
The time needed for your toddler to eat their meal can vary from other children you have, and of course, the adults in your house. If the Timetimer or sand timer still aren’t enticing enough for your toddler to stay at the table, try making sure you, and everyone else in your family, stays with your toddler at the table, if you can. If meals are done as a family, this could also help them to want to stay at the table for the full length of time on the timer, because it limits distractions from dishes being cleaned up or people leaving the table.
An extra important tip to add on here…make sure you let your toddler know they don’t have to eat! If they’re not hungry…that’s ok! This is just the amount of time they’re expected to sit and participate in family time at the table.
4. Make family meals a place of connection
My next piece of advice is to sit with them and use mealtime as a special time to connect with each other, enjoy each other’s company, and spend quality time together as a family. I can feel your eyes rolling haha. You’re probably thinking about how the heck you’re supposed to enjoy mealtimes when your toddler makes things so difficult! Although this is a blog post for another day, my biggest tip is to make family meals about family, conversation, being silly, and enjoying each other’s company, and NOT about food. Again, see my blog post on the division of responsibility for help on this. Also, even just sitting with your toddler at mealtimes helps them feel like they have company, and allows you to model that sitting at the table is expected during mealtime. Remember, a family meal doesn’t have to be the whole family. Just one other person is enough to engage with them and model eating behaviour.
Take an honest look at how mealtimes are..are they stressful? Are you running around? Are you yelling at the table?
The trick to make these solutions work is to approach calmly, considerately, and without pressure or agitation. Any agitation or pressure can just make them not want to sit at the table even more, and can reverse any progress you may have achieved. Setting a calm and patient environment can help set the tone for progress and make it a more positive experience for everyone!
If they continuously refuse to come to the table, that’s ultimately their decision and I want you to know this! Avoid trying to force them to come to the table. If you are consistent with the tips above, especially ending mealtime once they leave the table or not offering food if they don’t come at all, they will come around and join everyone at mealtimes, if they are genuinely hungry.
5. Make it clear that if they leave the table, mealtime has ended.
This can be a tough one, I know, but honestly this can go a long way in reinforcing that eating on the go won’t be allowed. It shows them that you are confidently taking over the responsibility of deciding where a meal is eaten (that’s your job) and they have full control over how much to eat and when mealtime is over (see my blog post on the division of responsibility). So if meals are eaten at the table, then if they leave the table, they are letting you know they are done eating. That’s the rule you need to instill in them. When they can trust that these rules are indeed in place, they will be understanding of the fact that they will need to be at the table if they are hungry and want to eat. Once they know that they can’t get away with eating and playing at the same time, and truly understand it, they won’t test you as much because they trust that you’ve confidently set this boundary! If you have implemented a feeding schedule already, this can also help you stay on track and prevent grazing on snacks as they may not fill up enough during a meal if they are continuously on the move.
Although this is important, as with a lot of other things related to parenting, it has to be done consistently to be effective! If you find yourself giving in here and there, or allowing them to eat where they want out of worry that they won’t get enough food, you are teaching them that this is okay, that you are fully invested in their role (which is choosing if and how much to eat), and that they can push boundaries. Think of how confusing it would be if you tell them that they need to sit at the table…and then are quick to give in if they suggest otherwise. Think about the message that they get when you say “everyone else has to sit at the table”…but you give in for them only because it’s so important to you that they eat. They understand that they have the power, and it’s no wonder why they lash out when you try to implement a rule. It’s confusing for them because they think that they have the power! Even for kids who are underweight, we know through research that sitting them down at the family table, and eating in a pressure free environment, is much more effective in the long-term than chasing them around to eat a bite here and there in an effort to get more calories in. Patience pays off here. Be as consistent as you can with this and you will see the changes happen with their behaviour.
This is in no way punishment and should not be approached as such! This is a loving boundary…a step in the right direction of creating healthy habits and helping you reach that goal of having a toddler who will sit at the table and learn to eat. Of course, there will be meltdowns and tantrums (with toddlers this should be expected as this comes with any change in general) – that’s totally fine! You can still be caring and considerate, all while staying on track with this rule. It’s done with kindness, with understanding of their feelings, and yet with a conviction and unwavering confidence. When they can sense this from you, they will feel at ease, and will allow themselves to fully trust in your boundaries. If they sense you are wavering in your decisions, they will continually test you until they feel that you are taking control of the situation. Toddlers want to know their parents are in control. This is the ultimate way that they can feel safe.
6. Lower Your Expectations
Okay, one more bonus tip – setting too high of standards for your child in this situation isn’t always the best idea, and can often fail to work as you had planned. Remember that it’s reasonable to expect some toddlers to only be able to stay at the table for 10 minutes, so set the bar there. Also, don’t expect your child to sit and wait after they’re done eating for everyone else to be done. They’re not being rude or inconsiderate to others…they’re just little toddlers! For them, if they are finished eating (and have waited out the time you set on the timer), they don’t understand why they have to sit there for everyone else. It’s okay to let them down while you finish the rest of your meal.
Some toddlers are just naturally extremely active, and really do struggle to sit still for extended periods of time. Instead of thinking everything will go as planned once you start implementing my tips, expect there to be steps forward, and even more steps back. It’s always easier on your child, and you, to start with low expectations while working your way up towards the end goal of successfully getting them to come and stay at the table for 20-30 minutes, or until they are finished their meal. This way, when you do have progress, you can celebrate together instead of dwelling on goals that you didn’t reach!
I truly hope this was helpful and gives you the confidence to start taking steps that will help your child become more included in mealtimes. This will come with time, but with the right techniques it can be a reality in your household sooner rather than later!
If you are looking for more guidance on seating position, mealtime rituals, and how to tackle other issues when your toddler refuses to sit at the table for meals, my Feeding Toddlers online course is a great step forward. As a member of the My Little Eater community, you will have access to my guidance for life, so you really can’t go wrong! 🙂