6 tips for getting your child to sit at the table (and stay there!)
If you have a toddler or preschooler, they likely don’t sit still at the dinner table. Instead, you may be familiar with getting up and down and running around during a meal. “How do I get my child to sit (and stay) at the table”? is a common struggle.
There are so many benefits to family meals. From improved language development in preschoolers and toddlers. To improving an older child’s self-esteem and confidence. It matters more to an adolescent’s confidence than income levels, after-school activities, family structure (one parent or two), or religion. Amazing, right!?
But too often, family meals are full of fights. And some of these fights are the struggle of just getting your child to come to the table and stay there during the meal.
How can you keep a toddler at the dinner table for a family dinner, even for 5-10 minutes? Here are some tips:
1) How to get kids to COME to the table: the pre-meal routine
If your child is deeply involved in creating a Lego set or in the middle of a show, they’re not going to respond well to: “dinner is ready, come to the table NOW!”
So giving a simple warning of: “We’re going to get ready to come to the table in 5-minutes,” will help.
And what does that mean: “get ready to come to the table?” It includes a transition activity…
Transition activities can include deep pressure tactile exercises that help calm and relax your child’s body. And get some energy out for the wiggly ones.
Some transition activity examples are:
- getting your child to push their hands against the walls before sitting down,
- animal walking on all fours to the table
- pushing a step stool to the counter to wash their hands.
Kids will also be more excited to come to the table if they are involved in making the meal. Maybe they picked out the recipe, chose the vegetable from the grocery store, washed the lettuce or set the table.
2) Make sure your child has a comfortable seat at the table
The #1 thing you can change that will make a huge difference in how comfortable your child is at the table, is their chair. Parents You may be shocked at what a difference this makes for the length of time your kid will sit at the table.
Try sitting on a high bar stool with no backrest or foot support yourself. You can see how it becomes harder to eat -even for a seasoned adult. It may be time to bring back that booster seat if you’ve ditched it for your child!
Proper support not only makes your child far more comfortable in their seat but also makes it much easier to eat. It allows for better hand to mouth coordination and more effortless chewing and swallowing.
For proper alignment, you want to think about a 90/90/90 angle to your child’s hips, knees and ankles.
A footrest is very important and will increase your child’s stability a ton. If their feet are swinging back and forth that can be a distraction. And it’s also much harder to stabilize the body to pick up food, get it to the mouth, chew and swallow.
And the tray or table should come between the nipple and belly button. With your child sitting far enough forward in their seat to easily grasp the food and still have a supported back with the 90-degree bend at their waist and at their knees.
Other tools to make it easier for your child to stay the table
If your child is still really wiggly and has troubles staying still, you might want to look at buying (or making) a weighted lap pad (affiliate link). Just like weighted blankets for sleep, they can be calming.
Or try a wobble or wiggle cushion (affiliate link) for kids who are really wiggly. It allows them to move around a bit at the table vs running around the table.
3) Serve Family style food
If your child often doesn’t like the food and that’s why they’re leaving, try serving the food family-style.
This is where serving bowls are in the middle of the table and your child gets to choose what goes on their plate. Instead of pre-plating dinner and placing this in from of your kid. Which often results in the immediate: “yuck, I don’t want this.”
Even for younger children who aren’t yet vocal, you can provide them with an empty plate. And serve the food for them. “Do you want corn tonight?” It will probably be clear whether the answer is yes (leaning in, nodding etc,) or no (leaning back, shaking head etc).
If you are serving pre-plated meals instead, allow a set up so that your child to push food away from them. This is instead of having to push themselves and their chair away from the food or leave the table.
If your child is in a high chair with a tray, they can’t push the food very far away. My favourite seats for kids have them pulled right up the family table. And you could offer your child a small empty ‘no-thank you bowl’. If they don’t want a food on their plate, they can put it in the no-thank you bowl and push it away.
4) Set a timer for meals
Try using a visual timer, so your child can see how much longer you would like them to sit at the table. This could be a simple clock (‘when the big hand gets to 6, you can leave the table’), or a sand timer for example.
I wouldn’t recommend using your phone as a timer. Notifications popping up will be distracting to you and your child. Put the phones away 🙂
We often use Alexa to set kitchen timers when cooking. But your child can’t see the time passing or know how much time is left.
And you may need to lower our expectations here on how long it’s appropriate for kids to sit at the dinner table. One good tip to help calculate this is to double their age. So if your child is 3, you can expect them to sit for 6 minutes. You can work up to 20-30 minute meals as your child gets older.
And should you punish your kid if they still don’t stay seated at the table for the determined about of time? I don’t think so.
Just make sure your child knows that if they get up, they’re done that meal. You don’t have to strap, glue or tape them to the chair. But don’t fight about it if they choose to get up before the timer is gone. Just let them know they can’t eat again until the next scheduled snack or meal time.
Which leads me to the next tip…
5) The kitchen is closed
Having scheduled snack and meal times instead of a kitchen free-for all allows your child to build up an appetite and actually eat meals.
So, no snacking for about 2 hours before dinner. Your child obviously won’t be hungry for their meal if their tummy is full of snacks.
Your kids will push back for a few days if they aren’t used to structured times for eating. Just like any parenting change. but stick to your guns and they’ll accept it eventually.
6) Don’t pressure kids to eat.
There are so many ways we pressure kids to eat. From forcing them to try a bite of everything on their plate, bribing them with dessert, to telling them it’s good for them and ‘look – your little brother is eating it!”
Funny enough – pressure not only makes mealtime torture for your child. So of course they will try and escape the table! But it actually decreases their intake.
Instead, you can say “you don’t have to eat. But you do have to come sit at the table with us for 6 minutes.” And make those 6 minutes (or however long your timer is) pleasant if possible.
One easy way to help, is not to focus on how much your child eats. That’s up to them.
Instead, go around the table and take turns sharing their highs and lows from the day, how they helped somebody, what they want to be when they grow up… whatever.
These tips should help your child come to the table and stay at the table for more than a few minutes. But if you’re sick of feeling like a failure when your kids don’t eat what you cook, watch my free training: “How to teach kids to try new food without struggles at dinnertime.“
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.