How To Help Your Little One Stay At The Table

How To Help Your Little One Stay At The Table

Posted on March 16, 2023. Last updated on March 16, 2023
Alyssa a registered dietitian
Written by Alyssa

5 Tips To Bring The Joy Back To Family Mealtimes

Toddlers can be savages, y’all.

Keeping little ones at the table during meals is a struggle for so many parents. Oftentimes, toddlers want the freedom to leave and return to the table as they please, playing in between and coming back to graze.

But this isn’t conducive to joyful family mealtimes. You might feel like you’re constantly bribing or coercing them to sit back down.

I truly believe connection happens when we sit down as a family for meals. Picky eating can get in the way of that connection, so how do we fix it? How can we keep our little ones at the table with us?

These tips are certainly pertinent to toddlers, but can also apply to older children. And while I can give you all the hacks in the world, they’re only as solid as your boundaries. Children inevitably push back, it’s our job to lovingly establish and maintain the expectations so they can learn.

Get the Wiggles Out

Does your little one get rambunctious when you sit down to eat? Do they frequently get up and back down again to keep themselves occupied?

Sometimes the stark announcement of “time to eat, let’s go to the table” is too abrupt for them. Or maybe it’s just a case of the wiggles!

Take ten minutes between preparing and serving meals to connect with them physically. Get active! Play with them–whether it’s hide-and-seek, a tickle party, or playing airplane on your feet–get their bodies moving so they can expel some of their energy while building up their appetite.

Spend time engaging with them without the distraction of meal preparation. By taking the time to connect, they’ll be more willing to come with you to the table and less likely to feel the urge to get their wiggles out.

Plan Meals & Snacks Around Natural Hunger Times

I talk a ton about setting up meal and snack routines, or rhythms, especially in my Table Talk course. A “rhythm” is a predictable schedule of eating times so your child comes to know what is expected and when.

But to do that, we need to find the sweet spot. We want to catch them when they’re hungry, but not starving, and not so full from their last meal or snack that they’re not interested. They won’t want to sit if they aren’t hungry!

When we stick to a schedule, their bodies will start to self-regulate to the rhythm.

Decide on your rhythm as a family so you are all able to eat together. Remember: connection is key!

Make Sure They’re Comfortable

To be effective, meal times need to be a comfortable and inviting environment. If we want our kids to feel part of mealtime, their comfort should be a priority!

If they’re sliding off their seat, the table is too high, or they’re afraid of breaking mom’s ceramic plate, they will feel less at ease and less likely to remain seated during the meal.

By creating a welcoming environment, both physically and emotionally, we are setting them up for success at the table.

Have The Table Set

Before summoning the family to the table, have it ready. Place the food, drinks, and utensils at each person’s seat ready to greet them when they sit down. You may want to grab a few napkins, too, those toddlers sure know how to make a mess!

By having everything you need at the table already, for kids and parents alike, we can eliminate the need for anyone to have to get up. You know the drill, once mom gets up, it’s like an open invitation to play human ping pong in the kitchen!

Use A Sand Timer

Using a visual timer is a great way to keep your child engaged at the table while understandably displaying your expectations.

You may need to lower your expectations if you’re just starting out; set your timer for 1-2 minutes for every year your child is. Over time, add 1-2 minutes at a time until you’ve reached your desired meal length. For most families, this will be between 10-20 minutes.

You can make it a fun game, letting them turn the timer when they sit down or make up a fun song like we did! 

The visual reminder will keep them at the table longer and eliminate the need to constantly remind them to sit.

What If They Take Forever To Eat?

I hear from parents often that their child takes forever to finish their meal. And while we don’t want to rush them, allowing them to take too long can be detrimental as well.

By allowing them to extend the meal time, we start encroaching on the grazing territory. When they graze, they never really get full and tend to snack many times throughout the day, completely ruining the nice rhythm you’ve set for your family!

To avoid this, try giving several verbal reminders as the end of meal time approaches–five minutes, 3 minutes, 1 minute, etc. Don’t suddenly end the meal without giving them an opportunity to eat what they want.

Then give them the option of what to do with their remaining food. Do they want to save it for a snack or stick it in the refrigerator for later?

Most importantly, whatever standards you want to set for your kids, make sure you are modeling that behavior for them!

Find Confidence At The Table

It can be exhausting getting stuck in the cycle of bribing, begging, counting bites, and feeding toddlers. You’re likely tired of making new meals and hoping tonight’s the night they actually tough it.

Maybe you’re worried they aren’t eating enough nutritious foods and nothing you’ve tried is working.

You need a plan to enjoy meals again as a family. 

By joining my Table Talk course, you will learn strategies and methods to kick picky eating to the curb for good. And because you know your child best, we teach you how to be your own feeding expert.

I want you to feel confident at the table and that you’re raising a happy, healthy, and independent eater! Because I truly believe that connection happens around a good meal as a family.