Getting Toddlers to Sit at the Table for Dinner

Many parents have toddlers at home who just refuse to sit at the table. And why would they want to, when they have been allowed to roam the house while eating (or rather, grazing).

What’s the best way for parents to initiate a new routine—that is, to get them to sit at the table for the first time? Is it always best to strap them into a chair of some sort? Can I let my toddler bring his Teddy or another toy to the table? What’s a reasonable time period for a 2-3 year old to sit at the table? Should parents ever get into the mindset of force feeding (for instance, “you must eat five more bites before you get down”)? What are the most gentle ways to get kids to eat their dinner? What about manners?  What about TV during dinner? Is it possible to get a good dinner into a toddler and NOT have the experience be stressful for the parents?

This is a great question, because every parent wants a lovely, stress-free, nutritious family dinner, while few three year olds and even fewer two year olds, are developmentally ready to sit still for one.  The reason most moms have toddlers who won't sit down for dinner is not that they have been "allowed" to graze, but that it is normal for toddlers to graze.  Two year olds are rarely hungry on adult timetables and are easily filled up, and most find it pointless to sit at the table watching other people eat when they want to move around.

I would never strap a child into a chair as a restraint in order to keep them sitting at dinner -- at least not if you want a stress-free dinner (and an emotionally-healthy child)!

I would suggest that families begin by clarifying their goals.  Getting the toddler to eat a healthy dinner?  Getting them used to eating with the family?  Having a nice time for the family to connect every evening?

Your stated goal is to get a good dinner into the toddler and NOT have the experience be stressful for the parents.  Let's agree that any strategies that stress out the child will by definition stress out the parent, and forgo those.   

The kind of family dinner that you can do with older kids, with manners and discussion, is obviously going to be stressful with a toddler.  So my advice is to remember that toddlers are not yet developmentally ready for the kind of dinner you can have with older kids, and they're not toddlers for long.  There's no reason to sabotage your dinners when they're older by making them hate dinner time now.

When kids are hungry, they're hungry. It is a rare toddler who can wait until 6pm for dinner, and a rare working adult who can eat before 6pm.  So my advice is to feed the child dinner when he needs it, and then to let him eat something enjoyable (such as cut up fruit, warm milk with a little vanilla, or peanut butter on crackers) with his parents while they eat dinner.  Offer him some of what you're eating, of course, but all the stress of getting him to eat is gone. He still gets time to interact and enjoy his parents, and he begins to get the idea of a family dinner. 

Of course, he may not want to stay for more than five minutes, but again that's developmentally normal. As he gets older, he will want to sit longer with his parents, both because he will begin to eat more at dinner and because he will find the conversation more interesting.

It is much easier to get the toddler to eat a healthy meal earlier.  He can sit in his high chair in the kitchen while you cook the rest of the dinner.  My own trick was to read to my two year old while he ate his dinner, so that he was willing to sit in one place for long enough to find his veggies interesting. Otherwise, he was so active that he lost interest in food after about two minutes.

Research shows that kids who watch TV while they eat are less conscious of their food.  If you read to them, they look at the food while they feed themselves. If they watch TV they don't.  That sets up a bad over-eating habit.  If you have the TV on during family dinners it defeats the purpose of the dinner.

If you are lucky enough to have a child who is interested in food, of course, then by all means feed her a  big healthy snack at 4pm and then let her eat with the family.  But again, don't worry about how much or what she eats; make sure her nutritional needs have been met throughout the day.  And again, don't worry about how long she stays at the table.

RE grazing- Toddlers do best when they graze because their tummies are small and they need a continuous supply of energy.  Toddlers need small meals and regular snacks. Never force toddlers to eat something.  Just offer the same food over and over.  Eventually they will try it.  Usually they have to be exposed to a new food at least ten times before trying it. Role model how much YOU love the veggies and point out that "when they're bigger" their taste buds will be more grown up too and they will like all this delicious stuff. 

Never obsess about food intake.  Kids don't starve themselves. In fact, many toddlers get more calories than they need. A much more important goal is getting the right nutritional balance into your toddler so she isn't just loading up on milk and carbs, which can cause iron deficiency, and too little vitamin A and C intake. 40% of toddlers are picky eaters. Dinner should not be your focus, nutritionally, because there is just too much else going on, and the timing is bad for toddlers.  You have all day to get the right nutritional balance into them. Your job is to supply healthy food. Your child's job is to decide how much to eat.  Any other approach invites eating disorders and power struggles.  A struggle with your child over her body is one you will never win.

How do you get a toddler to the table? Most toddlers are busy and self-directed. Even when they're hungry, it can be hard to interrupt them to get them to come to the table. ALL toddlers need advance notice of transitions, including meals. It will probably be very helpful to give your child several advance warnings about dinner. "Ok, you can play with your trains for awhile, but just so you know, we'll be eating dinner in half an hour.""Dinner's almost ready, we'll be eating in fifteen minutes." etc.

Sometimes, even with warnings, kids have a hard time stopping what they are doing to come to the table. instead of a power struggle to get them into their seats, try making it fun. For instance, play "Surprise Me." Ask your son if he can climb into his own chair, and when he says Yes, express your disbelief. He will hurry to show you. Or race with her: "I bet you and I can get into our seats before daddy can get to the table. Want to race?" Or, has your child ever been on an airplane? You could start by playing the flight attendant, saying, "Flight 1234 will begin boarding in 5 minutes. Please proceed to the gate.“ “All ticketed passengers should now board and take their seats.” Then come around acting like the flight attendant, while you serve food.

Should you let your child bring a toy to the table?  The secret of managing toddlers is finding that balance between letting him make choices so he doesn't feel pushed around, and setting appropriate limits so he feels safe.  So in my view, giving a toddler some control by letting him choose a quiet toy to bring to the table not only is good in the long run (no power struggles so no reactive, angry teenager later!) it's good in the short term -- your child will be 100% more cooperative.

Let's think about the Teddy and the dinner table.  A table is high for a toddler, a bit alien to him.  He can't even see onto it very well when he walks by.  Sitting at one is something grown ups do. He may feel somewhat precarious in his high booster seat, strapped onto a chair.  He is confined to a chair or booster, which isn't a natural state for a toddler.  He feels a bit pushed around when his play is interrupted and he is lifted into place.  He is told to sit still, which is against his nature.  His natural desire to experience his food in a tactile manner and play with it, which is how he explores the world, is frowned upon.  His parents are often talking about things he doesn't understand.  They are often pushing him to try foods that don't feel safe to him (that is the evolutionary reason for toddlers being picky -- they will only eat familiar foods because unfamiliar foods could be poisonous.)

Into this unnerving situation, enter Teddy.  A friend!  A dependable, comforting companion.  AND the child gets to be in charge of Teddy, who is even smaller and less powerful.  And Teddy can be his foil, his taster in case the peas turn out to be dangerous. What a win/win solution!

Research indicates that children can understand good manners by the time they are around five years of age (not that they will always use them!)  You can expect the average toddler to make a mess, fidget at the table, play with his food, and talk with his mouth full, and not always use his knife and fork. Don't worry about it.  Your goal is a pleasant, stress-free dinner, right?  Focus on connection.

Which brings us to interesting conversation.  Obviously 2-3 year olds aren’t the best conversationalists, but in the interest of making table time pleasant for all, how should parents direct the conversations?

Most parents are exhausted and not at their best at the dinner hour.  That goes triple for toddlers.  So while you can pull it together and make dinner pleasant, I think you as a parent need to give yourself a break.  Don't expect a great conversation with a toddler.  Focus on him or her for a few minutes, asking very specific questions about their day.  "Who did you sit next to at circle time? What story did the teacher read?  Did the rain stop enough for you to play outside?" works better than "How was daycare?"  Of course, don't short-change any other children who are present.  As they get older they become good role models for the toddler.

Don't obsess about what they're eating (You fed the toddler earlier, remember.)  Do the minimum of reminding about manners and make the situation  pleasant and fun for the ten minutes it may last.  When the toddler leaves, you can have a more interesting conversation with any older kids (see my article on 50 great questions to ask your child to have a fabulous family discussion.

So what’s a reasonable time period for a 2-3 year old to sit at the table?  As long as the two or three year old wants to sit at the table.  Seriously, if you want a stress-free meal, why would you force a toddler to sit at the table if they don't want to?  And why would you create any power struggle that you don't have to with a toddler?  And make them hate the very idea of dinner?

Of course, if you make it exciting that you all sit down together, then they will always sit with you initially, and how long it lasts will depend on your toddler, and how much you are willing to center your dinner around the toddler.  I personally think it's great when they sit with you for five minutes and then leave, because husband and wife then get a few minutes to smile at each other and savor the moment without talking logistics! (Of course, your house is babyproofed, and the toddler is nearby.)

Bottom line:  Invite your toddler to the table and make it enjoyable for her to be there. But lessen the stress on yourself by making sure she gets her nutritional needs met throughout the day and doesn't come to the table starving. Give her healthy food choices and let her decide how much to eat. In a few years, you'll be able to have wonderful discussions at family dinners.  For now, let her leave when she's ready and enjoy the grown-up time! 

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