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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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Maria Carmela commented on 17-Oct-2009 08:31 PM
Thank you for this very enlightening article. My child is a picky eater. Sometimes he will eat well and at other times he won't. I was brought up being forced to eat but feel I shouldn't. This just helps me and reassures me that I am on the right track. Thank you again. Marla from Manila, Philippines
Erin, Eldridge, Iowa commented on 10-Mar-2010 02:52 PM
Whew, this article was quite a relief to me, I wish I had read it 6 months ago! My 2 year old is very picky and sometimes my husband and I feel like we have to force feed him. I guess maybe he just isn't hungry! I feel like I don't have to make him eat supper and now I know if I force him he may end up hating suppertime! Thanks for reassuring me that his nutritional needs are being met during the day and I don't have to force supper upon him!
Anonymous commented on 29-Jun-2010 02:17 PM
Thanks for this article. I kept telling my husband not to force our daughter (2) to sit with us. Now I have something for him to read to understand why. Thanks
Fiona commented on 27-Oct-2010 10:27 PM
This is an interesting article. My problem is not that they won't eat what is offered (most of the time), it's that they take so long to eat it. I do only give what I consider to be toddler sized portions, but my 4 yo can take an hour to eat a small bowl of food. I have tried putting a time limit on mealtime, but that doesn't work. When we say we are going to take it away, he says he wants to eat it, so I don't know what to do! My almost 3 yo nearly always refuses to feed himself. He can do it, & does occassionally, but mostly he just says help me Mummy. This usually happens when I am in the middle of preparing our dinner. I find meal times incredibly frustrating!
Olga Cahill commented on 27-Nov-2010 05:14 PM
I am utterly impressed with the thorough view taken in this article. I now have two sons almost 5 and almost 7. We crossed many paths to reach our happy family dinner. One thing I do recommend is a booster that makes them feel grown up enough and one that is cool. So many devices are "baby" like and this is off-putting. Naturally age and comfort is important for parents to decide. We discovered the "Tot Riser" and it made all the difference. Look at the big picture and give them little jobs to do with meal prep start small and don't expect too much. Hind-sight is a wonderful thing with parenting. Go with what is right in your home. ;)
Single Dad of a 2 1/2 boy commented on 22-Mar-2011 01:05 PM
I came across this article after getting a call from my son's daycare and how he refuses to eat at the table with the other kids. I must admit i really dont enforce the eatinga t the table thing since i divorced my ex wife, however, I will try this becuase
is not only going to make it easier for me to get him to eat at the table at home but also at daycare. It sounds like it will be fun and will also bring great results.
21 month old won't let us eat dinner and won't play either commented on 12-Jul-2011 08:51 PM
Dinnertime has become particularly frustrating since our 21 month old won't let my husband and I even eat dinner together. While I would prefer to eat together as a family, I don't believe in forcing her to eat if she doesn't want to. But she won't even
play on her own, commanding us to hold her and walk her around the house. "Go this way! Go that way!" All I want is ten minutes to eat with my husband in the evening. What do we do? I don't want to wait till she goes to bed, because I feel it is important
for her to see us eating.
Anonymous commented on 04-Aug-2011 02:52 PM
"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....with his parents while they eat dinner."
This advice sounds great, and as a working mother I definitely see the truth/wisdom in it. But the author has failed to address one big problem: if as a working adult you can't feed yourself before 6 pm, how in the world do you prepare food for the child before
6 pm, when you can barely even walk in the door (after picking up the child at daycare) before 6 pm? Unless "dinner" is PB&J sandwich, which my 2 year old daughter certainly wouldn't be willing to eat every night?
Tasha commented on 15-Aug-2011 09:52 AM
Our daughter actually sits at the dinner table pretty well, but only because I've given her "dinner table" only toys, which means, the only time she gets to play with these toys is when she sits down at the dinner table. As long as I'm sitting there with
her, she seems content, but if I sit her down and continue wandering around the house, she won't relax. She also eats about 1 to 2 hours before we do, which turns out great because by the time we eat it's almost time for bed, so she gets a snack before bed.
Anonymous commented on 16-Nov-2011 08:30 PM
We have a similiar situation at meal time. We have a nearly four and a half year old that is a really picky eater and always causes a scene at the table. Its pretty routine he starts with the initial whining of how he does not like the food. This happens
every meal time. Dad starts in with threats, raising of voice and or spanking. Our two year old is a great eater but has started picking up habits such as needing to get down from the table to go to the bathroom. Making loud noises or clanking utensils. The
constant "Eat, Sit Eat! Sit Eat!" does not seem to be getting us anywhere and only makes meal time A NEGATIVE experience. I can feel my blood pressure go up and feel the energy of frustration from everyone. I think meal time should be at the table and a good
connecting calm time but I understand that they are not always as hungry as us and do not want to sit as long. I was just looking for some positive reccomendations for us as a family because the approach we are taking is not improving their behavior. There
are a few things we could do as parents which is to always sit at the table with them instead of us watching television in the living room and raising our voices from the living room at them. We could make sure there is no distractions and sit with them. If
anyone has any other methods to help please let me know. I also think we are going to go back to positive reienforcement with earning a star at dinner and after a few stars they get a reward. Letting them know they are doing a good job eating is also a good
technique.
Danielle commented on 11-Dec-2011 08:06 PM
This is the best article I've ever read on the subject!!! My daughter is 2 3/4 years old, and we have sort of defaulted to what you describe, but I always have this fear that we are "spoiling her" by giving her so much freedom. I think the only thing I
haven't been so great with is making sure her nutritional needs have been met before dinner time. I always try to steer her towards healthy snacks, but I haven't been thinking "dinner type food" before dinner. Well we can start doing that more, especially
as my little baby grows up and gets to be a toddler. The almost-3 year old is finally starting to eat with us more at dinnertime, and she tends to sit in her seat the whole time and she is now much less picky than she was. All without any fight from us. This
is how I know we did the right thing.
Natasha commented on 06-Feb-2012 06:02 PM
This is a great article. But what do I do when my 5 yr. old still won't come to the table. She always has something more important, to her, to do right then like dressing a doll or hugging the cat. I know sometimes she is just not hungry but then we go
somewhere like after lunch and she asks for food. Or she want a big snack after not eating much dinner because she ran out of time or everyone else is done and she doesn't want to sit at the table alone. We do play games and talk at mealtime but she doesn't
always get interested or stay put. And she is not a picky eater just a very distractable one.
Laura Markham commented on 07-Feb-2012 08:17 AM
"If as a working adult you can't feed yourself before 6 pm, how in the world do you prepare food for the child before 6 pm, when you can barely even walk in the door (after picking up the child at daycare) before 6 pm?" Easy. You make your child's dinner
the night before, or that morning, so you can just heat it up quickly. AND you keep dinner very simple.
Laura Markham commented on 07-Feb-2012 08:21 AM
Natasha- How to get a reluctant child to the table? The same way you get her to do anything else. You good-naturedly, repeatedly, give her warnings and then go get her and bring her to the table. If you do this every day, she will learn it is non-negotiable.
Will she still find other things more important and stall? YES. Will you still go get her with a sense of humor? YES. That is how our children learn which limits we are serious about. There is no reason to be mean about it, because that provokes more resistance
from the child and sets up a power struggle. Not to mention it ruins your day. Just see it as one more fun interaction with your child, making it fun for her to join you at the table. There are more ideas on this thread also: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/toddler-resists-booster-seat
sam commented on 27-Mar-2012 12:45 AM
you cannot begin to imagine how incredible it was for me to happen upon this article, today...THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!! i laughed and cried while reading...i suddenly feel like i can breathe again...thank you, truly...breakfast and lunch have
been easy, but wow, suddenly overnight, dinner got a little more "exciting" and i was starting to feel really overwhelmed and giving in to letting our 19 month old son sit on my lap, just to get through dinner...looking forward to a new day..thank you!
Julie commented on 08-Apr-2012 05:58 PM
Thank you so much! My (nearly) 2 year old has been getting increasingly fussy about sitting and eating his dinner as he always wants to get up halfway through and play again but then come back to it later. I have been feeling like a total push over and
as I already worry constantly that I'm not setting enough boundaries I tried today to keep him at the dinner table until he'd eaten a decent amount. ... It was horrible. A total power struggle and the absolute opposite of what I believe since I've always said
I never want to argue with him over food. He's healthy, has 2 varied snacks a day on top of his meals and what (or the amount) he's eating wasn't my issue - more the fact he won't stay sat still for 5 minutes to eat his tea when he's asked to. I'd assumed
I just needed to keep with it and stay strong and it would get better but I have been dreading it and arguing with myself all day about the benefits of him learning to do as mummy says (big picture) VS. making meal times a misery and the negative implications
of that. Now after reading your article I feel so much better about my natural impulse to take a more relaxed approach. There are plenty of other times for him to learn boundries and I won't be forcing the poor little fella to stay sat down in front of food
he doesn't want to eat, until he's told he can leave the table... not yet :). He's only 2!!! Usually he's a good boy, eats well and sits nicely... just sometimes it's not for very long; but if he's not hungry enough to eat what he's given every now and then
I won't be force feeding him in future - or ruining his day until he sits and does as he's told. I loved your tip about reading to him - I'll be trying that tomorrow instead... and possibly get him some tea time toys too (thank you, "Tasha"). Thank you thank
you THANK YOU! for making this mummy feel less of a "weak willed disciplianry failure" and more of a reasonable human being once again! x
Joanna commented on 24-Apr-2012 04:23 PM
I agree with the commentor about how you can't feed your child a healthy meal before dinner is made. yes, you can give some snacks while you make dinner, but the dinner I prepare, which is healthy and balanced, is the main thing I want my daugther eating.
My daugther has a huge penchant for crackers, and I usually have to say no to this premeal snacking, otherwise dinner time is MORE of a nightmare, not less. A hungry toddler is much more willing to come to the table to eat dinner than a full toddler. Again,
I want her eating what we eat, not some random, simple snacks. I am trying to expand her pallette, teach her the importance of cooking, and that good food takes time and preparation. I even take her grocery shopping with me so she can see how the food on her
highchair tray gets there. Right now we live in a condo, but I look forward to the day that we have a garden, and will be planning trips to local farms, too, so she really understands that food does not just come from a box. My daughter is only 17 months,
but we have been doing this from the beginning of eating, and while it's had it's challenges, the rewards are great. My daugther is NOT picky - she eats what we eat. She loves to join us (although prefers to sit on our laps and eat off our plates). She asks
to go in the highchair when she is hungry. She enjoys watching me cook, and especially likes "helping" (I give her a bowl and spoon, and she goes to town "stirring"). I do give her snacks while I cook, but try to make them very light. A little cheese, some
whole grain cereal pieces, or a bit of a taster of what I am cooking (as long as it's not raw meat or something else dangerous). I cut her off when she asks for more, telling her dinner is coming soon so we need to wait. She is young, but it's amazing because
she listens, understands, and does what she should. I honestly think we expect far too little from our kids. If you talk to them with respect, and explain what you are doing, it makes a big difference. Of course we have our tantrums along the way. But this
is what works for our family.

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