How to get your child to sit and stay at the table at mealtimes

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Does your child stay at the table at meal time?  I know that this can be frustrating: your child may sit for a minute and eat a bite of food, run off, then come back for more.  And repeat.

It’s stressful. It’s irritating. We want our children to eat, but how do we respond to this? Here’s how to get your child to sit and stay at the table at mealtimes.

Let’s start by thinking about our ultimate goal.  It might seem straightforward, but we want our child to sit at the table at mealtimes.  I invite you to think about your snack times as well.  If you child is often on the move during some eating opportunities and not others, it may feel confusing.  You may want to think about structure at a given location at mealtimes.  This doesn’t mean meals need to always be at the table, you may eat at a smaller child’s size table, have an outdoor picnic, or eat somewhere else, but the goal is to avoid eating while on the move.  You may not be there right now, and that’s okay, but this is the best way to get our child in the habit of staying in one location.  Start small: work toward having one meal a day at a given location. 

Let’s talk about how we get there.

1.     We start by stating our expectations prior to the meal. “Sydney, we’re going to be eating dinner at the table today. When you get up from the table, you are showing me that you’re all done.”  Even if your child isn’t quite communicating verbally, it’s important to start here: we are setting them up.

2.     Once they start getting up from the meal, I want you to go back and state your expectations again, “Sydney, you’re getting up from the table that shows me that you’re all done. Are you all done?”

3.     Reinforce and stick to those limits.

This might take baby steps.  You might let your child get up a few times and let them get used to this new system, what’s important is that you work toward the end goal of letting them know when they get from the table, they are done.

Let’s dive in a little more and troubleshoot.

Dinnertime.  This is a time I often hear this complaint.  Dinner can be a challenging time for adults and kids: we are tired after a long day, kids may be at school all day and their behavior at home in the evening is sub-optimal.  How can we troubleshoot?  Offer a bedtime snack after dinner.  I hear you parents that are concerned that if you don’t allow your child to get up from the table and then come back that they will be missing out on some nutrients.  Give them one more opportunity to eat.  Continue to follow that division of responsibility: you decide what’s on the menu.

Let’s talk about what an appropriate amount of time looks like for kids to eat.  After searching you might find recommendations that a typical meal time for a child is 20 to 30 minutes, a typical snack time is 10 to 15. I find that for younger kids, especially those that have a lot of energy, that’s a long time to sit.  We might start with just 3 to 4 minutes, or building up to 5 to 10 minutes.  If your child responds to a timer, then set one.  For younger children, I don’t require them to stay at the table until the end of the meal.

Engage with children at mealtime.  If you are having a family meal, let that be about the family.  I notice that when my husband and I start talking about something that isn’t very engaging for our children, they are more likely to feel restless and want to leave the table.  We talk about our days, our favorite foods, something fun that happened.  This is a great handout on 50 questions to get your child engaged with conversation, and is especially helpful during mealtimes.

Reinforce good behavior: “Sydney, this dinner is so much fun, I love sitting with you and hearing all about that art project you did at school.”

One last note and a bottom line: I let children get up from the meal when they are all done, BUT that means their meal is over.  Set the limit that you are still eating and enjoying your meal.  They can play on their own, but it’s still your mealtime.  Set respectful limits.  Stick to those limits.  You’ve got this! This is how you get your child to sit and stay at the table at mealtimes.

Want more tips for happier mealtimes for the family? Download my free guide: helping your child try new foods for strategies you can use right now to create a more fun feeding experience!