Is it impossible to keep your kids at the table? Are they constantly up and moving? This is a common struggle for parents of toddlers and preschoolers.
You may have heard about the benefits of family meals, but have been having trouble actually implementing them in your home. If you have been having mealtime battles, check out my Family Meals Made Easy Course or E-book for more tips on implementing family meals in your home. Here are 9 tips for keeping your kids at the table.
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1. Set Realistic Goals
How long should a typical toddler be able to sit at the table? A rule of thumb is between 2-5 minutes for every year of age. This means that the expectation for your 2 year old is only 4 minutes.
You can work towards increasing the time, but it can be helpful to start at the lower end and work your way up to your ideal goal. Many parents start with a goal of 30 minutes and end up frustrated when their child can’t handle it. By starting on the lower end and working your way up, you are setting your child up for success. This will make mealtime more enjoyable for everyone.
2. Don’t Invite Until the Food Is Ready
One way to limit your child’s time at the table is to wait to invite them to the table until the food is ready. Have the food on the table, ready to go before you bring them to their chair. If you only have 4 minutes to work with, you don’t want to waste any of that time while you’re still prepping in the kitchen. This will maximize the amount of time the family is actually sitting and eating together, which will increase the benefit of the family meal.
3. Work on Transitions
How many times have you just announced “Time for dinner”? Kids can struggle with transitions. If they are interrupted without warning, they may come to the table dysregulated which will not set them up for a good meal.
Instead, give your child some warning so that they can start to prepare for the meal time. You can also start implementing pre-meal routines to help them prepare for mealtime.
Pre-Meal Routine Ideas
- Have your child do some heavy work to prepare their body: they can animal walk to the table, push their chair over from across the room, or carry a heavy serving tray over to the table.
- Have your child be in charge of a task such as setting the table.
- Consider a routine such as singing a song, washing hands, and then going to the table.
- Include your child in the preparation of the meal (if appropriate).
4. Check Their Chairs
If your child is not comfortable in their chair, it would be unreasonable to expect them to sit in it for long. Ideally, they should be sitting with a 90 degree angle at their hips and knees. They should have some kind of foot rest providing support (imagine sitting on a bar stool without a foot rest: it’s not comfortable).
There are many adjustable chairs (affiliate link) that will have a foot rest. Alternatively, you can make your own foot rest. You can use an exercise band around the legs or make a foot rest with a cardboard box or laundry basket (you’ll just need something to weigh it down so it doesn’t move).
For wiggly kids, you can try a wiggle cushion (affiliate link) so that they can wiggle without leaving the table. An exercise band around the legs of the chair can double as a foot rest and a way for them to get their wiggles out without leaving the table.
5. Serve Family Style
Serving food family style has a lot of benefits (including that you as the parent don’t need to get up as often). One key benefit is that kids are more in charge of what is on their plate.
This can be very helpful for a child who may be leaving the table because they don’t like the food they’re being served. If they don’t like a certain food, it doesn’t need to be on their plate, which means that it stays out of their personal space.
Another option is to offer a no thank you bowl. This allows your child to place food they don’t like in a specific location. Again it moves the food away from their personal space, which can prevent food throwing. Having food in personal space is an early step to eating and your child may not be at that point yet, especially if they’re picky.
6. Use a Visual Timer
Young kids have no concept of time. Saying that they need to stay at the table for 5 minutes means nothing to them. Having a cute timer on the table can help.
Having a visual cue can really help your child understand what the goal is. They can watch the timer go down and know that they are closer to being done. This helps them better understand an abstract concept.
As stated in tip 1: set a reasonable goal. You want your child to succeed. Start with ~2 minutes per year of age and work your way up.
7. Make Mealtime Fun
Mealtime should be about bonding as a family. If you are using the principles of the Division of Responsibility, you know that once you serve the food, your job is done. It is up to your child to determine if they eat and how much.
Don’t put additional pressure on them to finish their veggies. Make the environment as enjoyable as possible. By doing so, your child will want to stay at the table longer. Come up with games you can play at the table. Have everyone share their favorite thing that happened or something they are grateful for. Discuss your favorite things about each other. Make it positive.
8. Have an Ending
Have a clear end to the meal so that your child knows that it’s done. This will be helpful once they get a bit older and don’t need a timer as a cue.
Maybe you have them take their plate to the sink. Maybe your family sings an end of the meal song. Whatever works for your family. Do something consistently at the end of the meal as a cue that the meal is over. This will help your child figure out what is expected of them. Remember that we are not born knowing social norms, we must be taught them.
What this means will vary depending on the child, especially if the child is neurodivergent. Some kids may need the lighting adjusted. Others may find that the sensory overload from serving meals family style is too much. Many kids are sensitive to noise and may do better eating by themselves (younger kids should still be supervised as they are at higher risk of choking).
It may take some investigative work (or an appointment with an occupational therapist), to figure out the ideal environment for your family. If your child is dysregulated, they are going to have a really hard time staying at the table.
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Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.