Whether it be on my live workshops or through parents submitting their inquiries, one of the most common questions I get asked is how to get squirmy kids to stay seated at the table.
Does this sound familiar?
"I have issues getting my 4 year old to feed himself. He is easily distracted and just won't sit down and eat his full meal. In the end, he will only finish his plate if my husband or me feed him ourselves. How do we get him to take a few more bites on his own before he is halfway out of his seat?"
"Lately, my 2 year old twins will get in their booster seats, be all ready to eat, then barely touch their plate and say "all done!" and want down. I don't want to pressure them to eat, but then I don't know if I should just be allowing them to suddenly decide they're done without eating much. Any advice with this?"
"My 3 year old son wont even sit down unless he loves whats being offered. How do I get him just stay seated?"
No matter the age or gender of your child, wrangling kids to "just sit and eat" is no small feat.
That's why in today's post, we are going to talk about how to get your child to both sit AND stay seated, how to set them up for success in the process, and what you as the parent can do to maintain a Division of Responsibility at meal times with even the squirmiest of eaters.
7 Ways to Keep Your Child Seated through Dinner
1. Don't seat your children until it is time for the meal.
This will help them to not be waiting for the meal in the only five minute window you may get with them to actually stay seated and eat. Instead, be as prepared as possible when it comes to meal times. Have a gauge on when the meal is truly "almost ready," and then engage them in a pre-meal routine like washing hands and finding their seats. You can also include them in helping with meal time routines in other ways like carrying over silverware, napkins, setting the table, or even any final food prep based on their ages and abilities.
2. Be clear about expectations.
Don't feel bad telling your child(ren) that meals are not only about eating but also about togetherness. This helps them to learn their are expectations for them at meal time and you will help them adhere to those boundaries. Share with your child that you expect them to join their siblings and/or family for meals whether they choose to eat or not.
Then, be sure they are also well aware of the expectations after meals. If they get up from the table, the meal is over. Gently remind them that if they get hungry again after getting up, they will need to wait until the next planned meal or snack. This helps them to learn the boundaries of structured meal and snack times (while also giving you the opportunity to reinforce them). A set pattern for meal and snack times encourages kids to become more discerning before bouncing out of their seats. By reminding your child(ren) of the message that the kitchen will be closed until the next meal or snack time, kids learn to eat when food is offered (because grazing later will not be allowed). Again, this helps them to learn the cause and effect of what happens when they prematurely get up from the table.
If I get out of my seat --> The meal is over --> I won't get to eat again until the next meal or snack
3. Be realistic about how long they should stay seated.
Most kids can handle 2-5 minutes seated at the table per year of life. If it is a meal they're not into, it's usually on the lower. If it is a meal they are more fond of, they will usually stay a bit longer to allow them more time to eat and enjoy it. For a two year old, that means you can expect them to sit for 5-10 minutes. For a 3-4 year old, 15-20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to work towards them being able to stay seated.
Remember that this can take some work, however. If your four year old struggles to sit at the table for more than five minutes, you will need to work your way up to a longer stretch using some of the other tactics covered here.
4. Don't use pressure as a tactic to get them to stay.
Even parents who are committed to using a Division of Responsibility in feeding approach can fall prey to pressuring their child to eat as a tactic to keep them seated. This creates new issues besides just wanting your child to sit through a meal though and is highly discouraged. Remember that the goal is not for your child to clean their plate of take X number of bites of XYZ food. You are training your child in valuable life skills and helping them to succeed in the social etiquette of a meal, so that as they grow older they can politely participate in more family meals and outings.
5. Practice in the peace of your own home.
If eating out with your child is an issue, consider working on the flow of a meal at home. Play pretend in a toy kitchen or using children's dishware at the dinner table. Let your child pretend to be the server and you as the guest, then trade roles. Role model the behaviors you expect your child to do at meal times and then reinforce how your family is to behave while at restaurants. Home is the perfect place to practice. There is no pressure to perform and your demeanor as the parent is much more relaxed during "pretend" than at a usual meal or outing. By using pretend food, this also allows you to positively reinforce the meal time behaviors you want your child to repeat using plastic, mess-free food!
6. Probe their curiosity to buy a little bit of time.
If your child says "all done" almost immediately after they sit down, try to get them "over the hump." Initially, they are testing your boundaries to see if you will allow them to leave the table. Once you have reinforced the expectations at a meal (that they will stay seated politely), redirect their attention and energy to help them succeed at staying seated. Talk about the learning it foods that have been offered and yet not yet tasted or touched. If your child has already decided s/he is finished eating, don't pressure any "polite bites." Instead, try to get them to learn the other foods by asking probing yet non-pressure questions like: which one is softer, your raw carrot or cooked green beans? What do they smell like? Do they smell the same, or different? What color is your chicken? Do you see any spices or sauce on it? Do the spices/sauce seem sweet or salty (almost always gets them to at least lick it) and so on.
Do this in a fun and conversational way. This turns a "sit your bottom in the seat and eat!" statement and forced feeding environment into one that emphasizes a positive feeding dynamic of togetherness and exploration, even if little gets eaten.
7. Make sure they are seated properly.
Often as kids get too big for a highchair, they transition to a chair that is too big for them. Consider using a booster that allows their feet to rest on the chair also, or put a stool under the table that their feet can rest on. These added areas of support can really help kids maintain better meal time behavior and thus eat better. Additionally, consider keeping your children strapped in to either high chairs or boosters for as long as possible (ideally until about age three). This helps keep age-appropriate restraint in place, which once removed (or no longer used) is harder to reinforce strap-free. For more information on how to properly position your children for meal times, the best resource I have found on this subject can be found here.
Establishing a New Normal
By taking the lead on how you approach your child's constant attempts to get up from the table, you can quickly establish a new normal. There is no need to chase your child down, beg them to take another bite while they're half way out of their chair, or taking a plate into another room to feed your child in front of the TV. Instead, it is up to you to find productive tactics that aid in the establishment of a positive feeding environment -- none of which is occurring when we can't get out kids to sit still.
So try the above approaches and let me know how they work!
If your child still throws up a fight, politely excuse them and remind them that that type of behavior is not allowed at the table. Don't get wrapped up in their drama, but calmly redirect them to another area and continue with the meal. If you establish the boundaries and stay consistent with what, when, AND where meals are offered, they will learn how to live within those age-appropriate and loving limits.
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