Does this sound familiar? Your child sits at the table, eats two bites, then runs off to play, circling back to the table a few minutes later, eats two bites, then runs off to play, circling back to the table a few minutes later, eats two bites… (you get the picture). Here's how to get your child to stay at the table. I love this question because it’s one of the easiest to fix. It’s much easier than getting kids to try new foods.
How to Get Your Child to Stay at the Table: Step 1
Check in with your own behavior.
As the saying goes, actions are stronger than words. Do you eat standing at the kitchen counter? While walking down the sidewalk? While driving? You’re teaching that one doesn’t have to sit at a table to eat.
Many Moms I know are like a jack-in-the-box during meals, getting up every 30 seconds to grab something from the kitchen. Stop. Before the meal starts, gather within reach (e.g. in the centre of the table) what you expect you’ll need during the meal. This might mean serving foods family-style so people can help themselves to seconds and/or having a cloth at the table to wipe up spills. Let phone calls go to voicemail and not checking texts/ emails.
How to Get Your Child to Stay at the Table: Step #2
Set appropriate expectations.
I know that it’s going to come as a shock to you (not) that toddlers and preschoolers don’t like to sit still for long periods of time. To them it’s quite boring. So don’t expect them to enjoy sitting for an hour over a meal. An age-appropriate expectation is to stay at the table until they are finished eating. Or, until they are finished eating and a few minutes longer. An example is staying at the table after they’ve finished eating the number of minutes as they are old (2 minutes for a 2 year old, 5 minutes for a 5 year old).
How to Get Your Child to Stay at the Table: Step #3
Explain to your child that there will be a new rule at meals.
She is free to get up from the table when she is “all done”. But, if she gets up from the table, she is choosing to be “all done”. Which means that her plate is being cleared to the kitchen and there will not be any more dinner for her to eat. The next time that she will be offered something to eat is ___________ (fill in the blank with your family’s routine e.g. bedtime snack, breakfast the next morning, etc). Be clear that when she chooses to leave the table she can no longer come back for more bites.
How to Get Your Child to Stay at the Table: Step #4
Implement the Boundaries.
Now just because you explained the new rules to your child, don’t expect him to truly understand them the first day. When your child moves to get up from the table, remind him of the new rule. And ask him if he’s really all done.
Now’s the tough part, you need to follow through on the rule. Remove his plate from the table and continue on with your meal. When he circles back to the table expecting to take two more bites, remind him that he chose to be all done, so it means that he doesn’t get any more bites of dinner. Remind him when the next meal or snack will be (e.g. bedtime snack, breakfast, etc).
He’s likely to protest this new rule (that’s his job as a toddler/ preschooler). It’s important not to give in and let him take some bites. If you do then you’re letting him know that the rule doesn’t really exist. You’re teaching him that he can leave the table and make a fuss and he will get more food.