7 top tips on how to get your toddler to sit at the table and eat

A family of children, parents and grandparents sat around a dinner table together

Why is sitting at the table so important?

Sitting down to eat a meal is one of the most common social norms there are. Different cultures will have their own spin on this but there are a number of important reasons why we sit and eat.

Sitting and sharing a meal with family or friends gives young children a chance to interact and bond with those around them.  

It’s also the perfect time for practicing those all important social skills and table manners.

Having social skills means that your child will grow up learning to enjoy eating with other people such as at school, at other peoples homes, and restaurants.

Sharing a meal also gives your little one the opportunity to learn from watching you eat and drink. How to cut with a knife, to know that scary foods are safe, and even how to wrap a fajita!  

Sitting down to eat is also about safety.  It isn’t safe to let your little one walk around eating, it puts your child at a much higher risk of choking. Whatever their age.

Why do kids not like sitting at the table for long?

Well, to be perfectly honest, eating is not very interesting to a small child!  Children are busy, they’re constantly on the go moving from one activity to the next!

Eating is functional to toddlers; they’ll sit there for as long as they need to in order to feel satisfied, but as soon as they’re done, it’s time to get on with more interesting things.

The social aspect of eating a meal together comes much later, for kids it’s just boring. Keeping them at the table for longer will inevitably result in them looking for more interesting things to do which can sometimes look like they are being naughty or misbehaving.

They’re not, they’re just done and want to get down from the table to move on to something far more entertaining. This is a completely normal part of their development.

How long should my child be able to sit at a table for?

Sometimes we as parents don’t understand why they won’t just sit!  This is one of the times where we might need to adjust our expectations of what is acceptable because guess what? We all overestimate this!

Here’s my guide of how long you should expect your child to be able to sit at the table for:

  • 12 months 20 minutes
  • 18 months – 5 years 10-15 minutes
  • 5 years -11 years 20 minutes
  • 12 years + 30 minutes or longer
A young child sitting at the table using an iPad

Should you try and make them stay?

It’s best not to force or bribe your little one to stay at the table, because this will inevitably result in unhappy mealtimes.

Bribery with the iPad or your phone will work, but only in the short term. 

Unfortunately this just makes the dinner table a dreaded place for your child who will start to expect the iPad each time. 

What you’ve inadvertently done is conditioned your child to only be able to eat with the iPad or worse, rewarded their refusal to come to the table with the reward of the phone or iPad. 

And guess what? Rewards lead to more of the behaviour they just did – more not coming to the table.

When you think your child has finished, have them help clean up. They are quite capable of this from around 18 months or so.

Children should take their plate over to the bin and tip the unwanted food away, leaving the plate by the sink to be washed up.

This end of meal activity serves as a cue that the meal really is over, often if the alternative is the bin, children who are just being difficult at the table will decide to eat.

This also stops them coming back 10 minutes later to pick at the leftovers. 

Essentially what you are doing here is a positive food parenting practice, teaching your children routine and that eating happens at a meal or snack time only.

a family sat around a dinner table together and looking happy

Top 7 ways to get your child to the table and to stay there!

Whilst you can’t make them stay at the table, there are a few things that you can do to make them want to stay at the table for.

  1. Have a snack and meal routine

This is all about expectations. A structure to the day really helps children feel secure and they’ll come to know when the next meal or snack is due. 

This helps with appetite regulation and them understanding their hunger and fullness cues which means they’ll come to the table with an appetite, ready to eat. They’ll also learn that if they get down from the table, they need to wait until their next meal or snack to satisfy their hunger.

And if you have a grazer or a child who constantly asks for snacks, being consistent with this will pay dividends. After a few weeks the constant requests will stop!  

  1. Create a pre-meal routine that leads them to the table

If you have a battle to get your little one to even come to the table, having a pre-meal routine can really help get your child ready for the meal time.

A pre meal routine might look a little like this:

Step 1: A 5 minute warning – get down on their level so that you know they’ve heard and taken in what you’re saying.  This will give them the opportunity to finish their play.

Step 2: A transition activity – this is the activity that is the link between their play and the mealtime.  Some children really benefit from doing something quite physical like leapfrogs or marching, especially if they have sensory processing issues that affect their eating, others are content with simply washing their hands.

Step 3: Move to the table and sit down in their place

  1. Make sure their position at the table is right

You might remember all the talk about positioning when your little one was a tiny weaning baby.  But really it’s just as important now as it was then!

Ideally they need to have a 90 degree angle (right angle) at their hips, knees and ankles.

And they must have a foot rest.

This is because the human body’s number 1 priority is to sustain life and so it’s going to put all its focus into keeping your child upright, protecting their head which means it’s not allowing them to focus on the job in hand, eating.

A supportive chair will allow them to free up their focus to concentrate on eating and drinking.

If your child fidgets or squirms in their chair, just check their seating. This could be the reason they won’t sit still for long at the table.

  1. Let them down once they’ve had enough

It’s ok to say yes once you think they want to get down. Let them go through the clean up routine and that the kitchen is closed till the next meal or snack (even if that’s breakfast).

You’ll definitely avoid tears and tantrums at the table, making mealtimes happier which means that they are much more likely to actually want to come to the table next time. 

Pressure to stay causes adrenaline to spike which switches appetite off dead, and that means the meal is most definitely over.

Don’t forget to teach table manners by having your little one ask to get down from the table when they’re done. 

  1. Spend time at the table away from mealtimes

Creating positive experiences at the dinner table away from meal times can be really helpful to show your child that the table is a happy place. 

This is especially important if they have started to develop an aversion to the table, I’ve had first hand experience of this with my first child who wouldn’t even come to the table for Christmas dinner!

Sit at the table to tell stories, to play games like my Foodie Bingo, painting or Play-doh or try out some messy play with foodstuffs if your child is willing.

  1. Always be consistent in your approach to mealtimes

Consistency is key in encouraging new behaviours in your child so adopt these tips for as many mealtimes as you can. 

Also, remember that children learn best when they see you doing what you are asking them to do. So be a good role model and show them how you eat meals at the table. If they see you sitting on the sofa whilst they eat at a table, they won’t want to sit there!

  1. Use a visual timer

An oversized sand timer can be a really helpful visual aid for young children who don’t yet understand the concept of time. 

And let them turn it over at the beginning of the meal to start the sand running so they take a little ownership and responsibility. 

Small jobs can make children feel important and valued at mealtimes but crucially a sand timer can help them understand how long you expect them to stay.

Two brothers sat slurping spaghetti together

What to do if they won’t come to the table

It’s not uncommon for fussy eaters to avoid coming to the table, especially if they feel under pressure to eat at mealtimes.

If this is the case, your priority is to reduce pressure at mealtimes by stopping use of rewards, bribes, incentives or general commentary about how much or how little they’re eating.

One of your jobs when it comes to feeding your children is to decide where the meal takes place. If you have chosen that the meal takes place at the dining table, then that’s where your child should sit.

Now, of course, your little one can absolutely refuse to sit there and if they do, the meal is over.

This is detailed in Ellen Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding, which outlines the parent’s role and the child’s role in the feeding relationship, both need to be respected in order for happy mealtimes.

How to spot when they are ready to get down from the table

If you haven’t picked up their cues like slowing down with their eating, some other signs that your child is ready to get down from the table could be:

  • Throwing food, dropping it on the floor or feeding the dog
  • Disinterest in what’s on their plate
  • Asking to get down
  • Fidgeting
  • Playing with the food, the cutlery or condiments
  • Starting to misbehave – they’re just bored!
A young girl sat at the dinner table pushing her food away

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    And if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here and want to work with me further then you may want to join the waitlist for the Happy Healthy Eaters Club

    This members-only club teaches you how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

    You’ll learn about parenting techniques as well as nutrition so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins). 

    It’s all about making you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

    Our aim is for your little one to become excited to try new foods, to make your family mealtimes are a breeze without a reward, bribe, or iPad insight…oh  and that you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

    Sarah Almond Bushell standing by a sign saying hungry and family
    Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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    meet Sarah

    I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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