Learn how to get your child to sit still for dinner, lunch, or any meal whether they’re 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6+ years old with these tricks from an occupational therapist!
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Do you have a kiddo that flees the dinner table a few minutes into the meal or is so fidgety while sitting at the table they can barely eat?
It’s a question that comes up quite a bit around here, because I talk a lot about picky eating and sensory issues, which often make it hard for kids to sit still.
The good news, that even for the most fidgety or picky kids, there is a lot you can do to help them sit down and eat a meal without getting up 100 times!
In fact, I’m going to share 8 ways you can help your child sit still to eat at dinner, lunch, breakfast, or even snack time.
I’ve been there as a mom with my three kids, but have helped hundreds as a pediatric occupational therapist.
And, if you’ve got a toddler, I’ve got some special tips for helping them sit still long enough to eat!
This article is jam packed with tips and tricks – make sure you pin it so you can find it again quick!
And look for the FREE Printable with all 8 ways to help kids sit still to eat at the end of the post!
Why is Sitting at the Table to Eat Important?
First and foremost, when kids hop around, get up and down, or don’t sit at the proper position while they’re eating they’re at a greater likelihood for aspiration (food/drink getting in their lungs) or choking.
But, beyond that there are countless studies that show the benefit of kids eating together at a table with their family. Everything from higher IQ to lower risk mental health diagnoses in the teen years.
And, as my Mealtime Works students know, it’s a key step in helping picky eaters eat new foods. Think about it… if your kid won’t sit still at the table, how will they be able to try a new or different food?
Eating a meal at the table also creates a routine for your child so they begin to expect where and when they’ll eat. This can build positive associations with hunger and independence in self-feeding.
You could say eating at the table is a huge foundation for healthy eating habits! Read more about how to serve food to picky eaters.
8 Ways to Help Your Child Sit Still to Eat the Whole Meal
All of these strategies work together, and the more you’re able to use the more likely your child will sit still for dinner! Of course, don’t expect perfection, it probably won’t happen. Instead look for small signs of progress.
Maybe your child only sits at the table for a total of 3 minutes right now before they get up. It would be great progress if they manage to sit for 5 whole minutes.
As you consistently use the strategies below the length of time will likely increase too!
- Feed your child on a schedule – Spacing your child’s meals 2.5 – 3 hours apart with no snacking in between but water is key.
If your child isn’t hungry when they get to the table it will be incredibly hard to get them to sit still.
Getting into a routine of nothing but water in between these meals, means your kid comes to the table HUNGRY and will be far more likely to sit still!
- Have everything ready before you bring your kid to the table – This can be challenging, especially with multiple kids, I know from the daily experience in my home.
But, having everything ready when your child comes to the table so that you can both sit down together will help ward off them hopping down or complaining before you even get to the table because you’re still pulling a side dish out of the oven.
You will be able to redirect your child and actually start eating the meal when everything you need is all set up.
- Keep meals between 10-30 minutes max – While some kids play around or are very distracted when they eat, it is still important to keep meals to 30 minutes or under.
It’s hard for kids to sit still for long periods of time, and they’re eating at the table at least 3 times a day. Expecting them to sit still at the table for longer than 30 minutes won’t be effective.
If your child isn’t able to sit for 10 minutes this is a great goal to start with, ultimately working your way towards 30 minutes for family dinners or meals.
Some kids really benefit from a visual or sand timer as you’re working on increasing the time at the table. This way they can see how long they need to sit at the table. , one that they can. I’ve used this visual timer many times with kids. It’s perfect for kids that like visuals, toddlers, or kids that don’t know how to tell time yet.
- Make sure they are seated well – It’s important that your child is in the proper position for eating. A chair that’s too big will cause even the calmest of kids to turn wiggly.
If your child can’t reach the table while seated comfortably, then their seating will need adjusted with a booster seat or different type of chair.
You want to make sure they can sit firmly on their butt and have their elbows above the table. Having something under their feet so they aren’t dangling would be ideal.
Check out more in the Best Position for Kids to Eat Meals.
- Offer sensory activities before the meal begins – Even if your child doesn’t have sensory “needs,” sensory activities can calm and organize your child’s brain so they’re able to sit still to eat.
However, if you don’t see your child responding after multiple days of trying, then you may want to experiment with more gentler sensory activities like playing in sensory bins or listening to music.
If you want to learn more about how sensory activities can be used to help calm and regulate kids, grab a seat in our free workshop!
- Use a starting cue – A lot of times, a child wants to leave the table so soon because they aren’t used to the routine yet. If you suspect this is the case in your home, it would be helpful to consistently use a prayer, song, or music to start a meal.
Your child will begin to understand that when they hear the cue that its time to sit and eat. You can also have your child set the table, to anticipate and signal the meal is about to start
Of course, make sure there are no other distractions tempting them away from the table. Turn off the tv, put toys out of sight, and even close the blinds, if you need to!
- Give sensory input during the meal – Besides using sensory activities before the meal, you can also use them during the meal! These are some of my favorite sensory toys that continue to support kids sensory needs while they eat:
- The Senseez Pillow – A pillow that vibrates when you sit on it. If you stand up the vibration stops. Vibration is an extremely powerful and calming form of sensory input. This is an easy fix, and it adds extra motivation to come to the table in the first place because it is so much fun. You snag one for yourself here.
- Weighted Lap Pad – This pillow goes on top of the lap and is heavy. You can either take a large tube sock and fill it with beans or rice, tying a rubber band on the top. Or, sew a simple small pillow just about the size of your child’s lap and fill it with beans or rice.
Not the DIY type, get a ready made weighted lap pad here.
- Wobble Cushion – This simple inflated pillow is often textured and allows just enough movement to help kids get their wiggles out and is a fun way to move, but not so much that it’s distracting.
You can get one here.
You can use either of these tools on their own or together!
- Be consistent and persistent – It might be challenging in the beginning as you start to implement these changes in your home. Remember, making a good eating habit takes time.
It will be tempting to throw in the towel if your child continues to get up from the table often, but I can tell you, as I’ve seen so many times in working with kids, whether they are younger children, older kids, or teens, that with using these steps, the more persistent and consistent you are, the quicker you will see success.
Establishing any new routines to bring change is hard, but worth it!
What to Avoid When Trying to Help Kids Sit Still at Dinner
There are a couple of pitfalls that parents often understandably fall into when trying to get their kid to sit at the table…
- First, is using distractions at the table like tablets, phones, books, toys, TV, etc. I totally get why this happens, so no judgement at all, but it is really important to phase them out because they can lead to unhealthy eating habits. I have an entire post dedicated to distractions at the table, read it here.
- Second, avoid power struggles. If your child is throwing down the gauntlet and they aren’t coming to the table, don’t engage with them. If they’re having a tantrum, help them go to another room where they aren’t disturbing anyone else’s meal. This can be hard with young children, but it’s important.
Let them know that they can come to the table when they are calm. If they don’t calm down or flat out refuse, tell them that coming to the table isn’t negotiable and if they refuse, there won’t be any food until their next meal (which should be only 2.5 hours away).
Have them repeat this back to you, so you know they understand. When they are calmed down at some point later, take some time to talk to them about this. It might help to let them choose something benign like which chair they are going to sit in or which plate they’d like to use.
This will give them a sense of control. Don’t allow them to choose the food for the meal, that’s a bigger decision that they shouldn’t have control over. Read more on the division of responsibility, which is the an outline of your role at meals and your child’s.
The Toddler that Won’t Sit Still to Eat…
While all 8 of the tips are great for toddlers too, there are two other important points to keep in mind when dealing with the 1-3 year old crowd:
- Toddlers are notoriously difficult to keep seated at the table. The younger they are in this range the more challenging it will likely be. 1 year olds will be harder than a 3 year old, but practicing early helps.
A lot of this has to do with the developmental phase they are in, it’s frustrating, but its normal and it will pass if you stay consistent with your routine. Try, as difficult as it is, to be patient with them, and yourself!
- I highly recommend that you keep toddlers in a high chair or booster seat with a strap on it until they are 3. This includes a foot rest or foot support so they are in a comfortable position.
Use the strap at every single meal! Once you open the door to a strap free life it can be difficult to un-do with little kids, but not impossible. Slowly reintroduce, and, again, be consistent. That strap will save you tons of battles!
Get the Free Printable
Want to make sure you remember all 8 strategies for getting your kid to sit still to eat? We’ve got you covered.
Save it to your phone or hang it on your fridge for a quick reference!
More on Help For Getting Kids to Sit Still to Eat
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.