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Do you have a kiddo that flees the table a few minutes into the meal or is so fidgety while sitting at the table they can barely eat? I’m sure you do if you’ve found your way here! It’s a question that comes up quite a bit around here, because I talk a lot about picky eating and establishing healthy lifelong eating habits. It’s nearly impossible to work on either of those things if your child won’t even sit at the table!
Well, I’m going to give you my special mom of three and pediatric OT blend of advice in 8 easy steps today! Plus, I have some extra tips for toddlers and a few strategies to actually avoid. This post is jam packed with tips and tricks – make sure you pin it so you can read it again later if you need to! And to make sure you don’t miss a step I have a FREE Printable you can grab at the end of the post!
But, before we get there, I first want to welcome back our wonderful sponsor, Chewigem USA! Chewigem USA is an online store for sensory and special needs products, some of which include: chewy-jewelry, no-spill lite up cups, no-tie shoe-laces, and the Senseez vibrating pillow. Chewigem USA is so special because it was created by parents who saw a need to support other parents with quality tools to help their children. You can check out Chewigem USA here.
8 Steps to Keep Your Child Seated for Meals
1. Be on a schedule – Yes, I’m talking about the schedule again. If you’re new here, you may not know that one of the best first strategies I share is spacing your child’s meals 2.5 – 3 hours apart with no snacking in between but water. So, when I say schedule, I’m not talking about a specific time of the day, but an interval. This is so very important, because you’re setting your child’s appetite up to be cyclical and not random. That means that when they come to the table they will be HUNGRY and they will SIT and eat. Read more about schedules and my top tips in Eating Basics.
2. Be prepared – This can be challenging, especially with multiple kids, and I say that from daily experience. It’s definitely an area I myself could improve on! 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 get into the meal so much easier when everything you need for is all set up.
3. 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. Going past that leaves them with too much time in their chairs and will naturally create the wiggles because they are simply spending too much of their day there. If this doesn’t seem achievable at the moment, start by cutting off 5 minutes every few days and taking a look at the environment and anything that could be causing distractions (the other steps listed here, will help improve attention, which will help them eat quicker too!)
Or, you may be on the other side of the situation and your child can barely stay seated for a few minutes. In this case, you’re going to want to work your way up to at least 10 minutes, even for toddlers, and I’d say about 15-20 minutes for 3-4+ years old. Again, add on a few extra minutes each day until you reach your goal.
Some kids really benefit from a visual timer, one that they can actually see how much time they have left to stay seated at the table. I’ve used this one many times before when working with kids, its perfect for kids that don’t know how to tell time, let alone get the concept of time!
4. Make sure they are seated well – And, by that I mean, a seat that isn’t too big for them and gives them the support they need to stay seated. If your child can’t reach the table while seated comfortably, then you are at least going to have them wiggling everywhere and possibly trying to get down. 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. If you need more help making sure your child is seated properly, check out this post.
5. Offer sensory activities before hand – Even if your child doesn’t have sensory “needs,” sensory activities can be extremely beneficial because they calm and organize our brain so that we can focus on what we need to do. In this case, that’s eating! There are tons of sensory activities, everything from jumping on a trampoline to listening to relaxing music. I would encourage you to experiment with some active types of sensory play and some more quiet calming sensory activities if you aren’t sure which your child will respond to better. And the response I want you to be looking for is that they are more focused and are sitting still longer. This may take some trial and error and some consistency.
If you’re new to sensory, I might as well be speaking a foreign language. If that’s the case, check out my Sensory Basics page, or if your looking for more activity suggestions check out this post from Growing Hands On Kids. Either way its worth your time, because a few minutes of sensory activities can go a long way and it could be the missing piece to the puzzle once you have the other steps in place!
6. Use cues – A lot of times, a child wants to the leave 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 really 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 get excited for the meal.
Of course, make sure there are no other distractions tempting them away from the table. Turn off the tv, put toys out of site, and even close the blinds, if you need to!
7. Give sensory input during the meal – It can also be immensely helpful to give kids some sensory input during the meal, particularly if you’ve tried everything else on this list and they are still not staying seated. Since you can’t jump on a trampoline while eating, I like to use either of both of the following sensory “tools”.
- The Senseez Pillow – I’ve had one of these for years, and love to use it during meals. It works so well for meals because it’s 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 fun. You snag one for yourself here.
- Weighted Pillow – This pillow goes on top of the lap and is heavy. I love the homemade version! You can either take a large tube sock and fill it with beans or rice, tying a rubber band on the top. Or, you can sew a simple small pillow just about the size of your child’s lap and fill it with beans or rice.
You can use either of these tools on their own or together!
8. Be consistent and persistent – It might be challenging in the beginning as you start to implement these changes in your home. It will be tempting to throw in the towel if your child continues to give a battle, but I can tell you, as I’ve seen so many times in working with children, that with using these steps, the more persistent and consistent you are, the quicker you will see success.
What NOT to Do
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. I’m talking about 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. 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 their 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.
While all 8 of the tips are great for toddlers too, there are two other important points I want you to keep in mind when dealing with the 1-3 year old crowd.
- First, they are notoriously difficult to keep seated at the table. The younger they are in this range the more challenging it will likely be. A lot of this has to do with the developmental phase they are in, its 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!
- Second, I highly recommend that you keep toddlers in a highchair or booster seat with a strap on it until they are 3. Use the strap at every single meal! Once you open the door to a strap free life it can be difficult to un-do, but not impossible. Slowly reintroduce, and, again, be consistent. That strap will save you tons of battles!
Got some new ideas to try? Do you think you can put some of these steps into practice in your home? To make it even easier, grab this free printable here. You’ll put in your email and after confirming your address you can download the free guide to keep your kiddo seated and print it out so you don’t miss a step.
Tell me what step you’re going to start with in the comments below, and if you have any tips I didn’t mention, share them knowing that you’ll be helping someone else