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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 any 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.
- Wobble Cushion – This simple inflated pillow is often textured and allows just enough movement to help kids get their wiggles out, but not so much that it’s distracting.
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
More on Healthy Eating Habits
The Best Strategy for Picky Eaters
How to Pack a Lunch Your Kid Will Eat
My 3 year old son just doesn’t like eating food/trying new things. He just loves eating plain ghee roti without vegetables. Also he will eat of and only if i feed him. I have to hide sabji deep inside roti byte and show him mobile.
How can I make him eat himself and try every food served to him
Additionally he also spits out every first byte that i feed him and then after few trials with help of screen he starts eating
Hi Sayali! So sorry to hear that mealtime is difficult for you and your child. You are not alone! The first step in working on any picky eating is starting with a no pressure environment! Try serving the same meal for everyone, along with something that he likes, but don’t put any pressure on him to eat anything. A no pressure environment can really help kids feel more comfortable around mealtimes! Allow him to touch/feel/play with his food and practice with utensils and feeding himself. Since he spits food out frequently, try using a toothbrush to brush the insides of his mouth before mealtimes. This will help desensitize his gag reflex and strengthen his oral muscles. We have more tips here!
My son is 6.5 years now. He eats everything but only when I feed him. If he is left alone to eat by himself he takes almost upto an hour. And in this time I have to keep telling him , eat your food , take the next bite and it’s getting late finish your food. And among all this I loose temper and shout at him or go and feed him myself. He is a darling boy otherwise, only food is our problem.
He is not a good eater .. but by now we both have figured it out what he likes and what’s important to eat. So he almost eat everything but the meal times are very long and need constant reminders from me to have the next bite or finish the food.
Kindly suggest something to help.
Hi Himani! Thanks for reaching out! Try to avoid force or pressure at mealtime. The less you stress about his eating, the more comfortable he will be to actually eat his food at mealtime. Try to have everyone sit together at the table to eat, this way he doesnt feel secluded and can see everyone else eating, and therefore, want to eat too. You may also try to minimize distractions during mealtime, like turning off tv and other electronics. Hope that helps!
My daughter is 2 and 2 months. She has always been an excellent eater until recent months. She started to refuse her high chair, so I gave her booster with straps. This on lasted for about 2 months. She would asked to unbuckle and leave the table. If I refuse to unbuckle, she would cry…..
I recently bought a cushion for her. She sat there for a week then again tries to get jump off.
Weird enough, when we eat out, she sits in the booster chair with no problem and she stays there for 20-30min & finishes all her food.
Hi Thanks for reaching out! I’d make sure that you do have the proper seating position! While she may be sitting in the new seat, because it is new and exciting, she may need some more support. Making sure they have something to place their feet on and sitting in a 90/90/90 angle is very helpful. Also, getting in some sensory input prior to meals can be helpful. Check out our post on Proper Positioning for some more tips!
Hi, i have a 18months old son, I can’t make him sit still when comes to meal time, i use high chair with strap, comfy chair and foot rest. When it comes to meal time, he can only sit still for 5min and then ask me to help him get off from the chair and started running around the house, so i fed him while he spinning around the house. Should i stop feed him by the time he ask to get down from the chair? If I’m doing that, I’m worried that he only got a small amount of food and asking for a milk in a couple hours after that. Because the lunch time is at 12pm and nap time is at 2pm, so by the time he ask to get down from the chair, i don’t have any time to wait 2-3 hours to fed him again because it’s nap time. If i refuse to help him to get down from the chair, he will start to screaming and get angry (tantrum) really bad.
Thanks for reaching out to us! I’d work on trying to do some proprioceptive activities prior to mealtimes. Some kids just need to get all of that input from the activities to be able to sit for longer periods of time. You will have to do some trials to see what activities may work for your son, but hopefully find some that will increase ability to sit for longer period of time. You can check out some proprioceptive activities here
Hi, I have a grandson who is 5 and in kindergarten this year. He is having a very hard time sitting still at lunch time. The monitor is stating he ends up crawling under the table. He eats a little but does not finish his meal. He can’t sit still. Ends up disturbing his classmates. Any advice.
Thanks for reaching out! He may be trying to get his movement in at lunchtime since he’s needing to sit still for his other classes. I’d try talking with the teacher to see if there are other movement activities he can be involved in during class in the morning to “get it all out” so that he’s able to sit for his lunch times. We do have an article on Movement breaks for home or school you can check it out for some ideas!
Hi, could you describe how to work up to a child sitting longer? Do I increase how long they sit by one minute? What if they are fighting to leave?
Yes, I’d try to increase it by a minute slowly to increase the length of time that they are sitting. If they are having difficulties I’d make sure to look at their seating for proper support as well as providing sensory input before meals.
I have a 4 year old boy and he just cannot sit still to eat. We all sit together to eat and every meal is the same. He cannot sit still, he constantly has to be moving round. He can sit for over an hour and not eat. Should I be saying right that’s it until your next meal or should I make him sit until its all gone. He is naturally slim and I’m worried that the latter option will mean he eats less and I don’t want that!
I’d work on trying to provide some proprioceptive activities prior to meals (it may take some trial and error to find which activity will work best for him). But then also looking at seating and possibly a wiggle seat as suggested in the article so that he can still be moving while remaining seated!
My 18 months old daughter does not want to seat on her high chair. Or she just wants one or two bites then asks to get off the chair. I try to make it seems like when she’s out of her chair the meal is over. Means that she will go to bed with empty stomach and wake up at 1am crying because she’s hungry. What should I do?
I’d be looking at each of the suggestions from the post. Making sure she is seated properly and providing sensory input during/before meals can be huge ones that affect sitting during meals.
We are doing all the strategies we can (meal time schedule, correct positioning, calming activities before meals, hand washing) but sometimes our 16 month old will not stay seated! After he gets down he will happily open his mouth and comes over to take food offered on a spoon – he can eat the whole meal this way. I know I’m probably perpetuating this behaviour but when I refrained he simply skipped meals and began looking v skinny! What can I do?
Great work at implementing the tips for schedule, positioning and calming activities. I’d try to take a look at making sure there is no pressure sneaking in at the table for him to eat. This can be in your mindset as well that he can feel as pressure!
Thanks for the reply! I’ve found that since not worrying about his eating it has definitely improved (and I’ve been much happier too!) so I don’t think it’s that. I’m just wondering if I should be feeding him on the floor at all or can it only make it worse?
If you need to have some special breaks/days where you are breaking up the routine, this is okay. I’d try to not make it a habit for every meal!
Hi, for those really active toddlers, with short attention spans, what do you think of allowing movement during a meal? Or letting them stand to eat?
While everyone is different, we do recommend the sitting position in 90/90/90 positioning for meals making sure the child has a place to rest their feet. I’d try to do some deep pressure activities to promote calming prior to the meal to help get through the meal. You can find some great Proprioceptive Activities Here
I have always struggled to keep my son seated at the table. He is no longer a toddler now. I like the idea of the meal is over once he leaves the table, but he is impulsive and I worry I would be punishing him for something he can’t control. What do you think?
I’d still try the proprioceptive activities prior to mealtimes to see if that will help with him being able to sit for longer periods of time. You can start to go over the rules for him as well and it may take a little for him to know once he leaves the meal is over, but you can see how it goes. But always, go with what you feel is best for your family.
My son is 2.5 and we have been trying for over a year to get him to try a new food. We give him the preferred foods (which are few, but healthy) along with new things. We have exposed him to the same “new” foods many times, did all the tricks and gimmicks, and he just will not try anything. It’s hard to feed him away from home, so it feels like being a hostage when I know I’m not going to be able to give him a proper meal away from home because it can’t be replicated in a restaurant (he’ll eat a quesadilla at home, but not a similar one at a restaurant). We end up having to carefully plan everything around when he eats. It’s killing me. He won’t even eat a PB&J. We have had an OT come by for a few months, but he made zero progress. We were basically just told that it will take many tries of him seeing the same things over and over before he tries it. Any new advice? Thanks.
You are doing great at providing a preferred food with the new food! I would really work on trying to set up a no pressure environment. I’m not sure if you have seen our free workshop for picky eating yet, but if you haven’t this would be a really good resource for you, and walks you through no pressure environment. It will provide tips for how to set up mealtimes and schedule it. Offering of foods, etc. You can save your seat HERE