Get 7 simple ways to help keep your child seated at the table longer so they stop getting up or only eat for a few minutes! Don’t miss this if you’ve got a busy toddler or a picky eater.
It’s probably one of the most common questions I get asked here on Your Kid’s Table: How do I get my kid to stay seated at the table to eat? So many parents struggle to figure out the “trick” that will keep their kid in the chair at mealtimes.
Or, maybe you think it’s impossible for your child to sit still for a meal? Even for kids that love movement and can’t seem to sit still, it’s possible with the right strategies. One of the best ways to make that a reality is to create rituals or routines around your meals. Kids respond incredibly well to predictability, understanding what’s expected of them, and knowing what comes next.
That can all be accomplished by setting up any of the 7 Mealtime Rituals below…
Why Do Some Kids Have Difficulty Sitting at the Table?
Before I tell you about my favorite mealtime rituals, we have to address the elephant in the room: Why do some kids have a hard time sitting at the table? You may have noticed your friends child is the same age as yours and they don’t have any trouble!
Well, if you have an extreme picky eater that doesn’t enjoy eating that much, mealtimes can be a big stresser for them and they’ll try to avoid it. When you help them with their picky eating, coming and staying at the table for meals often isn’t an issue anymore. Learn how to help your extreme picky eater in this free workshop.
For some kids, picky eaters included, there’s a sensory component to their table jitters. Some kids need a lot of movement and if they haven’t had it, then they physically have a hard time eating at the table. Giving them movement before the meal (think running around outside, swinging, or even jumping on the bed) can make a huge difference.
You can also find some helpful tools to use during the meal, like wiggle seats, in how to keep your kid seated at the table.
And, if your child is under 3, they have a very short attention span, that means toddlers notoriously have a hard time sitting at the table. No matter what the cause, these rituals will help all of them.
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7 Mealtime Rituals that Keep Kids at the Table Longer
#1: Create a No Phone Zone
Might not seem like a ritual, but when the adults place their phones in a basket out of the way, they’re sending the message that “Hey, this is important”. Imagine coming to the table, and everyone that has a phone removes it and places it in the same spot on silent. If your child is old enough to understand, talk to them about why you put your phones aside.
It’s a great way to open up the conversation about how important sitting down to eat is, and really that goes beyond eating. You can share that it’s a chance to hear about their day, and connect with them.
The same would hold true for tablets and television. If you need to rely on these distractions to get your child to eat, then slowly ease away from it, and set the example that you won’t use screens while eating. Read more about why screens and eating can be a harmful combination.
Setting this precedent shows your child how important meals are and will motivate them to participate. Combine it with another ritual to help them stay seated throughout the meal.
#2: Set the Table
Kids are often caught off guard and annoyed when called to the table for a meal. Whether they’re 2 or 12, if they’re in the middle of something they might resist. Having them set the table isn’t only helpful, but is a great way to transition them to the meal. It also requires movement and can help them get some wiggles out before sitting down.
Toddlers can help an adult with this task and older kids can be given the responsibility to complete independently on a regular basis.
Setting the table also creates more of that “this is important” atmosphere.
#3: Turn on the Music
Some children, not all, will respond well to music playing softly in the background during a meal. You might want to focus on a particular genre of music that’s reserved for meals. Think about piano music or jazz.
If it’s a fast erratic beat with lots of singing, it could be more distracting, so watch your child’s reaction.
The music can help kids sit longer at the table in two ways:
First, they will make the connection that when the music is playing, everyone’s seated at the table, and when they hear it, it signals their brain that it’s mealtime!
Second, the music can help keep them calm so they can sit longer.
#4: Pass the Plate
Bring pots and pans to the table or place food in serving dishes so that your child can serve themselves. Not only does this give them a sense of autonomy, they also get exposed to more foods they might not interact with otherwise. Passing the plate or bowls of food helps to reinforce the community aspect of eating, even if it’s just the two of you.
They become part of the experience instead of just showing up, eating a few bites, and asking to leave or running off.
#5: Sing a Song and Give Thanks
Young children and toddlers may respond well to a mealtime song. It could be any song that you sing, or one that you have on your playlist like this youtube video. The key is to play it or sing it consistently before meals so they begin to associate the song with the start of meals.
This helps them transition easier, which means they’ll likely stay seated longer for the meal. To help solidify the beginning of the meal, taking a few seconds to give thanks or say a prayer can also go a long way in structuring the meal.
#6: Would You Rather Q and A
Many of my Mealtime Works students have been using this strategy with great success to get their kids, especially the 5+ crowd, to sit at the table longer. Either grab a set of Would You Rather Questions like this one or make up your own. Here’s a few to get you started:
- Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?
- Would you rather go to Egypt or China?
- Would you rather have hair or fingernails that are too long?
- Would you rather smell roses all day or bacon?
- Would you rather spend a day at the beach or stay up late and watch movies?
Those are all off the top of my head! Encourage your kids to think up questions too. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you all begin to have at the table. Your child will start to look forward to coming to the table.
#7: Highs and Lows
Another one of my favorite ways to engage kids at dinner in particular is to talk about their “high point” and “low point” of the day. A friend of ours taught us this, and at first, I was concerned we were focusing on the negative by talking about the low point, but it’s been very insightful listening to our kids talk about something that’s bothered them.
A lot of times, we would’ve totally missed that their feelings were hurt, or that they were upset or disappointed, even in some small way.
Though these conversations have many benefits, while you’re in the middle of discussing, your child is learning to sit at the table longer. That means, they’re likely to pick up another bite of food or two or three during conversation.
Combine that with creating a structure around these meals by setting the table or putting all screens away and before you know it, your mealtimes will be transformed!
How to Make Sure These Turn Into Rituals
As you read through the list, I hope you feel inspired to try a few out, but know that particularly with the first 5, you’ll need to consistently use them to see the benefit. It’s not much of a ritual or routine that your child can predict if you only use them once or twice.
Make a commitment, but also give yourself some grace if you miss a using your new mealtime ritual. Creating new habits takes some focus, and if you’re a busy parent it can take some time.
If you fall off the horse, don’t give up, get back on the horse!
Grab a Free How to Stay Seated Printable
We also have a free printable with more ways to keep your kid seated at mealtimes! They can learn how to sit at the table.
Click here to grab The Stay Seated Cheat Sheet
More on Kids at Mealtimes
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 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.