Tantrums during meals can leave you feeling drained and frustrated, but there’s a way to stop the cycle and teach your child to come to the table for meals without all the drama!
When I talk about picky eating, teaching babies to eat, or simply how to teach your child how to eat well, I always share the advice to eat meals at a table. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy.
Some kids not only refuse to come to the table, but they have a full out tantrum!
And, tantrums are hard on everybody. If you’re like me, the noise alone just grates on your nerves making it nearly impossible to think straight let alone keep your cool.
Which is why I get asked all the time, “What should I do when I tell my child they have to come to the table and they throw a tantrum disrupting the whole meal?”
That’s a good question…
Why Do Kids Throw a Tantrum When It’s Time to Eat?
Understanding why our kids throw a tantrum goes a long way in our ability to help them when they’re yelling and throwing themselves on the floor. It helps us be more patient, kind, and set appropriate boundaries. And, why kids tantrum at the dinner table is no exception. These are some of the most common reasons tantrums typically happen before or during a meal:
- They Don’t Want to Eat: Unfortunately, it’s often the case with kids that are struggling with picky eating. They may not like what’s being served and are freaking out at the prospect of having to sit so close to food they’re not interested in, let alone eating. It can be easy to adopt the mindset that you must break them of this picky eating, but the reality is that most picky eaters have a real reason for not wanting to eat that’s totally legit.
Eating is hard for them. And, they’re in the fight or flight mode when faced with this challenging task. If they’re tantruming, your child has chosen fight. To understand more head to Why Kids Refuse to Eat, there are 5 big reasons!
- They are Looking for Some Control in Their Life: If your child isn’t a picky eater, and tantrums are a regular habit, it’s possible that they’re looking for some control in their life. Kids don’t have a lot of freedom. They go where they have to and are expected to do as they’re told. Eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom are the only areas of a child’s life that they have complete control over. Think about it, you can’t actually make them eat, sleep, or pee! I’ll talk about how to give your child a sense of control in a minute.
- They are Overly Tired: This is a common culprit, especially among toddlers. They can be playing at full speed one second and then suddenly be exhausted. It’s easy to miss the transition, but any time a child is too tired, there’s a high risk for a tantrum. But, don’t dismiss older kids being tired too, they’re good at hiding it. A poor night’s sleep, going to bed too late, or chronic insomnia can have a massive effect on their mood.
- They are Starving: I know this sounds rather contradictory, but after a certain point of being hungry, kids will just lose it. Once that happens, their adrenaline spikes because they’re in the heat of the tantrum. Adrenaline is an appetite suppressant. So, even though they really need to eat, they aren’t feeling too hungry anymore. If you’re child throws a tantrum out of nowhere, or it always happens after a long stretch between meals, this could be the cause!
- They Can’t Sit Still: Some kids have a REALLY hard time sitting still, for lots of different reasons. For kids with sensory needs, hyperactivity, or special needs, sitting still throughout a meal can seem almost impossible. But, there are work arounds and it’s okay to think outside of the box. It may go against your grandmother’s manners, but sitting a ball or a wobble cushion can make a huge difference. Those are just a few ideas though, check out How to Keep Your Child Seated at Meals for more.
The Toddler Mealtime Tantrum
While I mentioned toddlers a bit in the list above, they are in a category all their own because the average toddler (1-3 years old) has a lot of tantrums.
Tantrums absolutely come with the age, but mealtime tantrums often happen with these tots because their attention span is tiny. They live in a chase the shiny object world. Sitting down for a meal and being strapped in can seem like punishment when they have so much to explore!
Besides being busy, toddlers also have irregular appetites, which makes parents crazy. One meal they sit down and eat two plates of food and then they seem to go for days with barely taking more than a bite.
Toddlers growth slows down significantly after the mega accelerated growth that happens as babies. They actually need less calories once they turn 1.
All of these factors make it difficult for a toddler to want to come to the table when it’s time to eat, and their response is a tantrum!
What YOU Should Do When Your Child Tantrums During a Meal
So, what do you do about it? For the average tantrum, you’ll first and foremost want to be calm. Take a minute to discreetly squeeze a pillow or take a few deep breaths, whatever helps YOU!
Then you have two options:
1. Ignore Them: This works best for mild tantrums, and I encourage you to pair this with redirection because just ignoring it will often just stoke the fire. It might look something like this…
- “Hey Sam, did you want the airplane or car fork tonight.”
- “Mrs. Smith told me that you made a fuzzy elephant in school today, how the heck did you do that?”
- Walk up to them, look into their eyes, and in a gentle voice tell them you have a special job for them (i.e. Bringing food to the table, passing out the napkins, pouring drinks, etc.)
- “Oh, dinner is actually going to be a few more minutes, can you pick out a special book for us to read when it’s over?”
2. Remove Them From the Table or the Room: Calmly tell or help them leave the eating area to another space nearby or to their bedroom. This is not a timeout and shouldn’t be treated as one. Instead, simply tell them that they can come back to the table when they’ve calmed down. If this is a reward for them because they don’t want to be at the table, then say something like, “It’s not okay to yell/whine/scream at the table. Take a minute to calm down, and then come back. It’s your choice if you eat, but coming to the table without yelling isn’t.”
If your child has a hard time with new foods, smells, etc. it’s okay to make some accommodations for them. Maybe the sausage can be moved to the other end of the table? Or, they use a divided plate to eat?
If you suspect this is what’s going on, work with them. Even ask, “What would help you sit at the table calmly with us?” The answer might surprise you and be an excellent solution.
Keep in mind that 30 minutes is the max any child should sit at the table, and 10-15 minutes is appropriate for younger kids if they’re done eating.
Lastly, know that this takes practice. You aren’t always going to get it “right”. That’s okay. You’re trying and that makes a huge difference. Remember tantrums are hard on everyone.
5 Ways to Prevent Mealtime Tantrums
I think it’s even better if you can head off those tantrums though. It’s not always possible, but these 6 tips could prevent a tantrum before it ever get’s started:
- Give a Warning: Heck, you might want to give them several. If they’re busy playing, this is crucial. You want to say: “5 minutes until we eat.” Or, “It’s almost time to eat,” for younger kids. You could even yell out some play-by-plays, “I’m slicing up the fruit,” “I’m putting your food on the plate,” etc., as the minutes pass by.
- Make Sure They’ve Been Active or Have Had Some Space: If kids have been cooped up in a car or watching TV for a while, sometimes it’s difficult to transition to sitting at the table for what seems like a long time. Try to allow for some free play or running around before meals, particularly if you have an active child. Or, if your kid gets overwhelmed easily, they may want some time alone in their room or in a sensory tent where they can relax.
- Do Not Pressure Them to Eat: When we pressure our kids to eat through the try it bites, clean plate club, begging, rewarding, distracting, and more, we’re setting up this negative or disconnected experience with meals. Stopping the pressure around food can have a drastic and immediate effect on tantrums at meals. Head to the Best Picky Eating Tip to learn more.
- Give Them a Choice: Remember how I talked about kid’s lack of control earlier? Well, giving them some small choices that don’t really matter can help them feel like they have some control. You may want to ask them:
- “Do you want to eat in 10 or 20 minutes?”
- “Do you want the red cup or the blue one?”
- “Would you like to eat in this chair or that one?”
- “Should we have broccoli or cauliflower tonight?”
It’s important that they have a choice, don’t leave it open ended, like: “What vegetable do you want to eat?” That’s giving them the chance to answer: “none”. How you phrase these questions is key. Also, avoid big choices like, “What do you want to eat for dinner?” It’s your job to pick what to eat, just make sure there’s one food served that they typically eat!
- Choose Something to Help Them Transition: Think about an object that they can carry like a stuffed animal, maybe that sits in a different chair or nearby. Or, maybe you hop to the dinner table? These serve as a bridge from one activity to the next!
- Schedule Meals and Naps Accordingly: Always be aware of when your child needs a nap and has last eaten. Try to schedule meals so they’re 2.5-3 hours apart from the last one. This will help prevent them from getting to hungry!
What About Extreme Tantrums?
Very severe tantrums, often called meltdowns, are in a category of their own. Although the 6 tips you learned can help prevent them as well.
Meltdowns are when a child is irrational, flailing, and can’t be talked to. In this instance, you want to keep your child safe and wait for them to deescalate. If possible, move them to another room so they aren’t disrupting the rest of the family.
The middle of a meltdown is not the time to try and teach your child anything. Just support them. This could be giving them space, it could be hugging them, or holding them on your lap and rocking them.
AFTER they’ve calmed down is when it’s time to talk about what they were feeling and some strategies to help prevent it from getting to that level the next time.
Now you’re armed with lots of understanding and quite a few ways to not only deal with tantrums, but how to stop them in their tracks.
I want to hear from you! Tell me in the comments which tip you learned that’s going to help with the next mealtime tantrum in the comments below!
Free Printable to Help Kids Stay Seated for Meals
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More Mealtime Tips for Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 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.