Want to keep your toddler or child to sit still at meals? This 4-step strategy works miracles, without turning mealtime into an epic battle.
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My toddler won’t sit still at mealtimes! What should I do?
It’s important that your child sit still at meals, for a few reasons. A wiggly tot who is getting up and down from the table during a meal will be distracted and, like with other distractions, will end up eating less overall. Letting your child “graze” throughout a meal (which happens with getting up and down and wandering) can be a slippery slope to unstructured and chaotic family meals, power struggles, and picky eating issues. We also know, firsthand, how utterly frustrating wiggly bodies fleeing from and coming back to the table can be.
So let’s talk about how to keep your kid properly seated and sitting still for a meal so that they can eat safely without it turning into an epic battle:
1. Bring back the booster!
If your child is under 3, I would highly recommend a strapped booster seat or even a high chair if they still fit in it appropriately. This one is my favourite. I also love this one, if you’re looking for a portable option. Most toddlers don’t have the attention span or interest in eating long enough to sit still, and you will be fighting a losing battle until you can start the meal in a strapped position. If you’ve already left booster seats behind, it’s worth every effort to bring them back, even if that means investing in a new one. You could call it a “big kid chair” or get them excited about saying “you get to wear a seatbelt!”
2. Make sure there is a solid surface for their feet.
If your toddler’s feet are dangling, they’ll feel unbalanced—which means more time trying to keep their body upright and balanced, and less time focused on their food. If there isn’t a ledge for their feet on the seat already, add something like a stool or a chair beneath them. This will allow them to feel more stable and balanced and lessen the wiggles by a long shot. This is why I love this highchair as well as this one – there are flat surfaces for your child to rest their feet on during a meal, AND they convert into toddler/child seats that grow with them!
My younger son wanted to sit in a regular chair so that he could be like his siblings, so we let him and it was a bit of a disaster—it was too soon and he got up and down about 100 times every meal. We decided to try a new chair that was portable and was able to attach to the table so that he felt as though he was a part of the meal and still sitting in a “big boy chair.” It worked like a charm and he loved it!
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3. Get into optimal sitting position.
Chances are your child isn’t sitting at an appropriate eating height at your table. In fact, it’s rare that kids under 10 (or even older) sit and eat meals at an appropriate height (most kids aged 3 to 9 years need a booster seat and a stool under their feet). When this is the case, they start to wiggle and slide off their chair. Imagine what it would be like to sit at a really big table in a chair that left your feet dangling. It would feel pretty awkward!
You will know that your child is seated in the best position if:
- Their feet sit flat on the ground or another surface like a stool
- Their hips, knees, and ankles are all at 90-degree angles
4. Help a kid out! Give them a fighting chance:
If you’ve followed the above suggestions and are still struggling with a kid who can’t stay seated for meals, ask yourself:
- How long are you expecting them to sit at the table? For toddlers, this should be only about 10 to 20 minutes, 4 to 6 times per day (meals and scheduled snacks). Here are some sand timers that might help as a visual.
- Have they had enough time for active play and physical activity? If you’ve just walked in the door from a long car ride or just watched an hour of television, then your child is probably going to be a little antsy. Before they come to the table, make sure they have had some time to run off some of their excess energy or “get their sillies out.”
- Are there clear boundaries and mealtime rules? It’s important to approach this subject outside of mealtime, when everyone is calm and attentive. Talk to your child about the mealtime boundaries and let them know that it’s important to come to the table (even if they choose not to eat) and that food will not be offered again until the following meal or scheduled snack.
- Are they looking for attention? Remember that when a toddler refuses to eat or can’t sit still at the table, they might be looking for attention—at least to a degree. Try giving them some extra attention in other areas of their life, and that might be the surprising solution.
Food to Grow On
Food to Grow On is the definitive guide to childhood nutrition, packed with practical advice to support you through pregnancy, and up until your little one starts school.
Laid out in an easy-to-navigate question and answer style, this book provides practical advice and support from Sarah Remmer and Cara Rosenbloom, two trusted registered dietitians (and moms). Food to Grow On is packed with hard-earned parenting wisdom and the very latest research in pediatric nutrition, so you will feel supported, understood, and ready to help your child thrive.
Elizabeth Neal says
Thank you! These are some great ideas and hope will help my 8 year old son stay on his bottom better during meal times (and consequently help me not be so frustrated!). Brilliant about using something for them to put their feet on…seems like I should have realized something so simple, but it has never crossed my mind. Thanks for sharing your insight!
Richard Knepp says
This is a big help to parents that are having a hard time with their kids in terms of sitting in the table to eat.
Hi. Nice article. I just want o reach out to you becuase out situation is a bit different. My 3yr old actually stay in the table but just keep playing with the fork, spoon or just turn around in the chair. At the end it takes him an hour to eat and that’s with me remaining him we came to the table to eat, every 5 min. We tried to explain him he can’t be eating for ever but he doesn’t seem to mind (of note he never eat at school becuase eating time is over before he gets the third bit”). Then we try just simply wait for a decent 30 min and then take the plate away. Here is were is bacames worst. He start screaming and crying that he wants his food, that he is hungry. But then continues to play around. I try also to explain him he doesn’t need to eat the whole plate, he can stop when he feels full, but he cry and insist he want to eat. So at this point we are in a non stop cycle. In the past I used to feed him to make the whole process easier but I figure that he is 3yr and he should be able to eat himself. He sertantly knows who to…he just gets distracted. What can we do? We have got to the point of losing our patien!!
Sarah Remmer says
Yikes. Thanks for reaching out Romina. An hour for a 3-year old (or any kid) to eat is too long. Are there any other distractions at the table? TV, toys, etc? Is the entire family sitting down together? How are his snacks throughout the day? What is he doing before meal time? It can be a tough transition to go from playing to sitting. I’d love to chat with you more about the topic. I would recommend setting a timer, anywhere between 20-30 minutes to start. Explain what you are doing before hand and give your son warning that when the timer goes off the meal will be over. The important thing to remember is to keep with it! Hopefully with repetition he will realize that he needs to eat during mealtime versus play. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com or my associate RD Kathryn (who handles my counselling practice) at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’re doing a great job, and I’m here to help!
As my English grammar teacher used to say, “A cake is done, you are finished.”
Sarah Remmer says
Sandra Rosen says
Really nice blog! You shared such an amazing collection of booster seats for babies. I like your post. Thanks for sharing this post.
Tracy Navarra says
I’m having the exact same issues with my 4 year old as Romina is having with her 3 year old. We need help.
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Tracy. You’re definitely not alone. My 3 1/2 year old also struggles occasionally with the play to mealtime transition – which can result in a frustrating meal time. I’d ask the same questions to you as I did to Romina. I would start with setting clear and defined mealtime rules and boundaries. Check out my blog post about it here — https://www.sarahremmer.com/setting-mealtime-boundaries-with-your-child/. And repeat the phrase – “this is your opportunity to fill your tummy” or “this is mealtime, not playtime… you may play when you’ve been excused”. Set a timer for how long your meal should last and stick to it. After dinnertime, close the kitchen! Hope this helps. Feel free to reach me directly (email@example.com), or make another comment, if you have more questions or concerns.
My niece is 4 1/2. At home she is not required to stay seated at meal times, and comes and goes at will. As the auntie and uncle how do you go about setting rules of staying seated until dinner is finished at our table when the rules are different at home?
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Beth. Great question – and a tough one. Mealtime rules and boundaries are important to follow. Remind your niece that at your house she needs to follow your rules. I would let her know that mealtime is family time and although she don’t have to eat, she does have to remain at the table for X amount of time. If she is still getting up at the table I would assume that she is all done and then take away her plate. Keep mealtime fun, but aim for 10 minutes total of sitting time. 4 1/2 is a tough age, but remind her that mealtime is the time to fill her tummy and that the kitchen will be closed later. Hope this helps!
Hi! Thank you for the post. I will definetly think of getting a chair with something to put the feet on. My son is only 16 months old and was eating really well at the mealtable up to about a couple of months ago. He gets easily distracted, he has started to spit out food he usually likes and then puts more of the same in his mouth… he will have a few bites and want off his high chair (he stands up on it!) and then wants back up again asking for more. He also starts grabbing all the food and throwing it everywere! It is very frustrating, I try to stay calm but it’s hard not to loose it sometimes! What can I do? Is it just a phase??
Sarah Remmer says
I totally feel you, Nicole. It can be so incredibly frustrating and you are not alone in this. It may definitely be a phase and you will get out of this! This could be him exercising his need for independence. I think trying to make mealtimes as relaxed as possible, minimal distractions and everyone eats together. I will try to answer this on my IG stories here: https://www.instagram.com/sarahremmer/
A solid place to sit with something for their feet!!! That is all I needed to do get my kid to stop jumping around while eating! Even bribing with a cookie didn’t work 🙂 thank you!
Sarah Remmer says
I am so glad this helped, Tony! Thanks for sharing your success.
Nelibeth Plaza says
Thank you for putting this out there. I agree with your opinion and I hope more people would come to agree with this as well.
Sarah Remmer says
Thank you so much!