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For the longest time, eating a meal with my toddler was a constant game of chasing him around the living/dining area and trying to get him to sit down so he would eat his dinner.
Sitting down for dinner would start off innocently enough. We would all get our food ready, put it all on the table and sit down in our chairs. Three to five minutes into dinner, the wiggling would begin as my then 2 ½-year-old would start getting restless. Soon enough, he would find something that he absolutely had to do and would bolt from the table.
This went on for about a year before I had enough. Eating dinner every night was an exercise in frustration as we tried to keep him seated at the table on top of trying to get him to eat his dinner – an entirely separate battle.
Even though he would eat some of his dinner, he often flat-out refused to eat what was on his plate or said he was full after only a few bites. Then shortly after, he would declare he is hungry and ask for snacks. After a little while, we wised up to his tricks and set some ground rules.
He now seats through his entire dinner without getting up (for the most part) and he eats some if not most of his dinner with minimal complaining. How did we accomplish such a miracle, you ask? Read on for my tips and suggestions for getting a toddler to sit at the table and eat his dinner.
Use a booster seat:
When my son was 2 ½, he could finally sit in a chair and reach the table (for the most part) without his high chair. We decided he was ready to sit at the table like a big boy in a big boy chair and got rid of his high chair. Shortly after, intoxicated with his newfound freedom to get up during meals combined with an underlying frustration that he could not quite eat comfortably at the table, he started finding more interesting things than dinner.
Enter the booster seat. After lots and lots of frustration that led me to research how to keep my toddler from getting up from the table, we stumbled upon booster seats. They are exactly what they sound like – a booster seat that goes on top of your regular chair and allows the child to sit comfortably at the appropriate level for eating. This is the one we have and we love it – it’s all one piece so it’s easy to clean, it’s portable, it stays on the chair and it’s comfortable.
For the best comfort level, it is good to combine it with a small chair or step stool so that your child has somewhere to put his feet comfortable. However, for us, that ended up being more hassle since it had to be just right or there would be a tantrum. If your child does not have OCD tendencies like mine, you should give it a try.
Ever since we started using a booster seat, the change was immediate. He was no longer getting up from the table 15 times during dinner for this or that necessity. He stays in his seat and eats his dinner with the rest of the family.
Serve foods your child will eat:
Another mistake I was making was serving new foods to my son without including something I knew he would eat. Most kids go through a picky phase and refuse to eat everything but a handful of specific foods (often things like macaroni and cheese, cheese pizza, hot dogs, etc.). I would serve him the same food the rest of the family was eating and expecting him to at least try it.
When he refused to even have a bite of the food on his plate, the food battles would begin. Now, I make sure to include at least one or two items that he usually likes with his dinner so he has something he can eat if he does not like the rest of his dinner. What does that look like? For example, if we are having roasted chicken for dinner, I make sure to include mashed potatoes and a mix of vegetables, including carrots and green bell peppers – both of which he usually eats.
Pay attention to what your child likes and does not like and try to tailor your meals so he gets at least some of the foods he usually eats as part of dinner. You may have to start small (such as offering macaroni and cheese as one of the sides at dinner) and branch out as he starts to eat a greater variety of foods.
Serve everyone the same thing:
While I’ve never been a short order cook, I definitely served my son certain things at dinner than what I served the rest of the family because I knew he would not eat otherwise. Also, sometimes we would not all eat the same thing at dinner so he would see how everyone just ate what they wanted to eat and followed suit.
When I started to serve the same thing to everyone at dinner, I noticed a marked improvement in the types of foods he was willing to try and eventually eat. For example, once he saw that everyone at the table was eating salad, he started trying and eventually eating salad as part of dinner on a regular basis. Sometimes, it’s still a battle to get him to eat his salad but it is 100% better than it used to be.
One bite rule:
We have a one bite rule at the table. My son used to say he does not like a food just based on the way it looked to him. He would refuse to eat it and often he wanted it off his plate completely before he would eat dinner. So we instituted the one bite rule. Basically, he has to try one bite of everything on his plate before he says he does not like it. If he does not try it, he does not get dessert (usually a piece of dark chocolate at our house). It’s a simple rule but it has definitely gotten him to try new foods, some of which he now eats on a regular basis.
Use dippers and superpowers:
I know that sounds silly but it works. Let me explain. Most toddlers love dipping their food in something (ketchup works wonders). So when we want him to eat something that he is very reluctant about, we tell him he can dip it in ketchup. More often than not, the lure of the ketchup gets him to try and eat more foods.
We also try to make vegetables fun by using creative descriptors that appeal to his imagination. For example, we call broccoli “dinosaur trees.” He likes to dip his dinosaur trees in ketchup and tell us they are covered in blood. He now eats broccoli regularly while just a year before, he would absolutely refuse to have them on his plate.
These five tricks are making our dining experience with a toddler at the table much easier. Nowadays, we can actually make it through a full meal without him getting up from the table and eating most of what is on his plate. While there is still whining and complaining, our meals are now a completely different and rather peaceful experience – one that we no longer dread.
Try some of those tips for yourself and let me know how they work for you in the comments.
What are some of the tips and tricks you have tried to get your children to sit and eat at the table?