Mealtime: the moment my child has a sudden case of "ants in the pants." Trying to convince my son that food is for eating and not, say, building food towers or decorating the floor is no easy feat, my friends, and I swear I've tried my hand at everything. Thankfully, I know I'm not alone in this fight, which is why I have no shame when it comes to asking other moms how they get their kid to sit still and eat a meal. What works for one child might not work for another, to be sure, but in my opinion it doesn't hurt to try.
Now, to be fair I have to admit that I’m not the most consistent parent in the world. And I know that consistency is key when attempting to get your child to respond to a routine or set schedule, so I have my work cut out for me still. I'm working on it, though, and while I give my son toys, reading books, and even allowing for some TV time while I attempt to get him to eat. Sometimes my bribery works, sometimes it doesn't, but every single day is promised to be a mealtime mystery.
But, again, what works for one child might not work for another, and as parents it's up to us to find out what will be the most beneficial for our little ones and our families. So if you're, like me, dreading mealtime and the battle ahead, try your hand at these moms' tried and true secret mealtime successes and see if they work for you:
“Threats and bribes. It was honestly easier when he was 2 and 3. Now that he’s 4 he thinks he knows it all. I just force him, plain and simple. I cook every single day and my husband and I sit down, so he really has no choice in the matter.”
“High chair until they no longer fit. Once they are too big, I like to sit with them like a little tea party and model manners. I’m not really pro-sitting still, though.”
“Below the age of 4 we really didn’t require it. They wanted to take two bites and walk away? Fine. Kids are pretty good at self-regulating their food if they are offered healthy foods, and it was important to my husband and I that we be able to enjoy our meals and not have them be huge battles. Around 4 we started trying to get them to stay with us. It helps that they’re more able to have a conversation and tell a story at that age. Serving meals family-style helps too because you’re not getting up to get more food all the time, so it models how to sit at a meal the whole time.”
“I strap the infant into a high chair and strike the fear of God into the other two, haha! Really, I just make sure they aren't running into people and keep reminding them to sit.”
“I have a son who is 11 now, but he is autistic and crippling boredom and anxiety would quickly set in when dining out when he was small. My solution was to order something immediately for him (sometimes I had to be pushy about this) and also I am one of those moms who brought the tablet and his earbuds to the restaurant so he could watch a cartoon. Sue me.”
“We use the rhyme 'sit in your chair or go over there.’ (‘Over there’ being the family room).”
“Lego and/or trains to occupy him/them, or a word or counting game. At home, the big one is bribed with pudding or playtime and the little one gets demoted to the high chair if he messes about or tries to get down from the table.”
“At restaurants, we play games like ‘what else can this be?’ (Pick an object and then think of things it could be, like a mouse's house or whatever. This is one my mom taught me), the boxes game, or 20 Questions. With my younger, 2-year-old son we often don't have him stay still. Instead, one of us often walks around the restaurant with him, as long as there's space to do so without getting in the way of servers. This works pretty well if there are some interesting things on the wall to look at or an open kitchen where they can watch people make the food. Sometimes we bring little cars or similar toys, but we're pretty bad about remembering to bring that sort of thing with us.
Unlike a lot of people, I actually dislike it when servers bring the kids' food early. My kids aren't that slow at eating and they often bring it out so early that they're done by the time the adults' food comes out. While we're pretty good at entertaining them before the food comes, it becomes really hard to entertain them while we're trying to eat. I totally understand why people do that, but I just wish servers would ask and not assume that's what we want.
At home, I don't have much. My kids like eating, so as long as they have food in front of them they're generally OK.”
“We just repeat 'bum down, face forward’ ad infinitum, with calm and patience. We generally have a good experience at mealtime, but the number of times I have to say, ‘Legs under the table, eat over the table,’ on some days... You'd think they get tired of hearing me repeat it, but they clearly don't.”
“At home, we allow a stuffed animal to sit at or on the table with us. Our 3-year-old daughter focuses her efforts between feeding herself and ‘feeding’ the animal, which keeps her at the table longer than if she were just chowing down her plate.”
“My girls (2 and 3) just like to eat, so we've never really had a problem with sitting still at the table. But we've made it a habit to always eat at the table as a family — even messy snacks and drinks have to be consumed at the table. Only now is my 3-year-old getting up at random meals, but its when she's not really hungry or didn't really like what we were eating. But she will always come back after a bit and finish at the table.”
“We had ‘restaurant rules’ that we used at home. Keep your bum in your chair, no yelling, no crying, and make chit-chat. Another thing we did is whenever we had guests, we asked the kids to tell them what the rules were. They loved telling other people, especially adults, what the rules were, and often made up new ones that were hilarious.”
“Years ago, we got the advice from a specialist who was doing a talk at our preschool to use a wiggle seat (a tool they use for kids with sensory challenges). I think this is part of what has made our experience easier at home and out at restaurants, even without the seat.
We also engage in conversation with our kids, whether we're at home or at a restaurant. Sometimes it's silly, and sometimes we're talking about our day. Essentially, we treat them like big kids and they act like big kids. And, in a worst case scenario when things are super slow at a restaurant, we have pulled out the phone for a temporary fix. Our boys are now 7 and 4 and we started using these tactics when our younger one was less than 18 months and our older one was 4.5.
We always eat the same way, too, at home or at a restaurant. We feel like we use home time as a practice run for when we go out. Our boys love to go out to eat, so they try at home to have restaurant behavior at the table.”
“Am I allowed to say screen time at restaurants? But in reality, we start with crayons, workbooks, tic-tac-toe, etc. for my almost 4-year-old, and he's actually pretty good at sitting still. But if all else fails, I am not above handing over that YouTube Kids.
At home it's less of an issue. From when he was like 6-months old, my dad started telling my son, ‘We're Italian and we sit at the table for hours at a time,’ so maybe that subconsciously stuck with him hah!”
“We keep [our son] at the table by never trying to keep him at the table. Whenever he's done, he's allowed to get up and go play by himself until the rest of the family joins him. But, and I think this is key, we don't allow him to eat and play at the same time ever, and we don't allow him to go back and forth during the meal. He knows that when he's done we will respect his decision, but he also knows that when he's done that's it.
We had a little trouble right around his third birthday. I think he was going through some developmental stuff and really wanted to feel more in control, so he would announce that he was done without eating a lot to see if it worked. Now that he knows he's in the driver's seat it isn't much of an issue anymore, and he'd rather have a chance to eat with his family. He's almost 3.5. At restaurants is the only time we allow toys at the table, only because there's a wait time when you have to just sit there. We bring one or two toys, and then we just remind him that at restaurants the polite thing to do is stay in your own seat. Sometimes it works better than others, obviously.”
“We always sit down together for meals, and it's a time to talk and engage with each other. This has been the expectation since day one. No phones, no distractions, just time together eating good food. We rarely have an issue. We also have a strong mealtime routine, including washing hands, sitting together, singing a meal song, lighting a candle, and just talking about what's on our minds. My son is 3.”
“If we're in a restaurant, we try to sit in a booth and put him in the corner. We talk to him a lot to occupy him.”
“At home we cover the entire dining room table with butcher paper and let them color while they wait and/or eat. They love being at the table. My kids are 3 and 1.5”
“Eldest takes her time eating and will sit at the table. She’s almost 3. Youngest, he’s 1.5, sits for a bit and then needs to move around. He then comes back to the table.
We don’t play with him or read him books if we are still eating. But he does need to move and do his thing (and often poop) and then returns.”