Getting Toddlers to Sit Still at Mealtime

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Getting active 2 year old to stay at the table to eat

Aug 2010

Our 27 month old son has always been an active, busy, energetic boy. He's on the slim side (15% weight) and in our efforts to get him to eat, and eat more, we began feeding him ''on the run''. He'll sit in his chair at the table and eat maybe 1-3 bites then he's off running and says he's not hungry. We thought it was another phase and so we began to feed him while we read, played and occassionally while he was in the tub. The key to him eating super well is for him to be otherwise engaged and active. Well, it's been nearly a year and the ''phase'' isn't passing nor showing signs of passing. My husband and I have redoubled our efforts to eat meals at the kitchen table together and encourage our son to sit with us and eat, or at least sit with us for a few minutes (baby steps). At best he'll feed himselft a few bites but then if he stops and either wants to leave the table or for us to feed him. We're frustrated and realize we're out of ideas. Has anyone been through a similar situation and have ideas? Thanks! Spoon feeding mama

Our daughter, who is almost 3 years old, was like your son. Energetic, active, not that interested in eating, low percentile in weight, sitting at the table for, at most a minute or two. We ended up feeding her "on the run" too (pretty much chasing her around and putting food in her mouth) and did so until recently because it was the easiest way for us to feel like she was getting enough nutrition. We were about to have another baby though, and figured we couldn't do this forever. We started putting her toys and books on the dinner table and also bought some coloring place mat-pen sets. We made sure there was enough stuff at the table to keep her interested and occupied enough to eat her food there. Initially, we would still put food in her mouth while she played with her toys or read or drew on her placemat, but she sat for increasingly longer periods of time and eventually started picking food off her plate as she played. Not sure how you feel about having your son play while he sits at the dinner table with you, but hopefully he will start playing less and eating more as time goes by. Good luck!! mama to another active 2-year-old

I highly recommend Ellyn Satter's book ''Child of Mine'' for feeding strategies. Her basic rule is parents are in charge of what, when and where the kid eats (making sure at least one item on the table is something the child likes), and the kid is in charge of whether and how much to eat. When we stick to this guideline, our three year old eats really well. When we let him dictate any one of our responsibilities, meals become the kind of struggle you describe. You can read more at anon

The phase isn't ending because he has learned that mom and dad will follow him around feeding him and he doesn't have to sit down to eat. I suggest you tell him that from now on he eats at mealtime at the table (maybe a snack mid-morning and/or afternoon). When he gets up and says he isn't hungry, believe him. If he only eats a few bites he will be fine. He won't starve to death, and if he says later that he is hungry, remind him that mealtime is for eating and next time he can stay longer at the table and eat more.

Sitting down at a meal and eating as a family is an important experience for children. They learn how to make conversation, they learn table manners and they learn to take time to eat and possibly avoid the habit of constant snacking. Also, by letting him decide he has had enough, you are letting him learn to listen to his own body and regulate his appetite himself, instead of doing it for him. Just be clear and cheerful about it, it will work! been there

Spoon feeding mama,

I work as a care-giver for toddlers, and the following tips have been very helpful to me when in your situation:

-Cut out all snacks and create a rigid feeding schedule (breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner) and stick to it for a while. Chances are your toddler isn't ever getting that hungry because snacks are always available. I usually see results immediately, if not by the end of the week. If this doesn't work, talk to the pediatrician.
-When you serve meals, put the healthiest items on the plate first. For example, the kiddos I work with now are much more likely to eat all of their broccoli if I put it on their plates before other foods, like pasta are ready. My hope is that even if they don't eat very well, they'll still start with the most nutrient dense items.
-Run, swim, play! Using up lots of energy, running, swimming, and exploring before meal time is the best thing I can do to get children to eat and not try to wander away from the table.
-Involve them in the dinner prep-process. Ask your toddler to put his plate on the table, create a ritual.
-Be mindful of juice and other liquids. One toddler I struggled with at meal-time became a champion eater when we stopped offering juice/milk an hour or so before lunch and dinner.
-As an added bonus, these are the same things I do with my ''picky'' eaters and it seems to help tremendously.

Good Luck! Day-care employee/Nanny

My 3 year old boy was the same way at 2.. and 1 and is finally starting to outgrow it as he's slowing down and his attention span is getting longer. I wish I could tell you that he sits politely and eats with us at every meal but instead we've all made some compromises and as he matures he wants to emulate our behavior more than fight us-- and he's at a healthy weight so it could be worse. I serve a midday meal (which I call a snack) on a cool plate on his play table and he helps himself as he plays throughout the day. Bento forks helped initially but he no longer needs the enticement. For dinner and breakfast, he eats standing at the dining table on a step stool so he can easily get down and go be busy and come back to eat. At first he spent more time playing than eating but that is definitely changing and its so much easier not to fight over every bite. There is a desert reward if he eats a meal but usually he's not that interested in it so I don't force the food. One other thing that has been working lately to get him to eat a good variety is to shape his meals into fun pictures. My husband and I both enjoy making food look like things (egg ducks, quesadilla trucks, veggie dog octopi, etc.) so it's not a pain. Overall, my advice is to let it be, let him be himself and he will most likely model his behavior on yours and what he sees you and the rest of the family doing as he gets old enough to be capable of doing so. Good luck! Done force feeding

I know how you feel! My daughter is now 4.5 years, but I could have written your post several years ago, so I can share a bit of our story and what has worked for us over the years. Her weight has always been below the bottom of the chart (literally less than 1 percentile!) and so when she only gained 3oz between 12 and 15 months we were referred to Children's Hospital dieticians. From that I realized that we primarily had a behavior issue that was leading to a nutrition issue. So we worked on how to get her to eat more than 1-3 bites at each meal, and made sure those 3 bites were as nutrient dense as possible. On that front they suggested we choose one high calorie food and add it to everything (ie butter, mayonaise, a nut butter) we chose mayonaise- a perfect dipping sauce for any vegetable! She still says its her favorite food. For the behavior part I read the book ''Child of Mine'' which was excellent about how to get the child to take the responsibility to eat, while it is our (only)responsibility to provide the food. We did work on eating meals together, and she still will not eat if she is the only one eating. We do often read to her (if only one parent is present) Recently we have worked on including her in dinner conversation- if my husband and I are talking alone, she usually wants to leave the meal. And further, 2 is still pretty young, and I would have no qualms about feeding more bites if your son gets tired of feeding himself. I also remember at age 2 my daughter preferred to eat sitting on my lap, so we did that for a few months, and then phased back into her own chair. Perhaps if your son is still in a high chair it would be better to move him to a booster so he is more part of the table. Over time my daughter has adapted to eating at the table, my biggest change was to not chase her around with food, but let food happen at the table at distinct and discreet times, and over time she adapted to that. Lastly some kids are not so hungry in the evening, so maybe he really is full...Good luck, I know how stressful the journey can be, but the book I mentioned really helped me manage my anxiety around mealtimes. still workng on table manners

Hi, you don't say whether you let your son play at the dinner table. Our son - now 3.5 - still plays while eating and while we feed him. If we let him feed himself, he wouldn't eat enough. He chooses his dinner table toys and while he plays, we just shovel food in his mouth. There is no other distraction (no TV, no computer, no cell phone) allowed at the dinner table. He sits in his booster seat and cannot really leave the table on his own once he's sitting down. We try to always eat at the same time, thereby creating a routine.

Finally, do you think your son gets enough sleep? Could he be overtired as is sometimes the case with very active children and adults? If you think that may be the case, a suggestion would be reading Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Good luck! Isabelle

This may sound completely silly, but you can try ''dressing up'' meals a bit with cookie cutters to make them a bit more interesting for your child. My 2.5 year old is picky, especially when he's not really hungry. I've noticed that if I give him ''star turkey'' or a ''heart sandwich'' (things shaped with cookie cutters), he's more likely to eat them then if I just give them plain. Sur La Table has a great selection of individual metal cutters for $1 so you can find something he's really into (trains, dinosaurs, you name it).

I also second the posters who have suggested getting your child involved in meal prep. I've got some more ideas on, a blog I just started this summer. Good Luck, Sarah

18-Month old won't sit still for meals

Oct 2011

I know this will sound shocking, but my 18-month old son won't sit still for meals. I am under no illusion that he will remain compliant in his booster seat for 10-20 minutes for every meal, but it's to the point now that 30 seconds after putting him into his booster seat he goes wild, unbuckles himself (he's figured out the safety straps), stands up, and tries to jump out.

The issue is now that my husband and I are at odds with how to handle this. I am of the, ''When you're done, you're done'' mentality, whereas my husband will sit on the floor with him and feed him, or pick him up and feed him from his lap when this happens. I worry that this will be never-ending now that he has my husband ''trained.''

I know he's hungry (and as a toddler he already eats next to nothing), so it's frustrating! Should we put him back into a high chair so the tray will keep him confined? He never really did that well in one to begin! mother-of-mealtime-daredevil

Your child's behavior is appropriate for his age. Our 17- month old used to eat all meals in his high chair but now he eats only breakfast and dinner in his high chair. We try to get him to eat lunch in it but usually he eats it ''on the run'' while playing outside, in the park, or sometimes even in the living room. NOT a big deal! Your (and our) child WILL become a civilized eater someday but he's a toddler, there's too much fun to have, things to do and see and he doesn't want to miss a second of it. For us this is one of those small stages that shall pass, eventually. It's OK. T.K.

I started out with your philosophy, but quickly realized that it was not working for us. I don't think an 18-month-old can really grasp that kind of ''consequence,'' so I don't think saying he's done when he leaves the table is necessarily going to work well. Toddlers at that age are just too excited about exploring life to sit and eat, like, at all! It can be very vexing. And when they are hungry, they are even less willing to calm down and eat. But, although they can't really be forced to sit still and eat, I would think following him around trying to convince him to eat could lead to some issues, too. What I did with all three of mine was to put out food on a low table where my toddler could eat it. I made it healthy finger foods, sometimes put in an ice-cube tray if my child was at a stage where she wouldn't just pick it up and throw it. Then I let her graze at will. We kept the food to one area and fed really messy stuff only at the table. The compromise worked well for my sanity. For dinners, my toddlers would always be willing to sit for a minute or two, but we then just accepted the toddler coming in for a bite then running off after he'd been excused. As my toddlers grew older, the rules changed. My youngest has almost completely outgrown the grazing phase. The kids now eat at the table, more or less nicely, until they ask to be excused, at which point they are done. So, it all seems to have worked fine. -Best wishes!

Your post is not shocking at all! Many kids this age won't sit still. We could get my son to sit still at this age for a few minutes (maybe!) at best. Most times we would put some food on a small table and let him come by and snack as he played. I think if you check out Dr. Sear's books, he says this is normal and you can set up healthy snacks at a table for them to snack on as they move around (avocado cubes, shredded cheese, small pieces of fruits and veggies, etc.). toddlers/grazing Your son will be able to sit for meals when he's older. Give it time. I have a very active boy and he's now seven and can sit at a table for about 15-20 tops (on a good day). Ooo, just found this: toddlers/feeding-glance-birth-24-months Dr. Sears says for kids 18 to 24 months: ''Wants to eat on the run溶eeds creative feeding to hold attention at table. Has erratic feeding habits'' Andi

I do not think your experience is shocking, I think it is pretty common. I have an 18 month old boy, a 13 year old and another one on the way. In my experience, the best way to get kids to sit down to eat, is to sit down and eat with them and only feed them when they are seated in their chair; either in the high chair, which is what we use for our 18 month old, or at the table. My little one will sit in his highchair, eating at home or out for about 30 minutes. He especially enjoys when his older brother is with us for meals (I share time with his dad) as there is additional interaction, conversation, fun at the table. These are by no means quiet, intimate dinners. We have music on, usually jazz, and there is lots of converation. The boys will sit together for breakfast, as well. During the day, the 18 mo is in share care. His friend is about a month older and his parents have had some difficulties getting him to eat meals consistently. He also does better in his high chair and sitting down with our son for meals. They chat back and forth (toddlerese), share food and generally have a great time. We actually changed our directions to our nanny to not feed them lunch at the park or snacks when they're out and about to help get our friend's child better on track for eating full meals. I think you are on the right track and it is time ask your husband to get off the floor and sit at the table East Bay Mom

I remember those days well. My son is now 5 years old and we have a pretty calm dinnertime but at 18 months it was all about how much food I could get in his piehole before he took off or basically got too nutty in his booster seat. We were lucky that he never figured out the buckles though, you've got me on that one. Since it is just an age thing and he won't be eating like this at 8 years old, I lean towards your husband's laid back approach of feeding him where and when you can. I'd say always start at the table and try gently to enforce it for a few minutes, just to let him know that this is where you are supposed to be when you eat. Get as much as you can in him here and then just feed him the rest of whatever he'll eat within the next 20 minutes or so, so that the time frame is in place at least, even if he isn't sitting at the table. This phase drove my husband a little nuts because he came from a big family that ate at 6 pm sharp every day. I just kept reminding him it was an age thing and it got much better eventually. Just be gently consistent and don't make mealtime into a contest of wills or worse, a battlezone. Good luck! Bridget

Hi there, My daughter (now 27 months) has been like this as well and was something like how you describe your son when she was 18 mos old. I think she enjoyed the physical challenge of getting herself out of her high chair and she has never liked confinement (car seat for only short trips when she was that age). She finds some obvious delight and joy in moving and exploring and I don't have the hear to squelch it. My husband and I prioritize that she gets the food she needs. Sitting on our laps is fine, if that works. She gets in some bites, sitting in her spot, or kind of on the go. She does sit still (now in booster seat) better than she did when she was younger. She isn't like some of the kids I see in restaurants who seem to stay tied into their seats for ages. I think it's temperament. And I guess some parents are more successful at ''making'' their kids sit still. I don't believe in it. My philosophy is that I am responsible for providing decent food for my child to grow, and I can work with her on how/when she gets the food into her body. It doesn't have to fit with some fantasy of a ''well-behaved child.'' When she's a bit older, I think it will be more fun to have family meals all together - but (I think) that should be enjoyable for all, not something I am authoritatively requiring of my daughter. I say drop the power struggle. I think if you push harder on getting the child to stay confined during eating, you're just creating unnecessary misery for all, just so you can ''win.'' I don't think your kid is ''training'' you in some manipulative way. Sure, he prefers to NOT be confined. Big deal. Let him express some agency. It's more important that your kid eat and that mealtime not be associated with stress than having him stay confined in the seat. relax about meal confinement

OK, I am officially shocked. Not by your son's behavior, but by the fact that you find his behavior shocking. An 18-month-old is still a baby, for all practical purposes and intents. Since you are asking for advice, I am going to be straightforward here and say you really need to relax and adjust your expectations. You could never get my daughter to sit still for more than five minutes when she was that age, especially for meals. She just found the process frustrating, and her curiosity quickly got the better of her. She was all wiggles. And yes, she under-ate all the time. On many an occasion i would look longingly at those babies, much younger than her, who could apparently sit in their highchairs for half an hour to 45 minutes as their families enjoyed a leisurely meal at a restaurant. Rest assured, however, that those babies are a bit unusual. Your husband is not ''training'' your son to be a manipulative little brat who is going to expect to be fed whenever and wherever he wants. Your husband is doing the age-appropriate and pediatrician-recommended style of feeding your kid. When toddlers get restless, yes, it is our unfortunate chore to keep offering food as they go about bumbling through their adventures, paying attention to something other than the food. And don't worry, they do settle down. Even with my chasing her practically all day with food when she ws 18 months old, my daughter now, at age three, is capable of a 15 to 20-minute sit down at dinner. Relax!

My daughter is now almost 4, but between 1 and 2.5 we had significant trouble with meals, so I feel like I can at least help calm your worries. Our problems were compounded by the fact that she was very low on the growth chart (1%), labelled ''failure to thrive'' (despite being ahead on all physical and cognitive scales) and so we were pretty much ordered to get food in her however we could. Like your son, sitting in the high chair would last for about 15 seconds, and ''meals'' consisted of 2-6 bites. What worked for us was to have a plate of food that she could come back to, ie I would stay at the table and she would run around and then come back for bites as needed. As she got a little older (over 2) we would often hold her on our lap to eat. I am happy to say that now she happily sits in her seat and eats (still lightly, and occasionally fed by me) but she does eat. One book that really helped me (and I was very emotional about this issue at the time) was ''Child of Mine'' by Ellen Satter. Also, on the advice of a dietician we tried to add fat/calories to every meal. So she ate everything with mayonaise (which is still one of her favorite foods). Over time her weight increased a little, and her meal time behavior become more ''adult''. At 18 months many are so much more into being mobile and exploring that food time is just too boring. So hang in there, these little guys won't let themselves starve as long as quality food is offered. best wishes eat, eat, eat


2 year old won't sit down for dinner

April 2005

My 2.5 year old will not sit still for dinner--if it's in her highchair she climbs up and sits on the edge, and then stands up so we have to get her down or fear she'll fall; if it's the dining room table, she stands up on the chair, or gets down, if it's in one of our laps, that lasts for a bite. She won't sit in the booster seat. She will, however, have a bite of food, run down the hall, run back and have more food. This is not only frustrating, I am afraid she's going to choke. Plus it doesn't set a good precedent for eating generally. The one place she sits still briefly, is on a little chair we have on the deck where we have a small end table that's just her size. I am considering getting a small table and chair for inside, but don't want to spend the money if there's some way I can teach her to stay at the big table. She's incredibly well behaved in every other aspect, she's definitely getting enough healthy food to eat throughout the day and speaks and understands clearly when we talk to her--she just doesn't follow our request/insistence/firmness/nicely asking/etc to sit down to eat for a few minutes. Help....

I'm going through the exact same thing right now. But recently I found a solution. I sit my 2 year old down at the table with us in a chair like ours so she feels like a big girl. Then I bought her a Dora mat. She loves Dora so much that she can't wait to sit down and eat on Dora. So find a charater that your child likes and find a mat, it worked wonders.

We just went through that with my 2.5 year old and what I tried worked like a charm after only two times of doing it (I am very proud of myself!).

My son would not sit at the table and would attempt to make his way out of the kitchen altogether. I told him he had two choices: sit at the table and eat with us or sit in the bedroom by himself. He tested his control and I brought him to the room and closed the door for two and a half minutes. When I let him out (he was very upset the whole time and it was torturous!) he sat at the table. As I said above, he attempted to control the situation again the next night and I did the same thing! He hasn't tried to control us since. He enthusiastically comes to the table for all meals now and eats until he is done. We praise him for his cooperation and he is very proud of himself! I mean it when I say that every day he is getting better at this!! Good luck! LogicalMama

All of a sudden, 15-mo-old refuses high chair

Nov 1999

All of a sudden my soon-to-be 15-month-old daughter refuses to eat in her high chair. She wants to sit in our lap at the dining room table and eat there. How do we get her to eat in her high chair again? So far (just two nights right now), we have told her that if she doesn't sit in the high chair, she won't get dinner. So she will have gone to bed without dinner for two nights in a row now (though she still got her bottle before bed). It feels horrible to let her cry and go without dinner. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I'm not sure an almost 15 month old can fully comprehend the punishment of going to bed without any dinner. It sounds a bit harsh to me. Maybe she is simply out-growing her need for a high chair. Our daughter did this at 16-17 months old. We got her a booster chair that buckled her in, straped it to one of our kitchen chairs and just pushed her right up to the table. She was happy as a lark!

That happened at my house at just about your kid's age. Our solution was to get rid of the high chair. My oldest kid was content to sit in his booster seat at the table instead. My younger kid only wanted to sit on a regular chair at the table like his big brother.

Can you remove the tray and move the chair up to the table or buy a booster seat and let your toddler sit at the table.

It's difficult to retire all these gadgets, but maybe you could trade your high chair in for a small table and chairs? Once our children started standing up in their highchair, we retired it, rather than fight them. Our kids eat from a small table. We make sure they get nice and hungry, by limiting snacks. We serve their food on the small table and let them go wash their hands, sit and eat.

An unbending, absolute No getting up with food rule must accompany this approach. They can get up from the table, but the food stays there. And once they leave the table, the meal's over. We adopted this idea from daycare, where state law prohibits kids from walking around with food due to the chocking risks. Our table is right next to theirs so we still enjoy meals together. It seems to empower them by not relying on us to get them into and out of a confining chair. As they get older, they ask to be excused and bus their plates to the sink.

This parallels our crib approach: as soon as the child starts climbing out we put their mattress on the floor. I thought it would be a problem to keep them in bed(or sitting at the table in this case). But their tiredness/hunger manages the problem naturally.

You could consider the type of highchair which attaches to the table itself. It sounds like she wants to be closer to the two of you when she eats -- the distancing of the highchair is perhaps making her feel left out.

A 16-month old friend of ours refused to eat any way other than standing. When she visited our house for dinner once, we gave her as a present one of two booster seats that were handed down to us. She was excited to receive the seat as a present, and now uses it regularly in her own home. She still somehow connects it to our baby, and perhaps because she thinks it's his, she likes using it. Maybe this strategy will work for you.

How about a different kind of chair? Booster chair? Snappy seat (snaps onto the table)? You may want to borrow one from a friend and see whether your daughter takes to it. I know several babies who stopped wanting to use the high chair at around the same age. I'd say -- choose your battles. She just may want to be more a part of the dinner table family.

Toddlers go through stages with high chairs and everything else you want them to do. My philosophy has been to try to encourage but not to force compliance, except for a few mandatory things like the carseat where compliance is the only safe way. I held my toddler during dinners and fed him from my plate many times, and now he is back in the high chair, happily, enjoying feeding himself with his own fork. I think 15 months is too young to punish this behavior, especially by denying food. Your child is too young to remember the lesson from day to day, and too young to conceptualize that you are denying the dinner because she won't sit in the highchair. Being rigid about most things with toddlers is likely to create frustration and upset rather than a more compliant child. My advice is to roll with your child's needs and moods a bit more.

To the mother of the toddler who won't sit in her highchair: We had the same problem with our son at about the same age. One thing was he was entering a clingy phase, which just happens throughout their young life. The other was that he saw his older sister sitting in a regular chair.

We struggled with it because we did not want to let him run around with food in his mouth, and it is awkward eating with a toddler on your lap. However, we gave in on the lap when he wanted it, and he just grew out of it eventually. Also, we set up a booster chair for him, which he took to very well. That way he feels like he is sitting at the table like a big boy, rather than off in the corner in his high chair.

Also at about this age, toddlers often don't have much interest in eating, so meals for them are more about being with their parents -- only natural that your daughter wants to sit on your lap when you are sitting down for awhile! Anyway, best of luck.

The same thing happened with my son. It turned out he simply felt he was a big boy now and wanted to eat at the table with us, on real chairs as we did. We bought him a booster seat that is belted securely to the dining chair and we put the high chair away. He loves his new booster seat so much! I think your daughter may simply be ready for the next step. High chairs are for babies!f For the record, the same thing happened to my neighbor. I was recently at her house for dinner. There were several babies 15-19 months old, and she said, Is anyone's baby still eating in a high chair? It turned out none were, in this particula r group.

Our daughter also did this around 15 months. Looking back, I believe she wanted to sit at the table, rather than off to the side in the high chair. We had one of those Safety First portable high chairs that straps onto a regular chair as a booster seat and also has a tray like a high chair. She was fine once she sat at the table in the booster seat, and within a few days she would let us put the tray on the booster seat. We could also put her high chair at the table, but she never liked that (I think the chair became too much of an issue, so now she doesn't want to use it). If I were you, I would try a booster seat or using the high chair without the tray at the table with a plastic placemat. I think withholding food from a toddler would not work as a punishment. I don't think a 15 month old would remember why they are not getting food for very long, and then you have an even crankier child. It might diffuse the issue to feed her extra food at snacks and other times for a few days so if she doesn't eat much dinner it does not matter.

It might be time for a booster seat, similar to the plastic ones that are in restaurants. Our little guy seems to like being up in his booster seat right at the table with all of us with his plate, utensils and cup on the table right along with ours. Our highchair has gone into temporary storage in the basement. We're all delighted--the booster chair is a lot easier to clean. You can find used ones at Darla's on San Pablo in El Cerrito or in the secondhand section of Baby World in Oakland. Toys R Us has new ones.