It can be frustrating if you have a two-year-old who won’t sit during meals. We know that mealtimes are an important time to connect with family during a busy day. Having a two-year-old myself, I understand that getting our children to sit down and stay seated can be a challenging, unrelenting task.
However, there are ways you can help your toddler learn to love their seat at the table so that everyone can have an enjoyable meal together.
If you’ve felt resigned to chasing your toddler around just so he will eat, read on to see what tweaks you can make to your family’s time at the table.
Learn Your Two-Year-Old’s Hunger Cues
Hungry children are more likely to stay seated at the table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here are some ways to help ensure your child is hungry enough to eat well during meal times.
✅ Don’t allow grazing on snacks throughout the day.
✅ Have a good balance of active time and rest time. The World Health Organization recommends that toddlers should have at least 180 minutes of active time each day, spread throughout the day.
✅ Offer 2-3 food choices that are acceptable to you. This doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as easy as having 2 kinds of fruit available.
✅ Don’t force it. Practice RESPONSIVE FEEDING.
What is responsive feeding?
We touched on this in another post about picky eaters. But in short, responsive feeding is all about the connection between you and your child.
Your child gives you an appetite cue, and you respond based on the cue. You also provide flexibility in letting your toddler choose what to eat and how much.
Verbally or nonverbally, a child communicates feelings of hunger or fullness, be it a cry from an infant, a baby turning away from a “flying airplane” spoon, or a toddler flat-out telling you “No!”. When you are attentive to your child’s hunger cues, you are respecting and supporting your child’s innate ability to recognize and regulate their own hunger.
This decreases the likeliness of problems later on in life, such as excessive weight gain, because you are teaching your child to listen to his body. That’s a good eating habit. So if your child is genuinely not hungry, don’t force him to stay seated at the dining table.
Try not to buckle under the temptation too often of slipping your child an electronic device just to pacify her and keep her sitting at the kitchen table. If your child is distracted by a gadget, she may not realize that she is already full, and she may soon learn to ignore her own hunger and satiety cues.
Find Support For Their Feet
Ease the squiggly-wigglies your two-year-old may get sitting at the table by placing a supported prop below his feet. Similar to going to the bathroom, children need foot support while sitting at the table so they do not feel imbalanced and become tempted to shift in their seats.
Think about it – would you feel comfortable eating with your legs dangling? Probably not!
Whether your child is in a booster seat or already sitting in a full-on adult chair at the table, choose props like a stool, chair, or box so she can rest her feet on top and feel balanced. This will make her feel more comfortable, which will lessen distractions and the desire to get out of her seat.
Also, check that her hips, knees, and ankles are at 90-degree angles for proper posture.
Create A Routine
Though it’s totally normal for children to eat different amounts each day, the average toddler eats three meals a day along with two to three snacks. Given the opportunity, most of us would choose to eat all day long if food was available to us.
It’s no different for kids!
Children who regularly graze all day — eating snacks whenever — are more likely to not be hungry at mealtime, more likely not to try new foods, and are more likely to not feel that “full” feeling that usually satisfies us after a good meal.
They’re also more likely to develop poor eating habits, poor dental hygiene, and have excessive weight problems.
To combat grazing, develop a flexible, but timely routine of snacks and meals. This way, your child will learn what to expect and what is expected of him or her.
You could explain that they can have their choice of a snack after they play outside or that dinner is almost ready so they don’t need a snack, for example.
Stay calm, stay firm, and be consistent.
Be sure to let your family and your child’s caregivers know about your new feeding routine.
Explain when you’d like your child to have their choice of a healthy snack. Let them know if you prefer your son or daughter to only eat at the table.
Consistency for your child is key here!
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Model The Desired Behavior
You are your child’s best role model, so it’s up to you to show your child what sitting at the table should be like.
Model the behavior you would like your child to do, such as sitting upright, using appropriate utensils, and paying attention to your own hunger cues when you are full.
Show your excitement and appreciation for the food on your plate. Exclaim out loud how savory or sweet the meal is. Talk about each other’s day. Ask your toddler what they think or how they feel.
By including your child in the conversation, you’re building their confidence, social skills, and language skills.
Observing and listening to others is a crucial part of language development and as a parent, you are the chief language resource for your child.
Model healthy eating habits such as:
- Putting away all screens during meals
- Sitting at the table to eat, not eating while standing
- Listening and talking respectfully to one another
- Talking about your own hunger cues (“This tastes so good, but I feel full now so I’m going to stop eating.”)
Show your child that it is okay to not finish your plate and try not to coax, “Just one more bite!”
Forcing a child to eat when she is not hungry usually leads to the child eating less. This teaches them to ignore their own hunger cues which can lead to poor eating habits later in life. They may also learn that the table is not where they want to be.
Provide Opportunities for Autonomy
Toddlers don’t have much autonomy over their life when we are constantly telling them what to wear, where to go, and when to do something. It is developmentally normal for them to want to assert their autonomy.
Toddlers will certainly exercise their choices at mealtimes, by doing things such as not staying seated at the table!
But, the more ways a child can be involved in the mealtime process, the more engaged and interested (and hungry!) they will be with the finished product. Therefore, they are also more likely to stay seated.
Allow your child opportunities for autonomy by asking them to help. Ask them to place the napkins on the table, get their special cup, or mix up the ingredients. Let them feel proud for completing a task on their own. For more ideas on how to do this – and other activities too – get our FREE Discerning Parenting Toolkit.
Give them choices when possible. “Would you like milk, chocolate milk, or water?” “Where would you like this food on your plate?”
While you’re working together, talk with your child about what you’re doing. This builds language skills as well. Ask your child for their input.
“I am opening this package. It feels so crinkly when I touch it. Want to help me open it?”
“Would you like to help get your cup or butter the toast?”
We know it can be tough to weather the storm, but you can do this! Develop a routine. Model good habits. Allow developmentally appropriate choices. Make sure your child is sitting comfortably. In time, your child will learn to enjoy sitting at the table together with loved ones.
Finally – and this is something that I don’t see people talking about anywhere else – it is possible to be doing all these things, and your child still won’t sit.
Some people won’t acknowledge that this is even possible. If a toddler won’t sit during mealtimes, people often say, “Of course, you’re doing something wrong.” But it is possible to do all these things and for mealtimes to still be a struggle.
If that’s the case, you may need to look into whether there may be something more. Are there issues with sensory processing? For example, can the toddler be hypersensitive to the smells around the kitchen or dining table? Or, does the toddler crave the constant movement? We have also worked with kids who have feeding issues that would benefit from professional help, such as from a developmental pediatrician, a pediatric gastroenterologist, a feeding therapist, an occupational therapist, or a nutritionist.