Getting a toddler to sit at the table can be a challenge. From small appetites to a strong desire to autonomy, toddlers have many reasons to say no to a mealtime. But after working with hundreds of families, I can often see how simple fixes can help start enjoying meals with toddlers more. Here are some of the reasons your toddler does not sit at the table and how you can help him (and yourself).
1. He feels isolated in the high chair. At some point toddlers realize that they are provided with different seat than the rest of the family and some of them do not like it!
Try: Strapping your little one in a booster seat to keep him at a comfortable height and provide easy access to the foods that you are serving for the family. I also find the Stokke high chair that “grows with a child” very helpful. Apart from the obvious benefits of a removable tray and adjustable height, it also provides a sturdy support for feet that may be otherwise left dangling in the air.
2. He does not like to eat alone. Eating is a social event. Although few toddlers are able to maintain a mealtime conversation, eating in company of other people may motivate them to stay at a table long enough to fill the belly.
Try: Letting your child join you at a mealtime as often as possible. If your mealtime schedules do not match, make a point of sitting down with your toddler and sharing a meal (even if you just munch on a couple of carrot sticks and have a meal with your spouse later). More on how to serve family friendly meals. But, as tempting as they are, avoid any distractions like TV, reading or iPad at mealtimes. They will prevent your toddler from paying attention to food and fullness cues.
3. Being at a dinner table is associated with pressure to eat or try new foods. Even covert forms of pressure such as making loud “Mmmm” and “Yum” in an attempt to get your toddler to eat may elicit the opposite reaction from what you were hoping for. A toddler who is pressured to eat will not want to be at a table. He needs space to start feeling safe around new and less liked foods and the best support you can provide is in the form of no-pressure role modeling. Also note that most kids start eating less during toddlerhood and meal skipping becomes more of a norm than an exception.
Try: Serving meals family style and help your toddler pick and choose from what is available. Encourage self-feeding to further help him feel responsible for his own eating. Make sure to include at least one food your child typically eats and relax if the meal is left untouched. To learn more about no-presure strategies, read about the Division of Responsibility.
4. Too tired to eat! Toddlers are busy little people. By the time dinner arrives, they have spent all day playing, exploring and, well, eating. Most toddlers have met a big part of their nutritional and energy needs by the time you serve a balanced, delicious dinner. All they need is a couple of bites before going to bed. And since many of them enjoy a bedtime glass of milk, waking from hunger in the middle of night is not likely to happen.
Try: Maximizing nutrition at other meals and snacks and keeping dinner quick and casual. Serve it half and hour earlier if your toddler is still very tired at dinnertime.
5. Too much grazing throughout the day. Although toddlers have small tummies and need to refuel frequently, unstructured grazing does not help to eat at mealtimes or build good eating habits. And if most of eating is happening on a run or in the stroller, it is not surprising that the toddler resists begin confined to a highchair.
Try: Serving 3 meals and 2 sit down scheduled snacks per day at and offering only water, not milk or juice in between. Of course, an occasional snack on a way to a class is no big deal as far as the child associates eating with sitting at a table. If switching to meals and snacks at a table seems to be problematic at the beginning, allow your chid to stay at a table for just a few minutes, gradually increasing it to 10-15 minutes, a reasonable goal for most toddlers.
I remember how hard it was to keep my first daughter at the table sometimes before we minimized pressure at mealtimes. She has always been a much more cautious eater than the second one who just joined us at mealtimes in the most natural way and started munching on everything from blue cheese to raw onions (her eating habits are more conventional now at 5 years of age :)). I guess having a sibling to model the behavior can help if your toddler does not sit at the table for dinner.
What is (was) your experience with your kids?