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Mealtime Wanderer

The Mealtime Wanderer

By Amalah

Amalah is currently on maternity leave (she had a sweet baby boy, Ike, on Wednesday). In her absence, however, she’ll be just as tethered to the computer as ever, and will be using this space to ask you — our intrepid Advice Smackdown Commenter Crew — questions. What’s been baffling her, as a parent, you may wonder? Why, she’s so glad you asked!

How Do I Teach My Toddler to Sit at the Table?

Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear Internet-Wan Kenobi,

Not long after his second birthday, Ezra began to strenuously object to sitting in a high chair or booster seat. At home, at restaurants, wherever. He was a BIG BOY and he was going to sit like one, even if it meant his chin barely cleared the table. And you know, I allowed it, and we gradually stopped even bothering with the high chair during meals at home or asking for one when we went out to eat.

In fact, the high chair became almost a “punishment” for not behaving at meals — which, DUH, started happening quite a bit, after he was granted SO MUCH TERRIBLE FREEDOM. If he got up and wandered around or threw food, or anything like that, he was put back in the high chair.

That seemed to work, until he figured out how to unbuckle the high chair straps and climb out, whenever he wanted. Now, mealtimes are basically Toddler Anarchy, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to restore order. Mostly, the problem is that Ezra refuses to stay in his seat until he is finished eating. He wants to get up after a bite or two and walk around, or just climb on and off the chair (and on and off and on and off and etc.). Then occasionally he’ll come back, eat a bit more, then wander off again.

I’m not a fan of this grazing-style of eating for several reasons: 1) he’s a typically messy toddler eater, so every surface he touches after leaving the table gets COATED in sticky food residue, like pasta sauce and syrup and dipping condiments, 2) it drags mealtimes out by INFINITY, and he’s usually whining about cold, icky-tasting food by the end, 3) this behavior REALLY doesn’t translate well at restaurants or friends’ homes and 4) I AM A STICKLER FOR BASIC TABLE MANNERS. STOP DRIVING ME CRAZY.

So…what to DO, oh Internet? Like I said, we’ve tried instituting a return to the high chair or booster seat, but he simply unbuckles himself and gets out, like, “nice try, mooooommmm.” I’ve tried taking his plate away as soon as he gets up and signals that he’s “done,” but he’s called that bluff enough times with tears over being hunnnnngry 10 minutes later and I have a really hard time not caving and giving it back. We’ve modeled good behavior (and Noah does too — he never gets up until he’s all done and ready to clear the table) and shown that he gets no attention once he’s up and doing laps around the living room for no particular reason. We’ve called him back, counted to three, sent him to time-out for disobeying, you name it.

He’s such a GOOD eater, at least food-variety-wise, that I never expected mealtimes to suddenly devolve into a power struggle (like they did with Noah, the super-picky one), yet…here we are. Completely locked in one over his refusal to park his butt on a chair for 10 straight minutes to eat the food he’s clearly such a fan of without having half of it streaked all over the walls and sofa.

Help me and I will love you forever, oh, whatever, you know I already do, BUT STILL,
Amy (Amalah)

Leave your answer/idea/suggestion/general sympathy in the comments!

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Sonia
Guest
Sonia

Once my kids are up from the table, they are done.  I don’t care if they say they are still huuuungry; they won’t starve between dinner and breakfast.  It’s so hard to be consistent, but it’s worked.  They sit and eat dinner with the rest of us.  My younger one is a bit older than Ezra (he’s 3.5), but even he knows that he’s got to sit in his chair to eat at mealtime.  My dad used to do “cheek checks” to make sure we were sitting properly, and I’ve done that with my boys.  They think it’s hysterical that… Read more »

Julia
Guest

Congratulations on the newest addition to your family! For space reasons, we put the highchair away for the next kid and use the Phil & Ted’s “MeToo” for mealtimes. The prospect of a steep drop tends to keep her in the chair. For breakfast, a more laissez faire occasion, we just let her eat it at the coffee table. It gives us a little more credibility when we say “Dinner is serious business” when it’s an affair that we’re all expected to behave through. With the chair she can’t escape and the “We’re all sitting here” we sometimes get some… Read more »

Wallydraigle
Guest

I think taking his plate away and holding firm is the way to go. I know it feels so wrong, to deny your hungry kid food. But with a foodie like Ezra, I bet it won’t take long for the lesson to sink in. . I had a different problem with my daughters. They both used to be human vacuum cleaners. The older stopped eating almost entirely when we moved, and the younger one did when I went away for a week for a memorial service. I don’t short-order cook, but I’ve been attempting to put things on the table… Read more »

Wallydraigle
Guest

Uh. That would be “palates.” I knew that word looked wrong. I should stop posting while I’m still sleepy in the morning.

Sarah T
Guest
Sarah T

My only thought is maybe try a harness? Ours comes with adaptor loops to attach it to a chair (it’s great as a backup when there are no high chairs or boosters available), it works with a big boy chair – and it fastens in back. Let’s see Houdini Jr. get out of that!

natalie
Guest
natalie

If you ever figure this out let me know..we go out to eat and I see other 2 to 3 year old sitting an eating while I am busy tring to pin down my 2.5 year old or pulling her out from under the table. This happens at home, friends and family’s houses, everywhere and she is a horrible, picky eater (I blame that on my mom who watches her during the day while I am at work). Nothing has worked for us so we have just stopped paying attention to her when she gets up and leaves. Food is… Read more »

Sarah T
Guest
Sarah T

And by ” harness” I mean my son’ toddler reins-type body straps btw, not anything more sinister! (Just realised it looked a bit …odd…)

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I have a feeling this will be a struggle for us too! In fact, we stopped using the high chair in favor of our daughter (who’s almost 2) sitting at a little table next to ours. This did not work. She was up and roaming around just like Ezra. So now we have her in a booster, and it’s great. She loves being at the table with us, and it’s really implemented family-time dinners. We are firm when it comes to food – once she starts playing with her food, we take the plate away and it’s done. I think… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

I offer Cheerios as a backup. You don’t like dinner? You may eat Cheerios. You decided to get down and play instead of eat? You might be offered Cheerios, you might not. (My kid doesn’t like milk in her cereal, so it’s even more draconian.) Sometimes I mix it up with an offer of an apple or carrots. It takes 21 days for a kid to starve, so a couple of nights going hungry by his own choice won’t hurt him

laura
Guest

it’s not easy, but when his butt leaves that chair you take away his food. after a few too-small meals he’ll get with the program.

he won’t starve, kids are willful but not that crazy.

(says the lady who has a 9 month old that will hold his breath till he turns blue ’cause STUBBORN BABY gah)

big, fat, happy congrats to you again!

Janice
Guest
Janice

Congratulations on litte Ike! He is adorable 🙂 I’ve used an adult belt in place of straps on seats when the straps were missing. Maybe using a belt with the buckle in the back where he can’t reach it will help keep him in the high chair or seat when you need him to stay put.

Rebecca
Guest
Rebecca

While we struggle getting her to stay at the table and finish her meal, we bought the IKEA INGOLF
Junior chair for her to have at the dinner table. It places our daughter at the right height at the kitchen table and looks just like a regular chair so she feels like she is at the big table with the rest of us. Highly reccommend for the small investment.

Amy
Guest

What if you wrapped a big fat piece of velcro around the buckles so he can’t undo them?

Hodgepodge
Guest

I agree with everyone who says you just have to stick it out. My youngest is the same age as Ezra and we went through this, too – now we just say he must stay in his chair until he is completely finished, because once he gets down, mealtime is over.

A couple of nights of tantrums and lo, the problem was gone as if it had never happened.

Susan
Guest
Susan

My 17 month old is similar. He would be so happy if we’d let him walk around the dining table and just feed him bites off our plates when he feels like coming by. He just wants to be free, man, free. Sometimes I can get him to stay in the high chair for meals but the days he wants to explore he will move his food around on the tray and then throw it down to the dog waiting below. That’s when meal time is over. He is not given anymore to eat after that. At restaurants, to preserve… Read more »

Nicole
Guest

Yeah, you’re going to have to stick it out. In the meantime, have you tried giving him a regular chair WITHOUT a booster to sit on? My toddler likes to sit like the grown ups (or those of us pretending to be grown ups anyways). We even let her stand on the chair if she wants. And if he wants to get up, well, then he’s done, right?

Beth
Guest

Okay, I’m probably the minority here, but I have a grazer. And right now, my priority is that she consumes food more than table manners because she’s a string bean. So…my solution? Make him meals of only non sticky, non saucy foods. If he sits, he can have the yummy Indian food the rest of the family is eating, but if his bottom leaves that seat, wipe his hands and face and away goes the good stuff and he gets…whatever not very messy, room temp food you have-sauce-less pasta, bread, a couple of slices of apple, whatever. I’ll bet you… Read more »

Angela
Guest

We feel your pain. Our 5 year old is finally getting it, but it is still an issue sometimes. We try to be consistent and send him to wash his hands and go wait in his room till dinner is finished, but usually we just give warning after warning, nagnagnagnag! (Gah! I roll my eyes at myself!) But damn, it’s hard when he’s such a picky eater anyway and I can’t see how he grows at all. Now with our twins, our focus is often on them, so he probably gets away with it more, and yet, we’ve also been… Read more »

Jessica Sides
Guest
Jessica Sides

We have a rule, that everyone sits at the table until we’re all done. That means I get up and pick up my 2 year old if he walks off, it was a harrowing couple of weeks with screaming fits and all but now he sits and waits for us all to be done. He won’t -eat- but that’s alright he never really has.

Pogita
Guest
Pogita

I’m with Beth n this one. Our 2 year old gets to graze on the non-messy stuff that maybe he doesn’t like so much as the food at the table. Mostly he chooses to eat with us. If not then he has some less desirable, non-messy, chopped into tiny pieces food on the low dresser we have in the kitchen. He can eat that if he gets hungry. Avoid the struggle and the guilt.

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

My 2 yr old still sits in the highchair, but she does try to climb out if she doesn’t like the meal we are having. I say let him graze on non-messy foods, and if he wants the good stuff he’ll learn to sit still for it.

Linden
Guest

Our son is almost three, and he’s refused a high chair or booster for over a year now.  He won’t even eat from a CHAIR at our kitchen table; he demands to sit on a bar stool!  I know what you mean about going back to the high chair being out of the question.  There is zero way our son would submit to that indignity, especially now that his sister eats in the little chair with straps. So, as you might guess, we have a similar problem to yours.  Our son is also a good eater, but likes to get… Read more »

Dani
Guest

We had a slightly different problem (and currently the same problem with my daughter -2.5yo doll) he used to graze at the table FOREVER. Our solution and what we do with our younger one is that we set a time limit for dinner. 20 minutes to eat dinner. I set the timer in the kitchen and at 20 minutes, food is picked up and put away. This seems to work okay for both of them. With my son, it forces him to stop talking and focus on eating instead of taking hours (seriously we once had a dinner lasting 2… Read more »

Vivian
Guest
Vivian

That sounds frustrating. You know he’s hungry because he keeps coming back to have a couple more bites. But you can’t have dinner last forever, you want to clean up and move on with your day. I really think you might have to just take away the plate of food after a set time, a time that’s ALWAYS the same length. After that time, the food is gone for the night. Sorry if you’re hungry, pal, maybe you should just sit and eat your supper tomorrow.  I know that setting that limit and keeping it–EVEN IF HE GETS UP (meaning… Read more »

jodifur
Guest

Is he going to eat lunch at preschool next year?  Or even snack?  Because I’m pretty sure they won’t let him do this.  Maybe let school solve the problem.  And I’m a big believer when you get up from the table you are done.  Michael likes to rush through meals so he can go play and my answer is when you get up you are done.  Sorry if you are hungry 10 minutes later.  There is another meal at breakfast.

I know, I’m mean.

JCF
Guest
JCF

Our now 3.5 year old was the same way right around 2. We ended up getting a Kaboost, which just boosts the regular chair up so that the kid can reach the table. It is also harder for them to climb down from the chair once they’re up so high. It helped, but we still had to be really consistent and making him sit until he’s done. We now have a 3.5 yo and a 2 yo, and they both have to stay at the table until they’re done, and then asked to be excused when they want to get… Read more »

Chris
Guest

I promise he won’t stave. It’s just like sleep training – it sucks for a few days and then they get it. Once he’s down from the table, maybe with a warning or two the first couple of days, that’s it. He’ll learn really fast. I also like the timer idea if you try the first thing for a few days and it really doesn’t take. Don’t forget you can give him Pediasure or something similar if you really start getting worried about nutrition while you’re trying to do this. You really don’t want him grazing on easy, non-messy foods… Read more »

Hi, I'm Natalie.
Guest

Am I a horrible person for suggesting a dog crate next to the dinner table? (KIDDING. But seriously – if any of these suggestions work, you must share – I’m in the same boat with my 2yo.)

Kirsten
Guest

Can you DIY a five point harness for the highchair from some webbing and have it buckle in the back?

Kris
Guest

I’m with everyone who says he won’t starve, set a time limit,and then just take away the food. My daughter will get up from the table, try to play, whatnot, and then come over and ask for bites from our plate. We don’t let her, and she cries that she’s hungry, and we tell her she should have eaten. She is almost 3. So, for the kids, once they leave the table, that meal is over, period. Wait for snacktime, or the next meal. If their eating is absolutely atrocious then we cut out the snacks. They won’t starve, and… Read more »

emilie
Guest
emilie

We like the combo of a kaboost and mylittleseat (both are at target.com and amazon). The kaboost fits under an adult chair and hoists it up, so no more chins grazing the tabletop. The mylittleseat is a super cute harness that fits onto the chair (there are buckles though…maybe velcro over the buckles?). Both are portable as well.

rose
Guest
rose

we had a very similar problem with our 2yr boy too. If he hopped down from the table he was asked if he was finished, if ‘yes’ his hands were wiped and the food taken away. if he returned wanting more, he had to apologies and ask nicely for the food. this was only allowed to happen once per meal. we would also offer to help him eat if he seemed to still be hungry but struggling to keep feeding himself.. especially if tired (but not until he had made a real effort himself). We also have made sure we… Read more »

Emily
Guest
Emily

From what I’ve learned about kids so far, the best solution is the ‘if you get up, you’re done’ solution. It seems to me that if you just offer snacky type non-messy food as the alternative to the ‘real food’, that you’re going to have a kid that starts avoiding real food knowing that they’ll get snacky food. And just strapping them in with harder-to-undo straps just seems to ignore the issue. He’s old enough to learn that ‘you don’t get up until you’re done and if you get up.. well, food is gone’. And please please please, don’t ‘just… Read more »

Leanne
Guest
Leanne

Same, same, SAME issue here!  It’s the slippery slope of, “Oh hey!  Look how cute he is thinking he’s so grown up and awww, he’s so happy sitting there so proud of himself,” and then it doesn’t take long and it’s a power struggle that you didn’t even realize was being set up.  We’ve tried the route of  taking his plate away and letting him “starve” until morning and you know what?  We ended up with an increasingly unhappy almost two year old for a week and a bit, mostly because he was HUNGRY and waking up in the middle… Read more »

annie
Guest
annie

Yeah, I’d say consistency is key, and I promise you will only have 1-2 mealtimes of tears – Zah is so smart and such a food hound, he will learn so quickly.  It’s important and reasonable to teach a 2 yo to sit at the table for meals.  If you feel that straps will help the situation, you can try any of the great ideas people have offered.  But if you feel it’s more of a power struggle, I don’t think the newest straps are going to help you.  Here’s the key to overcoming the guilt associated with the “let… Read more »

Auntie G
Guest
Auntie G

We have similar issues with our 33-month old and have for about…3 months now. He’s not nearly as good an eater as Ezra, either, so it IS hard…but basically, we feel it’s a stage YET we also have a need for him to be restaurant-appropriate on a semi-regular basis, so it’s tough. Theo won’t sit in any kind of booster or highchair any more. At home, we use a…luggage strap to keep him in his chair on the nights he’s particularly awful. It’s WAY too hard for him to unbuckle. He goes to preschool where he does have to stay… Read more »

gizella
Guest
gizella

we offer dinner with everyone (breakfast is just with me, lunch is at the coffee table for her) for a set amount of time. If my kid wanders off, dinner is over for her and that is that. I don’t leave it around. I know about grazing etc, but my kid is 3.5…now she knows that food is available at certain times for dinner, and where to get it. Its hard, and she’s gone hungry sometimes, but it seems to be working.

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

Our 2.5 year old is a wanderer, too. We let him leave the table and return, but draw the line at his leaving the kitchen. We have a gate across the kitchen doorway and we leave it closed during mealtimes. We have a couple toys (blocks, a dish of dry beans) in the kitchen, and he can get up and play with those, but he cannot leave during mealtimes to go watch TV or play with the rest of his toys. He also may not bring food away from the table to eat. If he wants to eat, he has… Read more »

Trista
Guest
Trista

I agree with many of the others…if you get up? you’re done. He won’t starve and he won’t be harmed by crying later for food. When he does, just say “I’m sorry you didn’t stay in your seat and finish dinner. I know you are hungry but dinner is finished. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll do better.”
Once he figures out that he can’t eat if he gets up, you’ll both be much happier. Plus he’ll gain some respect for his mama…”Wow, she really means what she says! Guess I better listen!”

Heidi
Guest
Heidi

I have a friend who used the belt method (a belt to tether toddler to chair, with buckle behind the seat back where toddler couldn’t reach it). It worked well for her, though It did lead to one very uncomfortable moment at a restaurant, when the toddler attempted to roam, to which Mom responded, “Do I need to get the belt?” Of course, she then had to expand upon this question loudly, just to make sure everyone who thought she beat her child with a belt would have their fears allayed. I’m having the same problem as you, with my… Read more »

Hillary
Guest
Hillary

Congratulations on Ike! Love his name and he’s adorable. There are great suggestions here and I think you will be able to make some changes that should lead you to success. Lest you doubt your instincts, I think it was your advice that said choking is much more likely if kids are wandering around eating. So, you may want to add the ‘it is safer’ rationale when you insist on sitting down at the table to eat.

Amy in StL
Guest
Amy in StL

Does your highchair have a divided leg area? If so, you just tie his shoelaces together and there is no more getting up. It works wonders for me when I babysat my nieces and had to take them out for meals or to the store. She didn’t like it at first, but couldn’t get out.

Alissa
Guest
Alissa

Yeah, you don’t want my advice.  My 2.5 year old went to time out during dinner the other day for playing with his bib.  If he tried to get down from his chair, I am pretty sure my head would explode…

Susan
Guest
Susan

I’m guessing no one really wants to hear my advice either – but…As a mom of 6 – and 9 grands I might add, I am appalled that this is even an issue.

These kids are 2 – who is the boss here?
What ever happened to making your child mind? Dinner means sit at the table – or no dinner, tv, toys, etc. if you do not. I raised my 6 this way and it worked for me.

Caitlyn
Guest

my brother did some of this, and with him it was sensory issues, though much milder than the ones Noah has.  Three things that worked well for us: – letting him sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair.  Ezra’s probably too small for that. – putting one of these under his chair: http://www.amazon.com/GOGO-Balance-Exercise-Training-Stability/dp/B001KOD92Q/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1308013686&sr=8-5 it let him bounce like the ball, but he couldn’t fall over or anything.  It has a textured side and a smooth side, and he would pick with one he wanted – a “lap animal” – a stuffed animal filled with beans to make it heavy and provide… Read more »

Lacey
Guest

I am A) so glad I found your site last night and B) that you asked this question as I find myself in a similar boat. I’ve just been succumbing to it because, frankly, at 34w pregnant, I just want some peace. But then I think, who the hell wants to tackle this issue while simultaneously readjusting to life with a newborn? To top it off, my husband is probably going to be deploying ten days postpartum. It’s enough to make me scream (and some days, I do. Eesh.), but I guess I should get off my prego butt and… Read more »

Melitz
Guest
Melitz

Random sidenote – I am super impressed that Noah manages to sit through a meal! My dh and oldest (now 10) both have ADHD and hells bells neither can sit through a meal to save their lives. Never really have been able to. I think the answer is deciding whether this is a battle you wish to fight, if it REALLY matters to you, and if you decide it does, then you already know what to do. I did the “take the plate away” once a few years back when I decided I couldn’t stand 3/4 of my family getting… Read more »

Dina Rose
Guest

You have to strike a comprise with your child.  Right now he’s completely running the show.  The other model—take his food away and he’ll learn—means you’re completely running the show.  Neither model works that well. For starters, you have to understand that toddlers have very little attention for sitting at the table.  He wants to play, to explore, to live his best life!  You should let him eat some of his food on the run.  That way if he doesn’t eat a lot when you insist he sit at the table you won’t fear his imminent death from starvation. Because… Read more »

Marion
Guest
Marion

Have a consistent method of punishment for any misbehaviour Amalah. With a kid this young, the Thinking Corner is perfect. If you haven’t used it before, you will need to be consistent, and it will make for a few (very) long dinners but this investment WILL pay off IF you are willing to stick with it. First time DS gets up off his seat – take him by the arm, bend down to his level and say “(DS’s name), getting down from the table without asking is naughty. If you misbehave again, you will go to the thinking corner.” The… Read more »