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Adorable black toddler eating with food at dinner table

The 10-Minute Eater

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I am so desperate to send you this email when thinking about my toddler’s eating style. She is 18 months old, not a picky eater but she can never sit on her high chair to eat more than 10 minutes. And when she eats she has to read a book or play with a toy; waiting for me to feed her.

She only picks food that she likes, e.g pasta, rice, noodles or steam vegetables (she doesn’t like meat). But again it won’t last long; 10 mins or less. However if we let her watch TV or playing in our living room she will finish her meal.

How do I deal with this? Should I let her know that once she gets off the chair her meal is over? In that case I’m worried she won’t have enough food and go to bed with an empty stomach.

Thank you,

Start family meals with your toddler

When she’s sitting in her high chair, are you eating as well? Or is that time mostly focused on the task of feeding her and your meals are a separate thing? And “separate” can mean both when you eat and what you eat. At 18 months, she’s old enough to learn the expectations of a proper family meal — no separate kid-only meal made just for her, and she stays put until she’s really and truly done.

And if that happens after only 10 minutes, that’s fine. She can continue to sit in her high chair until you’re done, because Mama made a nice meal and wants to enjoy this nice meal. A book or a toy is fine — don’t frame this time as a punishment. Ask her to stay and keep you company, talk to her while you eat, don’t prod her or plead for “one more bite,” and keep it pleasant. Family meals are a nice thing, a nice time together, whether she eats anything or not. But! By coaxing her to stay with you at the table and taking your focus completely off her food and whether she’s it eating or not, she has plenty of time and ample opportunity to eat “enough” at dinner to avoid going to bed hungry.

I am not a fan of letting dinner continue away from the dinner table

… and even less of a fan of having it happen in front of the TV. I am okay with having the occasional snack out on the coffee table for toddler grazing, but not actual meals. (And not just because I’m some uptight hardass about dinnertime in general — kids are messy eaters! They spill! They drop crumbs! You’ll get ants! Plus it’s a choking hazard!) And since it’s just reinforcing that she really doesn’t have to stay in her high chair for meals, I would remove that option from her entirely.

Toddlers eat when they’re hungry

… and are actually really good self-regulators in terms of their calorie intake. Depending on how much she eats throughout the day, she might not really need as much dinner as you think she does. (My toddlers all ate huge breakfasts every morning, and then progressively smaller meals throughout the day, so some nights their dinner felt practically snack-sized.) The fact that she finishes her food in front of the TV or while playing might have more to do with the simple fact that it’s “there” vs. a sign of actual hunger. Another reason to cut out the grazing habit — you want her to eat when she’s hungry, not when she’s bored or distracted and not really thinking about it.

Or she DOES need to eat more than she’s getting during that 10-minute window, and will need a little bit of tough love when it comes to the new “dinner is over once you leave the table” rule.

Toddler “Meal Training”

Think of this as similar to sleep- or potty-training. You can’t MAKE her sleep, you can’t MAKE her poop on the potty, and you can’t MAKE her eat. It’s up to her to pay attention to her body’s signals and needs, and sleep/eat/poop accordingly. So for “meal” training, I guess we’ll call it, you can probably expect a couple rough days of pushback, if she doesn’t eat enough while seated and then demands her food back later. Hold firm if this happens, and then casssssssssually offer a small, healthy snack right before bedtime.

Or she might be perfectly fine with her small dinner but throw a fit about being asked to stay seated with you after she’s done. Again, hold firm, and try to slowly increase the amount of time she spends at the table each night (or each meal, if this behavior happens at breakfast and lunch as well). Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15…you get the idea. Again, make that time interesting! Or fun! Lots of attention on her (AND NOT HER FOOD)! Talk about how delicious your food is and make funny faces and voices, whatever keeps her seated and engaged with you on some level.

Division of Food Responsibility

If she ignores most of the food on her plate and only picks out her favorites, that’s fine! Just make sure her “favorites” are part of the same meal that you’re eating. No short-order cooking. If that means pasta that already has a sauce on it or rice mixed with an unfamiliar vegetable, that’s what she gets as well. (Also, I’m not sure if this is what you meant when you talked about her reading and playing in her chair while “waiting for me to feed her,” but if you’re still spoon-feeding her? Nope. You can stop that (unless there’s a developmental/motor issue, of course). You are responsible for putting the food (and a fork and spoon, if applicable) in front of her. She is responsible for putting that food into her own mouth.

None of this advice is a miracle cure that will fix her eating habits overnight. It’s…a process. But it really DOES work. Or at least, gets about as close working as any other approach I’ve tried, and lo, I have tried many.

More on Toddler Feeding at Alpha Mom here:

1. Toddler Mealtime Battles: The Dinner Table Escape Artist
2. Picky Eating & Mom Guilt
3. When Your Toddler Say No More High Chair!

Photo source: Depositphotos/ronyzmbow

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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