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Mealtime Battles: How to Keep Your Toddler at the Table

Mealtime Battles: How to Keep Your Toddler at the Table

By Amalah

Hi there,

I just discovered your (god-sent) website and I’ve just bought the Satter book you recommended. Now my one issue is how do I keep my 20 month old daughter seated in her high chair when she refuses to do so after 5 minutes? She will try to stand up and get out, and despite me insisting she stay seated etc, she refuses. Don’t even get me started on her food intake. Pathetic. Any ideas? Do I keep her strapped up with her screaming away?

Thanks
Noelle

Since you just purchased the excellent How to Get Your Kid to Eat (But Not Too Much), let me give you a little reading roadmap: Give Part One — Basic Principles of Feeding (chapters 1 through 6) a quick speed read. Pay closest attention to chapters 2, 3 and 4. These will give you a good overview of Satter’s methods, the Division of Responsibility, the amount of day-to-day food intake your daughter actually needs (it’s less than you probably think), and help you understand why many of the things we parents do at mealtimes backfire on us so spectacularly.

Then I want you to skip ahead to Almighty Chapter 9 — Is Your Toddler Jerking You Around at the Table?

The answer to this question is pretty much always “yes.” I’ve yet to meet a toddler who wasn’t a total jerk at the table at least once or a billion times.

To quickly answer your main question, no, do not keep her strapped in her high chair and screaming at mealtimes. One of your primary goals at this age is to make mealtimes pleasant. Both for her and everybody else at the table.

At some point, when she’s an older toddler, you can start holding her to higher behavior/table manner standards and explain that “okay, you don’t have to eat but you do need to stay here at keep us company while we eat.” At 20 months, though, this firmly falls into the PICK YOUR BATTLES category, and I think you’ll all be happier if you don’t pick this one. For now, anyway.

The more you insist she stay seated, the more appealing getting up will seem; the more IMPORTANT it will feel to her. And screaming at the table is definitely a big manners no-no. So…don’t argue with her or engage in a of battle of wills, either about food intake or the specific location of her butt.  Let her get down, then turn your back and continue with your meal. Don’t give her any attention, unless she comes back to the table and expresses an interest in maybe sitting back down or eating something after all. Make it clear that her behavior has zero impact on you at all. You will continue to eat and enjoy being at the table, #sorrynotsorry that she’s missing out.

And here’s where the crazy talk starts: I highly suggest you straight up ditch the high chair. I know, I know, that sounds completely counter-intuitive but hear me out. If we’re being honest, the high chair’s primary purpose at this age is containment, both for your child and your child’s messes. But she’s old enough to fight against that containment and has turned the high chair into a game and/or a battle of wills. So. Fine! Ditch the high chair, and she’s lost her main source of protest/misbehavior leverage at the table. Ditch the high chair, and it’s essentially Game Over.

Get her a booster seat that fits on a regular chair at your table, or one of those Kaboost things that goes underneath. Make it seem fun and very big-girl like for her to get to sit next to you at the table. Don’t buckle her in or anything — the idea is to give her one less thing to fight about at the table, so show her how little of a crap you give about the “getting up after five minutes” game.

But then practice the act of getting up from the table and coming back. “Oh, I left your cup on the counter over there. Can you go get it and bring it back to your seat?” Praise her when she returns. Teach her how to pass the salt and put a napkin on her lap. Serve the mac-n-cheese in a big bowl and let her practice spooning out her own portion. Basically, involve her in the meal-at-the-table experience as much as possible, making it all as pleasant as possible.

She will probably still insist on getting up and wandering away before you’d like her to. She will probably still not eat as much as you’d like, either. But once you stop playing this particular game with her, you can go back and give Satter’s book a more thorough read, and introduce other strategies (proper meal and snacktime spacing, optimizing her nutrition via the few foods she eats, chilling the eff out overall, etc.) that will make mealtimes more pleasant and less of a power struggle over…well, whatever thing your toddler has decided to turn into a power struggle this week.

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 amyadvice@gmail.com.

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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Comments

  • Myriam

    I’m big into Satter here as well. My daughter is older, but it still applies. I like the idea of making the kid independant and “in control”. When my daughter tells me she’s done, she’s allowed to leave the table, but generally, so does the food. We don’t throw it away, but it’s not easily accessible for grazing. If she wants to eat, she needs to request it and sit back down. One thing that is different for the book, is that if I know she’s being picky, I don’t insist she eats, but she’s not offered dessert until she’s eaten “enough”, normally 4 bites of the main protein (she’s 4). If she prefers a fruit instead of her veggies, or crackers instead of the side, I don’t care, but she at least needs to taste the protein to be allowed sweets. It’s not a reward, it’s just that if you’re not hungry enough for dinner, you’re nor hungry enough for dessert. That is what works for us. 

    • Nancy

      So with you there! My own 4 year old needs to eat some of the main dish to get a dessert later. Otherwise, he’s restricted to a healthy snack later (fruit, applesauce, etc.)  or coming back to finish his dinner (if it’s something I *know* he likes & he was just being peevish earlier.)

      And absolutely ditch the high chair! We had a lot of almost disastrous accidents with the boy trying to stand up. As soon as we ditched it and sat him at the table, it was SO much better. Just keep in mind that toddlers and preschoolers are short on attention span and patience, so if the rest of the family is enjoying a leisurely meal and chatting, it’s unlikely she’ll stay there the whole time. Let her go if she wants, with the understanding that YOU will be finishing your meal and not entertaining her.

      • Myriam

        and not sitting back down with her later if she comes back to finish her meal…

  • Karen

    No additional comment, being already Satterized over here, but that Kaboost thing looks kind of unsteady, like hey let’s raise the center of gravity of the chair without expanding the footprint and then just watch as the kid tips the chair over backward… 

    Better idea – get a Stokke or similar chair. We found both of ours used and they have been awesome. Kids go straight out of the Fisher Price booster and into them around 18 months. We have never owned a high chair. 

  • trishwah

    My first refused the high chair starting at 18 months. We couldn’t even get him into a booster, he’d just kneel on a chair. We adopted a stance similar to Myriam’s: 1) he has to say he’s done before he can leave the table (and get a wipe-down), and 2) when he’s done, that means no more food. You have to stick to your guns. We’ll do a snack an hour or so after the meal if he’s really miserable, but most of the time, he’s just not hungry. 

    In the immortal words of my pediatrician: It is not your job to MAKE your kid eat. It’s your job to put healthy food in front of your kid three times a day. 

  • Jeannie

    I’d just like to second the “don’t pick your battles” thing — forcing a 20 month old to sit when they don’t want to is misery for everyone. I let my kids get down when they said they were “full”, and while that wasn’t always a good decision for them at 2, they now understand this at 4.5 and 8.5. They eat until they don’t want to eat more, and then meal is over. At our house, they get down; and at the grandparents (or other places they need to be polite), they know to try to stay until everyone else is finished, but even that can be gotten out of with a polite “Thank you for dinner, Grandma. Can I please be excused from the table?” after which they know they must play quietly and not disturb people who are still eating.

    My point being? There’s plenty of time to teach table manners. Don’t worry about enforcing them now if it’s causing dinner to be miserable. They will learn over time and will not be holy terrors as they get older!

  • Hillary

    We’re all proponents of Satter and of the Tripp Trapp (Stokke “high chair” mentioned above). We also have the little Ikea kitchen in our eat-in kitchen and the kids can be done with dinner and go cook something else while the adults finish eating. I like that we can offer them the option of pretend cooking/eating while we’re all still together in the same room eating and catching up on our days. Oh, and we discovered our kids will just eat and eat and eat breakfast and sometimes have 2 bites and be totally done at dinner. That knowledge helped me to adjust my expectations at each meal.

    • Kate

      Yeah, my kids have never been big dinner eaters; lunch is definitely their main meal. 

    • Kat

      Yep – this. Took me ages to figure out/realize but he eats a big breakfast, medium sized lunch and sometimes a very, very light dinner. Or sometimes he will eat an adult size portion at dinner. The trick for us was to be flexible. Also this made my day “… few foods she eats, chilling the eff out overall, etc.)”. Chilling the eff out has made all the difference in meal times. The more I insisted on ANYTHING (where he sat, how much he ate or in what order, whatever) the more awful meals became. Now I just put the same food out for everyone, sit back and enjoy my meal and VOILA!

  • Sarah

    You’re totally right! The less power struggles the better in my opinion. My 3.5 yr old daughter is still a super picky eater but little by little she is expanding her range of foods she will eat. And no junk food of course. She will grow out of her stubbornness. I think. 🙂

  • Julia

    Stokke fan here as well! we have two, one bought used and the other one is my old one, I used it until I was about 7 or 8 years old. We could probably still sell it in a few years. But there are other brands that make similar chairs for less money.

    • Julia

      Just to add: I just realized I’m sitting on my son’s (4y old) stokke chair while typing this 🙂 

  • zan

    It seems I am handling my 2-yr-old’s similar behaviour in more or less the right way – although this thread has given me some ideas. Just one concern – we have a five-year-old – and it does concern me that we have much higher expectations for his behaviour. Does anyone have any tips for making older kids feel less like they are the only ones that have to follow rules…?