Mealtime Battles: How to Keep Your Toddler at the Table
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?
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.Published November 3, 2014. Last updated July 15, 2017.