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Toddler Mealtime Battles: The Dinner Table Escape Artist

Toddler Mealtime Battles: The Dinner Table Escape Artist

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

My 27 month old daughter was generally a good eater before. Since the birth of my second child five weeks ago, my daughter has now refused to sit in her high chair for mealtimes. She then resorts to jumping off her chair and coming back and has not been eating well at mealtimes.

I have read Ellyn Satter over and over. The only thing about ending the meal and letting her be hungry is that my daughter drinks about 24oz of milk a day. Thus it seems that she won’t ever get that hungry because she fills up on milk. But I am concerned she is not getting the nutrients she needs from food.

Should I enforce sitting in a booster or high chair so that she will sit at the table and eat? Or just end the meal once she jumps off the chair and hope she gets hungry enough to eat in the future?

Thanks for any advice you can provide,

I’d personally give this problem a few more weeks before really starting to worry about it — it’s likely typical sibling regression behavior that should work itself out on its own. That doesn’t mean go ahead and coddle/tolerate any less-than-desirable behaviors that crop up right now, but just keep it all in perspective that while it might FEEL like you’ve gone and “broken” your former good eater/sleeper/potty-user after the birth of a new baby…you haven’t. Her world’s been turned a bit sideways and upside down right now, and it’s so, so normal for toddlers to act out in negative-attention-seeking ways to make up for the fact that they’re now sharing you with another small, high-needs human.

But I know I can type “don’t worry about it, this too shall pass” until my fingers fall off and most mothers will go ahead and worry about it anyway, so I will offer a couple other suggestions for you to try out now or maybe just bookmark for later if her mealtime antics continue for longer than expected.

Ideas to keep your toddler at the table at mealtime:

1. Stay consistent.

Mealtimes end when you get up and run around. Go ahead and give her a warning and a chance to come back and sit, then her food goes bye-bye until the next meal or snack time.

2. Lay the positive attention on THICCCCCCCK.

When she DOES sit down in her chair (even if its only for a few minutes at the beginning of the meal), praise her a LOT. Look at how nicely she’s sitting in her big girl seat! What lovely manners! (Note: Don’t praise or  make a big deal over her actual eating. You don’t care if she eats! [Even though you desperately do.] The eating is her job. But definitely go ahead and praise every other good behavior she demonstrates at the table.)

3. Resist negative attention.

Beyond her one warning that she needs to sit down, go silent after that. Make it seem and look like you are enjoying your meal and hide your internal screaming annoyance as much as you possibly can.

4. Cut back on the milk and add between-meal snacks of real food.

Obviously talk to your own pediatrician (who might also recommend a multivitamin, if she’s not taking one already), but lots of doctors recommend that after 12 months, milk really needs to become a beverage and not a food. You’re correct that she needs a LOT more nutrients than what milk can provide. (Especially if we’re talking plain old cows milk, rather than a toddler formula. An over-reliance on milk can lead to constipation and anemia in toddlers, among other things.)

So give her a cup of milk at breakfast, lunch and dinner, aiming to reduce her intake to about 16-18 ounces a day. If she’s a big milk fiend, having it ONLY available at the table during mealtimes might prompt her to sit and drink it (while you praise praise praise for the sitting) and also keep her from consistently showing up at the table not hungry. Then offer a healthy, nutritious snack (I believe Satter has a good schedule in her book) like fruit, cheese, yogurt, whole grains, etc. in-between meals and water (not juice!) to drink. (You want her to show up to meals hungry but not like, starving and hangry, and a 27-month-old needs the calories.)

5. Focus on making mealtimes pleasant.

In your letter, you asked, “Should you make your toddler sit in a booster or high chair at mealtime?”…eh. It really depends on the kid. If enforcing the use of a seat that keeps her forcibly contained leads to a complete meltdown/tantrum at every. single. meal. I’d stick with the steps I outlined above and skip the hassle. (We want to make mealtimes pleasant, as Satter advises.) If you could spin the sitting on a “real” seat to be a special privilege that gets revoked once she gets up, or  you can get her in the high chair with minor protestations that stop with some distractions, that might be an option. But don’t push it if you sense you’re just swapping one mealtime battle for another.

6. Focus on how much positive attention your child is getting.

In the end, the real keys to dealing with sibling regression behaviors are contained in step 2 and 3 up there. Resist giving her negative attention and be really, REALLY mindful about how much positive attention she’s getting. Be incredibly generous with your praise and let her know that even while you’re paying attention to the new baby, you still see and notice and love her. Read her a book while you nurse or praise her for handing you the diaper balm or for working so hard at that puzzle/drawing/whatever. Go on extra one-on-one outings with you or your partner whenever possible. (Special meals out with you at a restaurant would be a nice idea. That might provide her with some incentive to demonstrate her table manners and also get some real food in her. If she gets up and runs around at a restaurant, you go home. If she sits nicely, she gets fun food and lots of attention and maybe some special toys/treats for entertainment.)

7. Practice your Poker Face

And when she does act up or push your buttons, stay as poker-faced as possible and remove yourself from her presence (after intervening in any kind of safety-type scenario, of course). At this age/stage, even a scold/snap/angry reaction from you “counts” as the attention she’s seeking. Fill her up with the good attention and (IN THEORY, IN TIME, HAHAHAHA) she’ll eventually stop seeking the bad.

More articles on Mealtime Battles:

1. When Your Toddler Say No More High Chair!
2. The Mealtime Wanderer
3. How to Keep Your Toddler at the Table


Photo source: Depositphotos/avemario


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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