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Setting Time Limits at the Table

Setting Time Limits at the Table

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Can we continue a little Ellyn Satter discussion here? Yes? I flipped through her book again but didn’t see anything for this issue, and I feel like you have mentioned it here or on your blog. But I can’t remember the resolution.

I have two kids. Ages 6 and 2. They are decent eaters, they’ve been “Satter-ized”, and it’s all fine. Except. EXCEPT. Meal times take FOREVER in this house. Like, currently my two year old has been at the breakfast table for over an hour, and is still eating. And playing. And talking. And singing. And I hate to hurry the kid along, but for the LOVE OF GOD JUST EAT FASTER SO WE CAN DO SOMETHING ELSE.

And when they are at the table together meal times are a loud, yell-y, giggly, LONG process. They are not doing anything terrible. And I do try to repeat in my head “They are making memories. They are making memories.” But I’d much rather be outside playing than sitting at the dinner table for an hour while they sing and giggle and eat. And eat.

So how do you limit the amount of time at the table, without hurrying them along or making them shove food in their mouths or stopping them before they are really full?

Sick of Sitting At The Table

I am definitely down with enforcing time limits at the table. I’m fine with a nice long, leisurely breakfast on the weekends, but other times it is perfectly reasonable to expect kids to focus on eating and keeping mealtimes to exactly that: Times. Consistent times of day with a beginning and an end.

Obviously you don’t want to make the mealtime unpleasant with tons of nagging and haranguing. That’s very anti-Satter. A better approach is to simply have a set time limit (30 minutes to an hour, or whatever you think is reasonable for what food is in front of them) and gently give them warnings at the 10/5/1-minute marks. Then calmly announce that the mealtime is over and clear their plates. If they protest that they are still hungry, remind them that snacktime or their next mealtime isn’t that far away. Treat this just like you did when you first implemented the Satter Method and they refused to eat at all: They won’t starve. They’ll be fine. 

A visual timer can also really help: We had a Time Timer on our table for AGES because our oldest simply. Could. Not. Focus. On. Eating. Mealtimes would last FOREVER, which is maybe okay (albeit tedious as hell) when you’re talking about a 2 year old with no place to be, but doesn’t work at ALL when you’re trying to get a preschooler out the door, or trying to leave enough time after dinner for dessert or a TV show. My son would do everything BUT eat for the bulk of the mealtime, and then when we’d announce that dinner was over he’d freak out and insist that he was still hungry. The Time Timer helped him grasp the concept of a mealtime ENDING at some point, and helped him figure out that it was best to use his time wisely and eat.

Make sure, as well, that you’re serving something kind of hearty and filling at each meal: If breakfast is simply bowl after bowl of dry Cheerios, then yeah, it’s probably going to take your child a really long time to feel full. My kids will go through a dozen frozen waffles in a morning and still insist that they’re hungry — not so much if they also get a serving of scrambled eggs or a bowl of oatmeal with a lot of nuts/protein.

If they aren’t asking for more but just lingering over their first initial serving, then a visual timer is probably the way to go. Plus you can give them an incentive for finishing on time — tell them where you are going or what you want to do after the meal. Those are good memories to make too, and more interesting than sitting at a table for two hours, turning an otherwise pleasant mealtime into a loooong, grazing snacktime.

Published May 27, 2015. Last updated August 19, 2017.
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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  • Rachel

    May 27, 2015 at 11:39 am

    This may or may not be helpful or Satter-friendly, but I’m going to throw it out there anyways.  My 13-month-old is often still eating by the time my husband and I are done with dinner, and I use that time to take care of random tasks in the kitchen (make his and my lunch/snacks for the next day, dishes, etc).  On the weekends if he eats lunch at a different time than me I’m washing fruits & veggies or doing meal prep while he’s in his high chair eating.  I just move it around so he can watch me; our kitchen and dining room is basically one large room.  I don’t know if that could be an option for you, or if it would work well with your house layout and the age of your kids, but maybe it’d be more productive than just sitting at the table with them.  I’d be bored out of my mind.

  • KristenSue

    May 27, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    I’m reading the Satter book now, and just put the Time Timer in my amazon cart. Because this is what we are fighting now with my 4 yr-old.

    She loves singing and smiling and laughing at her baby brother. This attention doesn’t stop him from eating, but it does with her.

    Thank you Sick of Sitting and Amy!

  • Megan

    May 27, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    This sounds like heaven to me, not like a problem. Two sweet children talking at the table over a languid lunch. Seriously, I can’t imagine.

    • Kim

      May 29, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      It’s kinda like bed rest.  Sounds like heaven, and then you’re on it for a day or two and you’re bored out of your skull.

  • Kelly

    May 28, 2015 at 12:31 am

    I use a sand timer during meal times, it works wonders!  I generally only use it if I can tell that a meal (normally lunch) is going to take FOR-EV-ER, courtesy of the 4 year old, who also sits at the table singing and talking to her food rather than eating it.  (Really, kid, you’re talking to your carrots? Are they at least talking back? It’s fascinating to watch.)  I let them know I’m setting the timer, and while neither of them can tell time, it’s a great visual way for them to keep themselves on track.  Quite often the older one will look up at it and tell the younger, “The timer is almost out of sand, hurry up and drink your milk!”. (She does my nagging for me, it’s awesome).  They know that when the timer is up, lunch is over, no ifs-ands-or buts about it, and whatever they didn’t finish at lunch becomes their afternoon snack.  They may whine about it, but they aren’t going to starve in the 2.5 hours between lunch and snack time.  Knowing that if they don’t finish *insert whatever lunch was here*, they’ll have to finish it for afternoon snack instead of getting *insert whatever afternoon snack is going to be, normally berries with yogurt or something else they consider a “treat”* also really helps to motivate them!