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Eat, Sit, And Be Merry

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Get Your Kid To Sit For Meal Time

Here is the situation a mother recently described to me:

Her daughter would take one bite, and jump down from the table. Mom would put her back and she just kept jumping down again. Next mom would follow her around offering her dinner off her plate to eat while she played. When her daughter refused dinner, mom would make her favorite food out of fear that she would starve if she didn’t eat something!

Pretty extreme – but it makes the point that all behavior serves a purpose. This child has learned that you don’t need to be at the table to eat, that you can get your mother to serve you your favorite food and spoon feed you while you play. Her mother is trying to be a "good mother" and make sure her child is nourished. But her approach is problematic and she is bankrupt of ideas of what else to do.

Here is a strategy:

Establish routines. Decide exactly when meals and snacks are offered, preferable as a family. Your job as a parent is to provide healthy food choices at consistent and predictable times. Your child’s job is to make sure they get enough in their tummy to hold them until the next meal.

Apply Logical Consequences
A logical consequence of getting down from the table is the assumption that when one gets down they must be done eating – so their meal is removed from the table.

Mom: "We need to be at the table for eating. When you get down from the table, that tells me you are done."

Firm and Friendly Follow-Through
Refers to what you are going to do – not the child. You have stated that you will take their plate, now you must do it in a friendly matter-of-fact way.

Mom: "Oh – I see you’re done." (say nothing else)

Common pitfalls for parents:

  1. Giving some kind of "look" as they get down from the table that tells the child you have an "opinion" about their decision.
  2. Stating the consequence over and over again thinking the child didn’t understand (they did!) in hopes that you won’t have to follow through with taking the plate away.

Remember – children learn from experiencing consequences – not from the threat of a consequence.

Natural Consequences
The natural consequence of not staying at the table and eating is hunger. Parents often unknowingly interfere with the learning by making food available at other times to compensate. Stick with the pre-set routine! Let your child learn to move their behaviour in-line with the social order: eating at the family table at family dinner time. This is the essence of co-operation.

Language tips to get you through:

Child: "Cookie!"

Mom: "I hear that you are hungry, but lunch time has come and gone, Our next time for food is snack. I am sure you will manage to hold on until then."

Child: "No, cookie – pleeeeeeeeeeease."

Mom: "You are really listening to your body, that is a great thing… Is it saying ‘feed me’?"

Child: "YES."

Mom: "Sounds like you are learning about how much that tummy of yours needs. Tomorrow you could try to have a bigger lunch and see if that holds you longer. Till then what could you do to help quiet your tummy? Maybe get distracted, or give it a rub? Snack is in an hour and I am sure you will make it." (NUF SAID – any more and they’ll learn to enjoy the special attention of this topic).

Try it out for a week before going to your in-laws for the holidays and let me know if your child managed to "eat, sit and be merry!"

Speak to your doctor if you are worried about the amount your child is choosing to eat or the nutritional balance. My rule of thumb is: if you only serve healthy food, and they are not lethargic, everything is probably fine. We tend to grossly overestimate how much children need, and we underestimate how many calories we pump into them in the form of juice.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

4 Responses to “Eat, Sit, And Be Merry”

  1. Becky

    You offer great advice and I look forward to watching your show. I often get “excited” to try out your tips. My question is concerning my 2 year old boy. HE constantly screams and yells at mealtime (sometimes he is encouraged by his older sis 4yrs) he also throws his food. It is to the point that I have lost the ability to eat with him I am so on edge at mealtime. I also find myself yelling a lot which I know is not helping. I also take it out on his sister for starting the behavior because she doesn’t help.I like the dialogue you offer for the various advice given. If you could offer some advice I would love to give it a try and hopefully mealtimes will be more enjoyable here.
    thanks so much

  2. Monica

    Any advice for kids who throw food/cutlery/cups? My 2 year old finishes each meal by throwing everything in front of him onto the floor or across the table once he is finished eating. We have tried many things such as ignoring the behavior, asking him to pick up everything, discussing it at family meetings… any tips?
    Many thanks!

    • alyson

      I think you have to stick with one idea and repeat repeat. As soon as he tosses, grab the rest of the stuff and say “I see you are done” ( don’t get upset) and quickly get him down. He should clean up anything he throws / messes ALWAYS. You can also teach him the sign language for done and also increase his independence by having him sit at the table instead of in a highchair. Or move the tray off and pull him up to the the table. Let me know how that goes!

      • Monica

        Thank you Alyson! We have gotten rid of his booster seat and he now kneels or sits on a chair pulled up to the table with us (not strapped in). The throwing has stopped since he knows when he is done he can leave the table. Looks like the throwing was done perhaps out of boredom while he waiting for us to unstrap at the end of the meal. Now he just gets out of his chair when finished and doesn’t have time to throw food! Great advice as always! 🙂


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