Every parent has their particular point of contention: a thing that should be simple—and is simple for other parents—yet it never comes easily for them. A kid that’s never tired at bedtime. A child who flat-out hates the car seat from day one. The toddler who refuses to sit in a stroller, No Matter What. And, of course, the kid who doesn’t want to cooperate at mealtime.
One such parent writes in to ask us for advice about the latter:
How do you get your kids to stay seated at the table during meals? We have had this problem for years. I have tried explaining the problem about crumbs getting everywhere, that it’s rude to get up, taking his plate away when he gets up, making him clean the mess (on and off), and nothing works. Are there any magic tricks? Now that we are all stuck home for all meals and snacks everyday, it’s just soooooo annoying.”
Show Me the Magic
Dear Show Me the Magic,
Oh, how I wish I could. One of my closest friends used to walk around behind her preschool-aged son, begging him to take another bite of sandwich or waffle. He was a tiny, slight little guy with basically zero interest in food or mealtimes. I saw her wrestle with this for years, and I know how it can wear on a person.
Having said that, I did go in search of a solution for you—some quirky lesser-known trick that you could implement. (Have you tried flipping a coin? Try flipping a coin!) When I couldn’t come up with anything especially impressive, I asked Tracy Ball, a speech-language pathologist with Enable My Child, for input. And he said (brace yourself): “The closest thing I could get to a magic trick would be consistency.”
It might feel like you have already been consistent, given how long you’ve been dealing with this and the fact that it has consistently never been okay with you. But there are inconsistencies in how you’ve tried to manage it; you’ve tried to reason with him, you’ve taken his plate away, you’ve made him clean up, etc. You’ve found yourself in the midst of a battle of wills (as we all have at some point), and you are losing.
So, going forward, you need more consistency in your mealtime expectations and the resulting consequences, but you might also look at the consistency of the other aspects surrounding mealtime, as well. Kids tend to thrive when they know what to expect, so if you haven’t already, establish a more structured routine throughout your day with mealtimes and snack times as anchors. Ball says it could even help to model the way preschools manage this—with picture schedules.
“Preschools post pictures on the bulletin board or wall … so [students] know it’s circle time, and then play time, and then snack time,” says Ball, who is also a father of two young kids. “So they can see that schedule; a picture schedule could help a very young child a lot.”
How hungry they are will also impact how interested they are in eating dinner, so try limiting them to one small snack between meals. It helps if the whole family sits down to eat together (recognizing that this isn’t always possible, given everyone’s schedules). Enlist the child’s help in meal prep and clean-up. Even as young as three years old, kids will relish having “jobs” like setting out napkins for each family member or carrying cups to the table. You might even consider having them be a part of the meal-planning, whether that means allowing them to have a say in what the family eats once or twice a week—or at least which days you eat specific meals.
Once you do sit down to eat, consider starting the meal with some sort of family ritual, such as a song you sing together or a round of “highs and lows” where each family member shares a high point of their day and a low point. And make sure to keep the table free of electronic devices or other distractions, such as toys.
And finally, before you suddenly restructure everything and come to dinner with a firmer set of expectations, it’s probably a good idea to sit down with your son and explain how things will be changing. How in-depth you should go with this conversation will depend on his age, but if he’s over approximately age 4, you should be able to say something like, “I know mealtimes have been a little frustrating, but we’re going to change that now so that it’s nicer for everyone, including you.”
Get their input where you can (say, over what ritual you start the meal with), and set your fresh, clear expectations—we sit together until everyone is done eating, we keep our food on our plates, etc. Decide what the consequences are for not meeting those expectations. And then? Stick to it. And if (when) one meal is a disaster, Ball advises, do your best to remain calm and focus on making it to the next meal.
“You’re very rarely going to have two meals back-to-back that are challenging,” he says, “because if they skip one, they’ll be hungry for the next meal.”
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