When mealtimes feel hard, try these kind ideas to help. They work even if your child is super strong-willed or very picky.
When my sweet toddler moved from her high chair to sit with us at the table, I shared her excitement. I felt proud at how grown up she had become. But then she discovered freedom and our mealtimes changed.
No longer stuck in her high chair, she began jumping down from her seat at will and running around the table. It was cute and fun at first as she made laps of the table, full of giggles.
But before long, more time was spent roaming the kitchen than sitting at the table. She insisted she needed to:
- Find that special toy right now
- Peep inside the washing machine
- Chase the dog
Trying to remain calm, I encouraged her, on repeat, to take her seat and eat her food. A memory of the rigid mealtimes of my childhood, when we did not dare leave the table until we finished eating, nagged at me. I didn’t want that same experience for my daughter. I wanted to avoid power struggles and enjoy mealtimes together as a family.
So, my negotiations and pleas continued and soon she wouldn’t sit at the table at all. Food would go uneaten yet twenty minutes later she was begging for snacks.
Clearly, mealtimes were not working but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Mealtimes were not working and I didn’t know what to do
I decided to get tough. I chased her around the kitchen, insisting with a stern voice that she sit down, only for her to laugh at me and jump down as soon as I took my own seat.
She thought it was a great game while I was left feeling like a fool.
It seemed she was taunting me and showing absolutely no appreciation for the effort I had made to prepare her meal, not to mention everything else I had done to take care of her that day. My frustration and resentment grew until I couldn’t think straight anymore.
I found myself shouting at my toddler who just set her face in a hard frown and dug her heels in even more.
Getting tough, bargains and bribes didn’t work at all
I told her crossly that she must stay on her seat, catching her arm and marching her back to the table. Then I would force her to sit down and threatening there would be no more cartoons if she did not sit and eat her food.
Some days, I bargained with her and offered ice-cream after dinner if she stayed in her seat and ate.
A few times I propped up my phone in front of her and played Peppa Pig because I didn’t have the energy to fight again.
Other times, I would tell myself I didn’t mind the chaos, and I sat at the table while my daughter ran around the kitchen. I convinced myself it was okay to give her a free rein, telling myself she would settle down eventually, next week or next year.
As you can see, I was hardly consistent.
Soon, I dreaded mealtimes…
Instead of the relaxed and enjoyable family time I hoped for, everybody was stressed, and tempers ran high. I was unpredictable and often ended up shouting.
I felt disempowered. The very opposite of the strong leader that I wanted to be. Isolated and alone in our mealtime battles, it seemed as though I was the only parent who had not figured out how to get their child to sit for mealtimes.
Mealtimes were maddening, and I did not know how to turn things around.
Mealtime battles are not misbehavior
It was around this time that I came across Hand in Hand Parenting. Their approach proved to be the missing piece in the mealtime puzzle.
When children don’t cooperate with your wishes, most mainstream parenting advice tells you they are misbehaving. Hand in Hand Parenting has a different perspective. Their approach, which is based in brain-science, tells us that when children are disconnected they signal to us, often in very frustrating ways, that they need our help.
And just as with other common challenges, like potty training, teeth brushing and bedtime, kids notice our tight spots. Those places where our own feelings run high.
And when we react to their behaviour it gives them a sense of power in a world where they usually have very little control.
These are times they to show us their struggles.
Mealtimes can quickly become battlegrounds
It’s no real surprise that the dinner table can quickly become a battleground. My daughter was showing me that she found mealtimes hard. She was creating “games” by running away to make things easier, and trying to maintain a sense of power over me.
I didn’t have to know why it was hard for her, I just had to respond to that need.
With the Hand in Hand tools in mind, I began to believe they might help guide us to better meals together. And I was right.
Read on to discover how I used the Hand in Hand tools to help my child sit up and eat, in just three weeks, and how you too can use these ideas to stop power battles at mealtimes.
Taking care of my own feelings first meant I lost it less often
One of the first things I did was to use my Listening Partnerships. These helped me get clear about how I wanted mealtimes to be and how to make it happen. I shared how difficult mealtimes were for me, how frustrated I felt and how I felt like I was failing as a mother.
Offloading like this helped shake my feelings of isolation and hopelessness. With those frustrations taken care of, I felt refreshed and able to really move forward.
Re-setting expectations and permissions made sitting at the table easier
First, I re-assessed my expectations of mealtimes.
Toddlers have a short attention span. While it is reasonable to expect them to sit down to eat, it is best to keep mealtimes short and fun. My first goal was to have everyone sit together at the table for just five minutes.
I also realised I had been overly permissive at mealtimes. My daughter coming and going as she pleased meant we were not able to sit and enjoy our meal as a family.
She was not eating any dinner at all.
Next we needed an expectation
So next I decided I would set an expectation that she would stay at the table until she finished eating.
When you limit your child’s off-track behaviour while offering your warm connection, your child can start to think well again.
I brought the limit about sitting at the table to her. I stayed close. When she tried to climb down, I used my hand to gently prevent her. I told her, as kindly as I could, “It’s dinner time, you need to stay at the table now”.
She squirmed, she shouted and she cried.
I gently held the limit and welcomed the opportunity to listen to her anger and frustration. I didn’t distract her, reason or explain. And I listened without bargaining and with all the care and love that I could manage.
As I listened each day to her feelings, she stayed seated for longer and paid more attention to her food.
Why I did not insist my daughter try one bite…
Once my daughter could stay seated, I made sure mealtimes were fun. Making up funny voices for the peas or pretending they were excited to join the party in her tummy made her laugh.
Some days, we played funny food songs on Spotify. (“It’s Raining Tacos” is still a favourite.) We had noodle slurping competitions. Our meals were short and fun.
I also borrowed principles from Ellen Satter’s “Division of Responsibility”. These say that while the parent is the leader in their family and should decide what, when and where meals and snacks should take place, the child is free to choose what they eat and how much.
It’s important to provide a variety. Include food you know your child likes to eat and pair them with unfamiliar items or foods they may be unlikely to eat. Then leave it up to your child to eat what they please.
The benefit of this system is that the parent leads mealtimes and can set limits around the menu and sitting at the table, but there is no pressure on the child to clear their plate. It respects your child’s food choices and stops the power struggles.
We cannot force our children to eat. If we set up the right conditions for eating, without pressure or shame, then all that we can do is trust. Children will make their own choices around food and will gradually broaden the range of food they are willing to eat. When they know there will always be something they can eat, they feel less anxious.
Soon, my daughter was sitting up and eating well
After three weeks of consistently using the Hand in Hand tools at mealtimes, my daughter was able to sit at the table and was able to eat her meal.
Even better, I felt confident and relaxed that mealtimes would go well.
The power struggles stopped. My temper was under control and my daughter began to see mealtimes as a time for connection instead of a battleground.
Now my kids sit up, eat and we connect over food
As my children grow older, I continue to use these tools to keep mealtimes on track.
I learned to manage my expectations around my children’s ability to think well and cooperate before mealtimes. The hour before dinner is often the low point in my children’s day. They are tired and hungry. My attention has been away from them as I prepare their meal. They often have screen time while I cook and that leads to further disconnection and frustration when it’s time to turn off.
Now I have grown to anticipate this, I give myself a few extra minutes to listen to their feelings before dinner is served. Usually they are able to move on quickly and join us at the table.
And what about table manners?
Sometimes I worry that my children’s table manners will embarrass us. Perhaps in restaurants or when they are eating at friends’ houses. To put my mind at ease I sometimes have us all pretend we're out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. We laugh as we attempt to put on our best manners. We use knives and forks correctly. keep elbows off the table and don’t talk with our mouths full. Our kids love correcting the adults’ bad table manners. Now I feel reassured that they will know how to eat politely in public.
My daughter is almost ten years old now and her younger brother is five. Our mealtimes are relaxed and free from tension. We sit down together as often as our schedules allow, to reconnect and catch up with the events of the day.
Try these ideas if mealtimes in your house are hard
These ideas have made mealtimes easier for our family. I hope they also serve you well.
- Get clear on what is right for your family. It is reasonable to expect everyone to sit at the table together at least for a short time, if that’s what you want
- Remember new habits take time to stick. Go easy on yourself if you don’t see immediate change. Be consistent, and keep going, and you will see mealtimes become happier and more peaceful
- Leave some time to connect before dinner, especially if your kids have screen time or other activities that they become absorbed in and find it difficult to move on from.
- Do set limits and expect strong feelings. This gives your child a chance to work off the feelings they have around mealtimes.
- Expect Upsets. Allow extra time to Staylisten before dinner and be prepared for crying and tantrums when you hold the limit that your child does not climb down from the table every few minutes. Warn others in the family there may be some tears and tantrums as you try to get to grips with dinnertime
- Make mealtimes fun. Make up funny songs about the food or get the broccoli to talk. Even getting to the table can be fun. Try an upside-down piggyback taxi or a piggyback ride where your child pulls on your ears to steer you to their seat.
- Do not force children to eat or taste what is on their plate, but do always include something you know they can eat. Set the expectation that everyone sits at the table at dinnertime and leaves only when they are finished.
- Keep expectations realistic. Five minutes sitting together may be all that you manage at first. That’s OK. Make it clear that once your child leaves the table, mealtime is over.
- Set a ‘no screens’ limit at the table, adults included.
- Get lots of listening support for yourself to help you think clearly about what is difficult for you about mealtimes and how you would like them to be.
It can sometimes feel like you are the only parent who struggles to set limits around food and mealtimes. Know this: You are not alone. And you are certainly not the first parent, or the last, to wonder how to keep your toddler or child seated at the table.
Try these ideas and support to stop power battles and enjoy fun and connective mealtimes instead.