The Confident Eater

20 tips for helping a fussy eater stay at the table

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20 tips for helping a fussy eater stay at the table

In my role as a picky eating advisor there are questions that come up again and again. “How do I encourage my child to stay at the table?” is one of them.

However, there are many reasons why a child may find this difficult. For example, toddlers frequently have a short attention span and so sitting still can be a challenge. Or, it may be about discomfort in terms of their seating and/or in regard to the food. Or you may just be fighting years of habits.

It is though, critically important that a child IS able to sit at the table. Long-term it is helpful for resolving fussy eating and supporting them to eat variety.

Fortunately, there are some tried and tested strategies and approaches that support your child to sit and stay at the table.

How to help a fussy eater stay at the table

Creating a great ‘eating’ environment is my number one tip when it comes to children wanting to stay at the table. There are many ways you can work on this, and many of them are fun.

Before you sit down

Even before you get to the table, there are a few things to work on. In fact, some of these can be as, or more important than what happens at the table:

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1. Prepping – having your child involved in the meal is a great way to create pride and a sense of investment. This could be anything from helping to decide what is on the menu, to washing, chopping, or prepping ingredients, to preparing the salad or sprinkling some salt on the carrots.

If it is a madly busy day, then pouring the dressing on the salad may be all that is manageable, but it still gives your child a hand in making the meal. It also means that when everyone sits at the table their input becomes a point of conversation and thanks/pride.


2. Pre-dinner routine – most parents have a bedtime routine for their children, and we do that for a reason – because it works! Our brain loves to know what is going to happen and a routine helps you prepare and stay calm.

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Create a routine that you do in the same order every day before coming to the table. This doesn’t have to be complicated, for example, you can start with a verbal reminder, then hand washing, followed by table setting.

3. Sensory stimulation – engaging your proprioceptive system with movement before sitting down can really help, especially for the wrigglers and bouncers!

By the end of the day, the sensory cup is often full, especially for littlies. Emptying that cup can be helpful.

This may take on different forms depending on what ticks boxes best for your child. Perhaps it is a quick jump on the trampoline (although please bear in mind rhythmic jumping is calming and manic bouncing isn’t!), a dance to a video or a controlled run around the house.

You can also test whether calming strategies work better for your child, such as reading a book or listening quietly to some music. It may be running, followed by calming that works best.

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4. Sitting comfortably – this is a big one. Many children are not comfortable at the table. Maybe they are in an adult chair and so can’t reach the table without being on their knees, for example. Not having your bottom on the seat encourages wiggling.

Ideally your child should be able to sit at right angles. Back straight against the back of the chair. Bottom and thighs flat against the seat, and lower legs at a right angle down with the knees fitting around the edge of the chair.

The level of the highchair tray or table should be between their bellybutton and nipple-line.

Often this is not the case as most chairs – even highchairs – do not tick these boxes.

However, this can often be easily rectified, for example, by using a tie-on, cheap booster seat on top of the regular chair. And/or, stuffing rolled towels behind or to the side of the chair.

It is also important that a child’s feet are not swinging as this is not comfortable (try it for yourself). An easy fix is to cut a cardboard box to size and place it under the table for your child to put their feet on.

5. Toilet trips – making sure you eliminate some of the reasons for children getting up and down is a good thing! No one needs to go before and during.

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6. No distractions – eliminating things that could take attention away from the meal before you get to the table is positive. This may be turning off the TV, moving toys out of eyeline, absenting the pet, or even closing the curtains so you can’t see what’s going on outside.

7. Have a schedule – coming to the table happily is much easier if you do it as part of your routine. It’s a habit you work on so you know what is going to happen at about the same time every day.

The pre-dinner routine helps with this.

Similarly, having a schedule for eating so you know your child is coming to the table hungry enough as they haven’t just eaten a snack. It is much easier to be enthusiastic about sitting down if you’re hungry.

8. Setting the table – being involved in getting the table ready can be an important part of prepping your child so they are ready to eat.

i) It enables them to contribute, which is helpful.

ii) It can side-step some of the negatives pre-dinner, like not having a favourite cup, or not sitting next to dad.

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9. Ambience – I often ask parents to think about what creates a good atmosphere while having a meal. Perhaps this is playing soft music, using a tablecloth, or lighting candles. Getting off on the right foot can really help (us as well as them).

Can you replicate some of the factors that make you enjoy a meal more at home, for example, mood lighting?

10. Expectations – it is okay to set boundaries and make it clear what behaviour is expected at the table.

Often when you have a fussy eater it becomes more difficult to enforce rules as you feel your primary role is to come up with ways to make your child happier around food.

I find the opposite is often true though, having firm parameters around what is and is not acceptable can be very positive.

When you sit down at the table

There are some strategies that can really help your fussy eater, right before you start to eat:

1. Timing – if you have a very young, or very wriggly child, then having them sit at the table before the food is served can mean half of the positive time has gone before you’re even ready to eat.

Being organized so you sit as the food is ready works well.

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2. Cues – have some distinctive things that tell your child it is time to eat. These can become part of routines and rituals that over time become anchoring and comforting.

One of my favourite ways to do this, is to have a bell. The ONLY time your child rings the bell is right before dinner gets served.

It is very ‘Pavlov’s dog’. After about a month, when you hear the bell, it makes the tummy grumble. But being more physiologically ready to eat is a good thing!

Or maybe your cue happens at the table, for example, starting the meal with thanks, a song or a few words that become part of habits.

3. Prepared – you too have to be ready. If you are popping back to the kitchen or having to get up and down to grab the water or the salt, you are not role modelling the behaviour you are trying to teach your child.

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4. Interest – creating curiosity at the start of the meal can help to encourage your child to come to the table and then hold their interest while they stay for a while.

Maybe you can do this using fun placemats, colouring the water, or having some special food at the table. The first minutes are often the critical ones for setting the tone of the meal.

5. Goals – setting realistic goals is important. If you have a high energy, four, year old, who has never been at the table for more than a few minutes at a time, expecting them to suddenly sit for 20 minutes is not going to happen.

(Although, with persistence, 3-4, year olds, should be able to sit for 15-20 mins).

Often, you will have to gradually increase the time at the table in miniscule increments to make it work.

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6. Timer – sometimes using a visual timer is a great way to encourage sitting. A sand timer/or countdown clock can be a great way to show time for littlies, or to have a child sit for x amount of time, get down and then come back and reset the timer for the second half.

7. Role model – I have tested out how my mood affects my children. When I am relaxed and smiling, it’s far easier for my children to do the same. Think about the opposite and how that may set the tone!

You are also your child’s most important relationship and so creating the desire to sit at the table often revolves around how you make them feel. Putting a positive spotlight on their interests can be one way to start this off.

8. Redirection – when a child is used to getting up and down, habits often kick in and the minute they sit down, they want to jump up. Often some gentle redirection can get you past that initial challenge.

9. Fun activity – conversation is great, until it is not! Sometimes you need a bit more in the arsenal to keep your children engaged. I know that mealtimes in my house fly when we get caught up in something.

Maybe, it is the world’s worst dad jokes or for littlies it’s making the glass talk like a pig or the beans fly like superman. I know it seems counterintuitive to disrupt the meal with silliness, but the more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to eat.

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10. Sensory input – for some children, no matter what you do, they are wrigglers and dislike sitting. Perhaps a little additional help is worthwhile thinking about. This maybe a cushion that vibrates when they sit on it, giving sensory input that helps with staying still.

Or perhaps it’s having a weighted pillow on the knees.

What not to do

There are also strategies that make mealtimes less likely to be successful in the long term:

i) Media – Many parents use devices or TV watching at the table as a distraction. It can often make mealtimes easier and even result in more food getting eaten. The problem is that it is not building long-term positive habits and can affect eating competency.

I know this is tempting and I also know many families have already inadvertently fallen into this trap. If you have, don’t stress, there are ways to get back out of it.

ii) Have battles. Often meals become a bit of a battleground. Getting into a fight about sitting at the table is not positive.

Giving in to tantrums also produces more of the same. Instead, allowing your child to calm and then retrying a little later is often the best policy.

What you are aiming to do is create a new, positive normal. That means carving out time in busy lives to sit together and role model great eating habits.

To do this will require persistence and consistently.

If you feel like you would love a little bit more help around your child’s eating please feel free to get in touch.

Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), MSc Psychology (first-class honours), Massey University, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.

She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.

Learn more about Judith here:

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