20 top tips to help a picky eater stay at the table
In my role as a picky eating advisor there are some questions that come up again and again. “How do I encourage my child to stay at the meal table?” is one of them.
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. It may be about comfort both in terms of how they are sitting and in regard to the food. Or we may just be fighting years of habits.
It is also important that our child IS able to sit at the table. Long-term it will be really helpful for resolving picky eating and helping them to eat variety. So, let us look at some of the things to think about and actions to support our child to sit and stay at the table.
How to help a picky eater stay at the table
Creating a great environment is my number one tip when it comes to children wanting to stay at the table. There are many ways we can work on this, and many of them are fun.
Before we sit down
Even before we 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:
1. Prepping – having our 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 we can manage, but it still gives our child a hand in making the meal. Which, when we sit at the table becomes a point of conversation and thanks/pride.
2. Pre-dinner routine – we have a bedtime routine for a reason – because it works! Our brain loves to know what is going to be happening and it helps us prepare and calm.
Creating some rituals that we do in the same order every day before coming to the table is positive. This doesn’t have to be complicated, for example, we can start with hand washing, followed by table setting.
3. Sensory stimulation – engaging our 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 very helpful.
This may take on different forms depending on what ticks boxes best for our child. Perhaps it is a quick jump on the trampoline, a dance to a video or a run around the house.
We can also test out whether calming strategies work better like reading a book or listening quietly to some music. It may be running, followed by calming that works best!
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 our bottom on the seat encourages wiggling.
Ideally our 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. Often this is easily rectified by using a tie-on, cheap booster seat on top of the regular chair.
It is also important that our feet are not swinging as this is not comfortable (try it for yourself). An easy fix is to cut a cardboard box to size, our child can decorate it too.
5. Toilet trip – making sure we eliminate some of the reasons for children getting up and down is a good thing!
6. No distractions – eliminating things that could take attention away from the meal before we 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 we can’t see what’s going on outside.
7. Have a schedule – coming to the table happily is much easier if we do it as part of our routine. It’s a habit we work on so we 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 we know our 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 we’re hungry.
8. Setting the table – being involved in getting the table ready is an important part of prepping our child so they are ready to eat. Again, it enables them to contribute, which is helpful. Plus, it can avoid some of the negatives pre-dinner, like not having a favourite cup, or not sitting next to dad.
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!).
10. Expectations – it is okay to set boundaries and make it clear what behaviour is expected at the table. Often when we have a fussy eater it can become difficult to set down rules as we are constantly thinking of ways to make them 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 we sit down at the table
There are some strategies that can really help our picky eater, right before we start to eat:
1. Timing – if we have a very young, or very wriggly child, then having them sitting at the table before the food is served can mean half of the positive time has gone before we’re even ready to eat!
Being organized so we sit as the food is ready works well.
2. Cues – have some distinctive things that tell our child it is time to eat is positive. It is part of routines and rituals that over time become anchoring and comforting.
One of my favourite tricks is having a bell. The ONLY time we ring 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 it may be at the table and we start the meal with thanks, a song or a few words that become part of habits.
3. Prepared – we too have to be ready. If we are popping back to the kitchen or having to get up and down to grab the water or the salt, we are not role modelling the behaviour we are trying to teach our child.
4. Interest – creating curiosity at the start of the meal can really help to encourage our child to come to the table at the beginning and then hold their interest while they stay for a while.
Maybe we do this using fun placements, 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 we 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).
Sometimes we will have to gradually increase the time at the table in miniscule increments to make it work.
6. Timer – sometimes using a very visual timer is a great way to encourage sitting. A big sand timer 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.
Having non-food rewards for sitting nicely at the table can be quite positive.
7. Role model – I always think that if I’m 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!
We are also our child’s closest relationship and so creating the desire to sit at the table often revolves around how we make them feel. Putting a positive spotlight on their interests can be one way to start this off.
8. Redirection – especially 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 us past that initial challenge.
9. Fun activity – conversation is great, until it is not! Sometimes we need a bit more in the arsenal to keep our fussy eaters engaged. I know that meal-times 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 we are, the more likely we are to eat.
10. Sensory input – for some children, no matter what we 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
i) Use devices at the table as a distraction. It can often make meal-times easier and even mean more food gets 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 produce more of the same. Instead, allowing our child to calm and then retrying a little later is often the best policy.
What we are looking to do is create a new, positive normal. In busy lives create a time when we can all be together and to 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 picky eating please feel free to get in touch.
Judith 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: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/