Picture this- you’re sitting down to a holiday dinner with your family, both immediate and extended, and your willful toddler WILL NOT sit at the dinner table, let alone EAT his meal at the table. Instead he’s doing laps around the house, pausing tableside for a moment to grab a bite from his plate before moving again.
I used to panic because I didn’t know how to handle mealtimes. I felt trapped. I felt that I was “supposed” to do something. If I tried to make him sit at the dinner table, a total tantrum would ensue, but if I allowed him to eat on the move, I’d have anxiety about my parenting being judged. Not to mention that I’ve yet to be successful at “making” my strong willed son do anything that wasn’t his idea. Then my father in law said something that released me from this self-induced prison. He said,
“You know, it’s totally normal in some parts of the world for kids to not sit at the table. Small children in Bali are not required to sit at the table and are instead fed on the move.”
Now, I’ve never been to Bali, so I can’t say firsthand if this is true, but it was true enough for me to LET IT GO. (Cue Elsa singing here.)
We have so many battles around food and dinner time that I was thrilled to let this one go. From then on, I stopped stressing about where my son would sit at dinner time. I’d always put his plate at the table with us, but if he didn’t sit there, I stopped trying to make him. Sometimes he’d insist on dining picnic style wherever he was playing, sometimes he didn’t eat, and sometimes he’d go back and forth from the table to playing while eating his dinner. I chose not to make this an issue, and so far it’s worked out okay. Whenever he tries to engage us in his play, we say, “sure, but after dinner. You’re welcome to join us at the table to eat.”
Our hope is that he’ll learn that dinner happens while sitting at the table. We want him to know that by sitting at the table with us, he’ll get our full, undivided attention.
You know what? Now at 4 (almost) he generally sits at the table with us for meals. Language development has helped too as he now tells us about his day or tells us jokes while we eat. Like a lot of moms, I still struggle with making sure he eats enough and that he’s eating his vegetables, and I have to come up with creative ways to get him excited about meal time, like Rainbow Meals and Surprise Plates. Sometimes, I read out loud to him at meals, play a podcast if he stays at the table or we do another activity together while he sits at the table to eat.
I’ve learned that his eating style right now is frequent small meals and snacks. He is a grazer. Will that change? Probably, as all things do with young kids. He eats frequent snacks throughout the day, rarely stopping long enough to eat more than a few bites. His favorite meal option now is called a Surprise Plate. A Surprise Plate is when I put together a plate of things he likes to eat and it’s a surprise! I literally pick random things he likes, he covers his eyes while I bring it to him and then I say, “surprise!” A Rainbow Plate is when I try to think of a food for every color in the rainbow and arrange it in color order. He’s also recently gotten into the plates with the different sections. Another idea I’ve considered but not tried is a plate you can purchase that is designed to look like a game board!!
Rather than turning every mealtime into a battle, my father in law’s advice gave me the encouragement I needed to best meet my son’s needs. Being creative, flexible, and forgetting the “rules” has allowed me- and my family- to enjoy dinner time a lot more!
What meal time struggle are you dealing with? What creative, nontraditional tactics have you employed to get your child to eat?