How to Get Your Toddler to Sit Still and Try New Foods At Mealtimes

Nicole Freeman founder of the award-winning cookery school for kids The Kids’ Kitchen answers some popular reader questions on toddlers, young children and mealtimes.

These are three questions that tend to crop up time and again:

  • My baby is almost one. How and at what age should I look to stop/prevent/tell off my child for throwing food onto the floor and launching sippy cups across the room? 
  • How do you get a four year old to stay sitting at the table during mealtimes?
  • My little boy faffs around a lot at the dinner table and has now started saying he doesn’t like foods without even trying them. We know this has come from nursery (along with not eating his crusts) but we also know that he eats much better at nursery than he does at home! How do we get him to faff less and try more?

Sitting still and trying new foods

They cover two common gripes  – sitting still and behaving at the table and trying new foods.

For both, it’s helpful to look at the situation first. Is the problem at all mealtimes or just certain times of the day or days of the week? Is the situation the same at nursery, school, when you are out with others or at a restaurant?

Thinking about this will give you a clue as to whether the problem could be that the kids are just over-tired, not hungry etc or are responding to certain individuals or as a result of certain activities. For example, they may sit still and eat better if you are not there – frustrating, but kids can pick up on our stresses, which is why they can often eat better elsewhere. Or they might be fidgeting and throwing food and cups if you are asking them to sit at the table for too long (remember they have short attention spans!) or they have been sitting for a long time say at school and so need to run around before sitting again for supper. Or it may be they have had enough and are no longer hungry, so want to leave the table and get on with something more fun! So rule any other reasons out. And then try these tips:

Make sure they are sitting at the table properly

If the kids are joining you at the “grown up” table and they are not in a highchair, check that their hips, knees and ankle are at 90 degrees. This basically means they are sitting upright with their feet supported. Something like the Trip Trapp is great here. It sounds weird, but really can make a difference to how they sit and how they eat. Child tables and chairs make this positioning more “natural” so do check if the fidgeting changes depending on where they are sitting.

Involve your kids at mealtimes

This can be getting them in the kitchen cooking the meal with you as research shows this makes them more likely to try new foods. I have kids from aged two years old in my cooking classes, but you know your own kids and when you think you are ready to involve them. But you can still involve kids of all ages by sitting and eating with them at the table which is a great chance to role-model you eating those yummy, healthy foods. And of course you can include them in the conversation which is part of what mealtimes are about – the HOW (ie social skills) as well as WHAT they eat – and can distract them from fidgeting and throwing things.

Have an activity to make meals fun

You could play a verbal game at the table like I-spy, or something food related – how many green veggies can you think of? How many fruits beginning with the letter b? Count how many peas on the plate etc. Or just talk about your days and what you’ve been doing. And you can make the table a more fun place to sit with funky plates, cutlery and placemats – or even make some of those yourself with printouts of fruit and veggies so you get kids learning to recognise them. This can be another great distraction technique.

Change it up a bit

Sometimes a change of scenery can help. When the weather’s good, a picnic in the park or the garden is a great. And you can always have an indoors teddy bears’ picnic, make your own tent from sheets, or have a meal in a playhouse. Kids think this is great fun so are in a better mood to try new foods.

Reinforce the behaviours you want to see

Whatever the behaviour you don’t like (fidgeting, throwing etc) you need to make sure you have limits and consequences for these actions and then follow through on these at every mealtime. So, you might say something like “food is for eating not throwing” or “we sit on our chairs at supper and we don’t climb or leave the table until we’ve finished”. If none of these strategies work, you can end the meal with “if you are not hungry right now I’ll take the food away.” The wording is up to you, but the kids need to know what is and isn’t acceptable and what the implications are. Mostly it’s testing behaviour and once they learn boundaries, they will move on.

Don’t give up. You have a vision of the whole family sitting round the table to a home-cooked, super healthy meal that everyone devours. Yeah, right. Some meals may be like this, but plenty won’t. For you and every other family. So keep going. It’s all about creating good foodie habits for life. And tomorrow is another day.

About the author

Nicole Freeman always had a love of food and cooking, though not the washing up. But it was her own fussy eater that prompted her to set up The Kids’ Kitchen, her award-winning cookery school for kids where she aims to show kids how much fun cooking can be and, by involving them in preparing and cooking their own meals, encourages them to try new foods. 

For more information you can contact nicole@thekidskitchen.net. You can check out what kids can really get up to in the kitchen at The Kids’ Kitchen.

About The Author

Nicole Freeman
The Kids’ Kitchen

Nicole Freeman always had a love of food and cooking, though not the washing up. But it was her own fussy eater that prompted her to set up The Kids’ Kitchen, her multi-award-winning cookery school for kids where she aims to show kids how much fun cooking can be and, by involving them in preparing and cooking their own meals, encourages them to try new foods.. Nicole has been interviewed on Sky News and has just launched an online course to help support families through their mealtime struggles and will shortly be launching a monthly cooking club for families. To find out more https://www.facebook.com/TheKidsKitchen/ and www.thekidskitchen.net

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