How to Get Kids to Stay at the Dinner Table

Happy family smiling at camera at lunch

Kids getting up and down from the dinner table is such a common complaint. For the parents who are in the thick of this behavior, it’s exhausting. Here are lots of ideas for keeping them at the table.

Continue the high chair or booster seat – I would keep the highchair with a strap as long as you reasonably can and then the booster seat with a strap following that. If they are buckled in everyday, likely less of a battle as it’s just expected. If you intermittently use the strap or give it up for a while, I’d give it up all together.

Place cards to pick seats – In the ‘every little bit counts’ category, let kids decorate place cards (folded over construction paper works) and pick where they sit.

Fun place settings and place mats – Right now, Frozen place settings can go a long way.

Serve food in fun ways – Not all the time, but occasionally, serve food on sticks or use toothpicks as utensils. It may be fun to serve small cut up fruit in ice cube trays, or use tv dinner style trays. Once in a while, have a picnic or play restaurant and have children take orders. I will admit to having more patience for these things at lunch time.

Conversation – Make a list of questions and conversation starters that would be interesting for your children and slowly work your way through. If you’d like conversation ideas, try Melissa and Doug’s Family Dinner Box of Questions or several versions by Table Topics and Chat Packs.

Small toys – While I don’t want the whole train track at the table, I think it’s fine to bring one train. Talk about how it’s nice for Thomas to keep him company.

Small activities– Again, not a whole craft project but it’s fine to have two crayons and a small notebook. This can be particularly helpful if your child typically finishes early, and you want him to stay at the table to wait for others.

Games – You might play word games like Grandma’s Trunk Alphabet game or a group story telling game when each person adds a sentence to the story. We played Spin the Knife (butter knife) and the person who spins it gets to ask any question of the person it points to, very interesting. Eye Spy, Would You Rather and 20 Questions are other favorites.

Just once – This is the flexible parent who is tolerant of each child getting up just once after they’ve sat down for dinner. The just once rule really needs to be respected as just once, or it falls to pieces. Other families give kids one or two tickets, the child can get up once per ticket and when the tickets are gone the child must stay at the table. It tends to work.

Box them in – Depending on your table and your kitchen, maybe push the table against the wall on one side and have children sit between the wall and a parent. My friends growing up had a booth in their kitchen and parents sat on the outsides.

Choices – Choices go a long way towards encouraging behavior. This may be giving a child a choice about where to sit or what to eat first.

Challenge – You might set a timer and see if each night children can sit one minute longer than the night before. Once they finish eating, you might ask them to tell you five interesting things about their day.

Contribution – Get kids busy folding napkins, buttering rolls, serving green beans and stacking plates to carry to the sink. Children who are busy at the table, stay at the table.

Read (avoid screens) – It’s fine to read aloud during dinner. Many preschool teachers read aloud through snack time. Screens, however, are an unhealthy habit during meals and can lead to mindless eating.

Start where you are and gradually increase the time – If your kids typically sit for eight minutes at dinner, start there. Have a goal of 10 minutes a week later, and 12 a week after that.

Plan dinner when kids are hungry – Children are more likely to sit and eat when they are hungry. They may be able to meet expectations to sit at the table earlier, rather than much later in the evening.

Dinner is done – Families with older children may start the rule, “when you get up from the table, your dinner is done.” Again, follow through is what becomes important for this to curb behaviors. Families should also have a clear plan for what happens after, meaning having a healthy snack much later, having dinner food available once others finish or having the child not eat once the kitchen is closed. As a reminder, natural consequences don’t become fair game until closer to four years old.

Other consequences – Again, as children are older, this could be, “if you are up from the table, you’ll have to sit at the counter.” or, “if you are up from the table, you can eat when we are done.” Consequences are meant as an end point, not a starting point. If you start here, there’s no where left to go.

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