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.

Childhood Obesity: The Answers are Simple in Theory

The commonly sited stat that one-in-three U.S. children are overweight is striking. In the last 30 years, children being overweight has doubled, and adolescents being obese has tripled. This should get your attention whether your children are heavy or not. There is a strong likelihood that overweight children will be overweight adults. These numbers represent a huge impact to our future economy and to the future of healthcare costs.

The answers given by the experts seem simple. Less screentime, healthier food choices and more exercise. That’s it.

Less Screentime: Decide your limits and stick with them.

  • Zero to Three recommends no screentime for children two years old and younger, a half-hour a day as a maximum for children two to three years old and an hour a day as a maximum for older children.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no screentime for children two years old and younger and two hours a day as a maximum for older children.
  • This screentime includes tablets, phones, computers and TVs.
  • Related to obesity, many of the advertisements during children’s programming is for sugary foods and fast foods.
  • Screentime tends to be a sedentary activity.

Healthier Food Choices: Learn and teach your children about healthy choices and healthy portions.

  • Encourage fruits and vegetables.
  • Encourage children to eat a wide range of healthy foods.
  • Think healthy fats, whole grains, lean meats.
  • Teach your children about foods, explore tastes and textures.
  • Encourage them to shop and prepare foods with you.

More Exercise: Get your family moving more!

  • The Center for Disease Control suggests children and adolescents should have 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
  • This should include aerobic activity, muscle strengthening and bone strengthening activities.
  • Make it fun.
  • Get moving with them!

Tips to Enjoy Eating Out with Children

Family eating together in a restaurant

I have always loved eating out with the kids. Yes, there have been stressful times as Alicen threw up a LOT when she was two and three years old. And yes, occasionally we’ve had to cut things short over behavior or exhaustion. That said, eating out can be a very pleasant experience with children at any age.

There are several basic things to consider when choosing a restaurant with young children.

  • Kid friendly – Some children need more practice than others at learning to speak quietly and sit at a table. The idea is to start at very kid friendly restaurants. With little ones, we go to restaurants like Chili’s where it is okay if they are occasionally loud.
  • Kids’ menu – It may be helpful to check out menus online or to call ahead and ask about menu options. The best kid’s menus we’ve seen are at Legal Seafood and Firefly. Other times we just order them extra plates, and then split off our own.
  • Things to do – It can be so helpful when a restaurant offers some activities. Bertucci’s offers kids dough to play with, Macaroni Grill lets them draw on the paper table cloth and Cracker Barrel has the peg game and five page coloring book menus.
  • Things to look at –  In our area, Mango Mikes has a huge fish tank that children can see from the dining room or up close if their parents walk them near the bar. The National Gallery of Art Cascade Café has a waterfall outside a picture window to look at and moving walkway for something to do. The Rainforest Café has an amazing amount to look at.
  • Kids’ area –  Some restaurants go as far as having a kids’ area. This can be a play area like at IKEA or Generous George’s, or a seating area like at Paradiso. Paradiso has a kids’ room where children sit at small picnic table and eat while watching Disney movies on a big screen TV while parents have a nice meal in the next room. While this defeats the social piece and learning to sit with parents, it’s another fun option.
  • Kids’ trinkets – Mango Mikes has a wall full of party favor type toys for children to pick from. Stardust gave little plastic figures on their drinks. We grew a collection of their mermaids and elephants.
  • Plan to walk around – Sitting through the meal itself can be a long stretch for little ones. If you go in planning to walk around the restaurant or even outside with them once before and once after the meal, it may help them to sit longer and make the experience less frustrating.

Activity bag – It can be helpful to carry a “restaurant bag” in your car at all times. This is a bag that has small notebooks and pencils, stickers, small Playdoh and a few party-favor toys. This bag only comes out once menu items have been chosen, goes away when the food comes and can be available again once they eat. The trick is to not have it available at other times like when you are stuck in traffic. If they get to play with it other times, it likely won’t hold their attention in the restaurant.

Conversation WITH them – This is probably the most important point, spend your time speaking with your children. At any age, include them in the conversation. Ask them questions and share your time. Teach them that meals are a pleasant and social time.

Contribution during – Contribution in general is giving children jobs related to a transition or other daily function. At home, this includes them matching cups to lids or taking drink orders when you are making dinner. At a restaurant, this might include them folding and refolding napkins, buttering rolls, passing food or putting food on a fork for you.

Sit at a booth – If your kids are often up and down from the table, a booth might be helpful so you can box them in.

Sit outside – If it’s available, sitting outside tends to give kids lots to look at and others may be more forgiving of noise.

Plan dinner on the early side – Eating late, children are more likely to be tired and hungry which is a recipe for disaster. It’s better to go early when everyone is fresh.

Creative Ways to Encourage New Foods

So many parents of young children note their children are becoming more picky about eating by the day. They describe a child who was a pretty good eater at two years old and is now narrowing their choices and becoming more demanding. There are so many ways to encourage children to eat and try new foods without adding pressure. Here are a few ideas:

  • Encourage children to help with the shopping – Let little ones draw pictures of the foods on your shopping list, and let older ones write the list for you. At the store let them pick which type of apples or grapes to buy, maybe let them pick a cereal or flavors of yogurt. Encourage reading skills by having them keep track of items on the list. Encourage math skills by teaching them to weigh fruits and vegetables, teaching them to compare prices per weight or keep a running tally for the cost of the list.
  • Encourage children to help prepare food – At home, have children wash the vegetables or cut the fruit as they can. Have them butter rolls and serve green beans. Overall, involve them in the food process.
  • Offer new foods when your children are hungry – If they eat really well at breakfast, offer new foods then or offer new foods as a appetizer before dinner.
  • Offer foods in a wide range of colors – Adding colors is easiest done with fruits and vegetables.
  • Try fun, new, child-friendly recipes – There are so many great cookbooks for kids including Family Fun: Cooking with Kids by Cook, Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual by Klutz and Kitchen for Kids by Low. There are also child-friendly cookbooks (meaning meals you make that kids will love) including Cooking Light: The Ultimate Kid Approved Cookbook by Cooking Light or No Whine with Dinner by Weiss. There are also great website including and This list is just for starters, there are many others in each category.
  • Make smoothies they love – Throw in a vegetable or wheat germ on the side. You might try recipes from 201 Healthy Smoothies and Juices for Kids by Roskelley.
  • Make food “art,” let them play with food then eat – This could be standing up broccoli to make trees, making small snowmen with mashed potatoes, using big cookie cutters to make shape sandwiches or letting them make ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisens on top) and then EATING the fun.
  • Build on foods they already like – If your child loves ketchup or ranch dressing, go really wide on all the foods they might be able to dip in. You might also look for cookbooks that build on a favorite ingredient such as The Peanut Butter & Co. Cookbook by Zalben or The Cereal Lovers Cookbook by Chattman.
  • Teach them about the food process – Visit the farm, take a tour of a grocery store, teach them about where food comes from and how food is made.
  • Teach them about nutrition – Teach them about the food pyramid, about healthy choices and portions.
  • Offer new foods in a container they can hold – When you can, offer the new foods in a bag or container they can hold.
  • Offer it in other novel ways – Try new foods on a stick, serve small foods with toothpicks for utensils or serve small portions in an ice cube tray (divided into small squares).
  • And when all that fails, I am fine with hiding ingredients – To cook and hide ingredients at home you might read The Sneaky Chef by Lapine or Deceptively Delicious by Seinfeld. You might also take them to Robeks and try a wide range of their smoothies, including the ones that have vegetables or start experiementing with your own smoothies at home.

Benefits of Eating as a Family

Here are a few reasons to make eating as a family a priority:

  • Children learn valuable life skills – There is benefit in children learning how to prepare and cook food, as well as how to clean the table. This sounds crazy, but I have fond memories of washing and drying dishes after meals at my grandparents’ house. Maybe these are fond memories because we had a dishwasher at home.
  • It’s a chance to reconnect socially – Eating together regularly gives families an opportunity to check in with each other, share their day and laugh together. As a basic, this is time to teach children how to carry conversations and how to ask and answer questions.
  • Build and share family traditions – While this may be a small piece, it’s a chance to pass along blessings and prayers. In some families, this can be a time to share recipes.
  • You can model healthy eating habits – Parents tend to provide children a wider range of foods when families sit and eat together. Modeling healthy eating habits is a nice, low key way to encourage them to eat.
  • You can teach and practice manners – Table manners are a learned skill that’s best taught over time with lots of repetition. Try to make this fun with related storybooks and games.
  • It’s related to better long term childhood outcomes – Children who regularly eat at least five meals a week with their families show higher academic scores, lower rates of later behavior problems and lower rates of obesity.

To learn more about these ideas and ways to avoid picky eating habits and mealtime battles join me for my workshop on Managing Mealtimes & Picky Eaters, September 5 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. For more information and to register, please visit

Mealtime Behaviors

Using contribution to address behaviors means giving children jobs related to the given situation. This is a proactive skill that can be used before, during and after mealtimes.

  • Before meals, children can be buttering rolls, serving green beans, taking drink orders, coloring placemats and writing menus.
  • During meals, children can pass serving bowls, serve onto plates, decide topics of conversation and monitor manners (helps them to learn manners by being in charge of others).
  • After meals, children can scrape plates, carry plates to the sink, load silverware in the dishwasher and wipe the table.

Using choices to address behaviors can be an effective piece of managing mealtime behaviors. For a child who won’t stay seated, “do you want to sit by mommy or daddy today?” or, “do you want to sit at the big table or your little table today?” As with most behaviors, the idea is to try choices before consequences. A positive logical consequence would be, “if you can stay seated, you can butter the rolls.” A negative logical consequence would be, “if you are out of your chair, you’ll have to be buckled in the booster seat.”

In my two hour evening workshop, we spend some of our time on ways to manage behaviors and some on avoiding pickiness. Avoiding pickiness includes being in charge of only what is offered, avoiding short-order cooking and bribery. To learn about these ideas and lots more, join me!

Mealtime Tips

There are several guidelines to encourage healthy eating habits while avoiding pickyness traps. The overarching guideline is, parents are in charge of what is offered, children are in charge of what and how much of what they eat. Following this, parents are to provide a healthy, wide range of choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, thats it. Once the food is provided, it is up to the child to determine what and how much of what they eat as long as its available. If you are concerned they will only fill up on fruit, you are in charge of how often that is offered, so you offer fruit a little less often and everything else more often and in a wider range of ways. You might also have smaller portions of fruit – meaning that is all there is of that food, but they are welcome to all else that is still available. If you are concerned they will never eat another vegetable, offer a wider range of vegetables in a wider range of ways. Make a vegetable omelete for breakfast, a vegetable tray for snack and a roast vegetable pizza for lunch. I am fine with hiding ingredients, encouraging children participating in the food process and making it fun. Go as wide as you can with the foods that are available. Continue to offer new tasts and new textures. Avoid looking at children’s nutrition meal to meal, it will make you nuts. Rather, look at it week to week or better, month to month.

Mealtime Question

Parent Question: My four-year-old is not eating at the table. He wants both my husband and I to help him eat and is very fussy; he won’t try mashed potatoes or anything. It’s a constant battle as he wants toys at the table when eating, like something to keep him occupied rather than eating. He does eat pasta and fish sticks, but we sometimes have to literally feed him, so it gets eaten. I know this is a bad habit, but it’s awful getting him to eat much of anything. It’s become such a constant battle that I now hate mealtimes. Please help!

Answer: There are so many answers to this one. I am going to give a few guidelines and point you in the direction of a great book for more info. The book is How to Get Your Kid to Eat But Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter. She wrote another book and there is also a book by Elbrit, but I like this one.
Guidelines: Parents are in charge of what is offered, children are in charge of what and how much of that they eat. Control what is offered; once it is on the table let him pick and choose. If he fills up on fruit and wants more, ok, you offered it. If that is all he will eat, offer it less often and other things more. Go as wide as you can. Put in those ‘only foods’ once a month so he can’t rely on them. The idea is to let go of the battle. You don’t want to be battling over food intake once it is on the table. Lessen the emotion; emotion fuels power struggles.
That is the short answer for a long question. I do have a two-hour workshop on managing mealtimes that includes all this on pickiness.

Mealtime Struggles

Dear Dr. Rene,
Our three-and-half-year-old daughter has started to struggle over mealtimes. She is becoming extremely picky. She will not try new foods and refuses to eat dinner with us at the table.
What next?
Ginny, Mother of One

Dear Ginny,
Struggles over food are another matter all together. The folks who write about food intake say it shouldn’t overlap with discipline, so all the ideas about appraoching power struggles with choices and consequences don’t apply. The good thing is, the experts tend to agree on a few guidelines to address pickiness.

The overarching guideline is; parents are in charge of what is offered, children are in charge of what and how much of that they eat. This means you provide a healthy wide range of choices at regular times and let them decide what and how much to eat once they’ve sat down to eat. Following these guidelines, they don’t have to try new foods. It is simply your job to provide a wide range of healthy choices. Keep foods in rotation. Even if they don’t like broccoli and claim they won’t ever eat it, if it is out of rotation, it is not available to try. There is a great deal more detail about these and other guidelines in How to Get Your Kids to Eat But Not Too Much by Satter.

Not sitting at the table to eat is along the lines of behavior rather than food intake, so it’s fair game in the realm of discipline to curb behaviors. This might be contribution such as having her make place cards and choose where everyone sits. This might be choices of where to sit or consequences of having to sit in the booster seat or eat when others are done.
Dr. Rene

>Playful at the Dinnertable

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

My nearly three year old daughter, Natalie, is a picky eater. Actually, she’ll eat a variety of foods, but only after I literally beg her to try the first bite. For example, we’ll sit at dinner with chicken and salad; she’s eaten chicken a million times. But, she will sit and eat the tomatoes out of her salad and nothing else until I beg her to try one piece of chicken, just to show her that it is something she likes. Once she tries it, she finishes her plate.

The other day, she wouldn’t try turkey; although, she has had it before and liked it. Jokingly, I said, “Ok, don’t eat the turkey.” Sure enough, she put it in her mouth. Again, I said “Please don’t eat all this turkey,” and she ate it all. So, if I tell her not to eat, she’ll eat until she’s full.

Dinner times can be stressful because of either the exchange or lack of eating altogether. When she doesn’t eat, she is distracted by other things and wants to get down. This is disruptive for everyone at mealtime. Although, since we’ve started this “reverse psychology” technique, dinners have been much better.

I’ve tried letting her not eat and be hungry, hoping that the next time she will eat. But that doesn’t seem to have worked. Am I shooting myself in the foot by sabotaging later discipline efforts?

Thank you,
Mother of two, ages two and six months

Hi Abigail,

I think you are fine here. As long as you keep it a playful tone and in fun, it is not likely to be confused with times when you mean no. Also, when it loses its appeal, which someday it will, it won’t feel like its’ turned into pressure or frustration. In fact, to make it last longer, don’t do it at every meal or, better yet, every day. The more it can be an intermittent tactic, the longer it should last. I am all about making food fun and being playful. The more they enjoy mealtimes, the more they should be relaxed about eating. That said, one should steer clear of pressure to eat but this doesn’t feel like pressure to me.

Rene Hackney, PhD.

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