Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge

A parent of a 27-month-old writes that her son refuses to come to the table when called and will not sit in his chair during meals. This parent says they’ve tried just removing his food when he isn’t cooperating, but then “he ends up hangry… and it’s so difficult to get anything done.” So, they’ve resorted to feeding him through distractions and by following him around with food at home, in the park, and in his Yes Space while he’s playing. Eventually, he finishes a meal. Janet offers this family a shift in perspective and mealtime guidelines that not only encourage healthy eating but eliminate stress for us and our kids.

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Transcript of “Stop Making Mealtime a Challenge”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be answering a question about challenges around mealtime with our children. And what I hope to do is offer a perspective that helps take this challenge off of our plates, so to speak. We have enough challenges as parents as it is, and mealtimes don’t need to be a challenge.

Okay, so this question came to me on Facebook:

I’m hoping for some instructive insight. Mealtimes continue to be a challenge. Here’s a new one with our 27-month-old: he now refuses to come to the table and sit down in his chair during mealtimes. We’ve tried to let it be and pack up his food if he doesn’t come back again later, but he ends up hangry. So now we are feeding him basically through distraction at the windowsill and following him around the park or in his yes space while he’s playing, etc. When we do that, he finishes his entire meal, so clearly he is hungry. But I absolutely hate the fact that that’s what we have to do. Perhaps we can be more consistent with limit-setting, but when he gets hangry, it’s so difficult to get anything done.

Thanks so much.

So yes, this sounds like a kind of a cycle that’s happening between them. And it’s hard to say how it started exactly, but I’ll get into some specific advice for this parent and some thoughts about what they’re doing now.

But first, I want to try to give some advice that’s as simple as possible. Because I know that that helps me as a parent when I have a challenge and it helps other parents, I think, that I work with when we really bring it down to the basics. Mealtimes ideally never have to be a challenge. There need be no challenge involved. And the key is knowing what is our job in regard to eating and mealtimes and where our child needs to be trusted to do their job. And then from there, the only challenge is to keep staying in our lane and trusting.

And I know that trust around eating, it can be a big challenge for some of us. So that’s basically the job, is to really trust our child’s instincts around eating. Trusting them to listen to that message that only they can hear about their appetite, about satiation and what types of food they want to eat. That’s a message that we don’t control and only our child hears and that we want to encourage. And it can be kind of a delicate message that we, without meaning to, can get in the way of. We can muffle the message.

And that’s basically it when it comes to encouraging healthy eating and being able to avoid doing what, as this parent says, is hating the fact that she has to follow him around with food. We don’t want that job, right? Well, the good news is that’s not our job and we don’t have to take it on. And I’m going to be explaining why and what to do instead.

Our job is to set up the situation with expectations and rituals about the way we want mealtimes to go. That’s how we set ourselves, the whole family, and our kids up for success. And then letting go of the rest and employing trust in our child, because children need to be able to navigate the message that only they can receive about their hunger and satiation. First we’re going to talk about the “cure” for this issue and what trust and staying in our lane looks like. And then I’ll explain how what this parent is currently doing is perpetuating and maybe even adding to their problem, obviously unintentionally.

So how do we set ourselves up for success? We create rituals. Like the number one that I firmly believe in is sitting down. Because that encourages focus, mindfulness around eating, helping our child to be able to focus on that message that their body is sending them, which can get muffled when we’re multitasking. We’ve all probably heard the studies that we do everything less well when we’re multitasking. Well, that’s especially true for young children. They are much more easily overstimulated and distracted. And so if we want them to be able to eat in a healthy manner and get all the nutrients they need at that time, then we want to eliminate distractions, if we can help it. There will be some that we can’t help, like their siblings, what they’re doing, and what other children are doing in the park or whatever. But we can start the habit of sitting. Sitting is also a safety measure. When our child is running around or playing while they eat, they can choke. We don’t want that to happen. On top of that, we’re teaching basic manners when we ask children to sit down while they’re eating or drinking, and we start this ritual as early as possible.

So our child is sitting down and staying sitting down until they’re done. And no throwing food, no playing with food, other things that show that our child is too distracted and they’re not paying attention to what’s happening in that moment. And it might be just for two minutes that they’re eating or one minute, but at least for that amount of time, we’re helping them to form the habit of paying attention and being present while they do that. So if we find our child is playing with food or throwing it down, we can start early with receiving that as a message—which it almost always is, at least at first—that our child is showing that they’re done, that those moments of wanting to eat have passed.

And yes, our child might explore this with us in the beginning. Oh, what am I allowed to do while I’m eating? That’s really healthy learning for them. And ideally we want to be responsive with a clear message, not an angry message or an annoyed message, but just a clear response. “Oh, I don’t want you to throw when you’re eating. That shows me that you’re done. Are you done?” And then just asking that question will give our child the chance to answer, even when this is an 11-month-old child.

Children when they’re even 10, 11 months, almost as soon as they’re able to sit independently (meaning get into the sitting position all by themselves), they are capable of sitting down, staying in one spot while they’re ingesting food. Not for 10 minutes before and then 10 minutes after or hanging out and dining with the family. No, we can’t expect them to be able to do that because they can be, especially some children, they want to be on the go, so they’re not going to just stop everything and sit there. They want to get up and do the next thing. But it is perfectly reasonable to expect that while they’re putting that food in their mouth, they’re sitting. Maybe it’s on our lap, maybe it’s in the park on the grass, maybe it’s outside on a step, in a child-sized chair with a small table, in a high chair. All we ask is that they stay sitting and that they’re showing that they’re actually in eating mode, not playing mode. And that’s it.

And then we offer food that we’ve deemed healthy for our child, in small portions of each so they don’t get overwhelmed. And maybe we have an extra container on the table or containers for children to be able to get more of the foods that we’re comfortable with them having more of. That can go a lot of different ways depending on how we feel about it. But sitting, if we make it consistent, that is a habit that I highly recommend.

However, like all rituals and rules, we have to believe in them. So if you don’t believe that kids should have to sit while they’re eating or it feels too strict for you, don’t do it. Do what you believe. I will tell you that from many years of experience with children ranging from the most active and distractible temperaments to the calmer and more centered types, they can all do this. They can sit for the entire time they’re eating, if we have that calm conviction in this ritual and belief in them and we’re consistent with it. Especially in the first few years while it’s becoming a habit, that’s when children kind of need it to be as consistent as possible, whatever we decide our rituals are. And then after that, we’ll find that our children actually want to sit while they’re eating or they want to recreate whatever rituals that we’ve given them.

And I’ve found that it’s easier to be so consistent that even when our child is drinking water, they’re sitting for a moment with that glass or that bottle of water. But of course, that’s up to you. Some people don’t take it to that extent and that’s fine. My goal is to make it as easy as possible for children to learn something, for it to just be what we do. So it’s not this rule every time that feels like a big deal to ask of our child. It’s just what they consider the norm. And then all we’re doing is we’re having that drink, we’re having that food, and being together, socializing maybe, but we’re not playing while we’re eating or running while we’re eating, etc.

And then when we offer the food—like in this parent’s case, she said her child won’t come to the table—I would take care to present the food as a, I mean, we could say it’s a privilege. Not try to push it, because children tend to read our agendas a mile away and some are more sensitive than others to them. It won’t do us any favors, it won’t help us get what we want, and it creates more challenge when we try to assert an agenda around even our child eating dinner. Instead, making it a program of attraction where we offer it and we have the ritual, we have the habit of this being for a limited time, so our child expects that. It’s dinnertime. We have your food for you right here. We hope you’ll join us or I hope you’ll join me.

Helping our child into a high chair if we’re using that. I like the small tables because the child will literally come over and sit in the seat or they’ll sit on the floor. In the beginning, with very young children, like 10-, 11-, 12-month olds or even 14-month olds, I like to use these breakfast-in-bed tables—I have these on my website if you want to find them—that have little legs that fold out. And that can make the perfect-sized table when we’re just giving our child a one-on-one meal or maybe there’s another person sitting there, but we’re not eating a big dinner all together.

Just offering them their food and helping them get into that habit of, You get to decide if you’re hungry and you get to decide when you’re done. We trust you. You know yourself best. That’s a message that will take us very far in the right direction. But it’s a hard one, I know, because we worry as parents, right? So, presenting the food in a positive way for a limited time. Join us or not. If you’re not hungry, you don’t have to. And then from there, the mealtime has really nothing to do with us. It’s between our child and their tummy. We’re letting our child decide how much they want to eat and we’re leaving it at that, trusting our child to handle the eating part of mealtime. Because anything else we try to do can create challenges. There needn’t be any struggles at mealtime. And usually, if we think about it, the struggles come from our worries or our agendas. Understandable, right? But they’re going to get in our way.

We’re going to notice that our children’s appetites and tastes shift naturally. They’ll go through phases where they don’t seem to be eating very much or they’re just eating one food group, it seems. Trust these phases. And we can still offer other options on their plate, but at least one “safe food,” as Ellyn Satter calls it. I really like that term, she was a guest on this podcast. And the safe food is one that we know that they like. So if they only eat that safe food, we trust that. And it’s that trust that allows children to pass through all their personal eating stages and tastes.

So, that’s the model I recommend: setting ourselves up for success with some basic rituals and rules. And just to tell you, I have an extremely active youngest son. I always felt like if he could sit while he’s eating, any child can. And I have children in my classes, active children, and they’re literally sitting there. I don’t ask them to, but they know I’m going to be serving snack in the classroom, we’re going to be having these rituals together. And they love them. They will actually sit on their stools around the snack table where we all have snack together, and all we have is banana in our classes, and they will sit there and wait for me to bring everything over. They’re not asked to come sit until they want to eat something, and then I ask that they please sit. What they get to do is they get to choose a bib, they get to wash their hands with a wet washcloth, they each wipe their hands. And then they sit waiting while I offer each child a piece. And sometimes they’re sitting there waiting for a bit. They do it, they show this incredible patience, because that’s how much children love familiar rituals. And an adult who cares enough to believe that they can rise up to these rules and rituals. Sometimes they’ll check it out and they’ll try to get up, and I’ll stop them gently, I’ll put my hand on their shoulder and say, “Ooh, it looks like you want to get up. Are you done?” And then right there, they’ll make a choice, very clear, that they’re done or they’re not done.

And I always recommend with parents when they haven’t been consistent with these kinds of rules, that they try it with snacks first, where they’re not invested and worried about their child eating enough. Because if your child won’t sit and starts to leave when they’re just having a snack, we can let go of that more easily, right? And that helps us practice trust at mealtimes.

But yes, this surprised me a lot, how much children seem to crave these familiar steps and somebody caring enough to not just sort of let them get away with silly stuff that they know isn’t what they’re supposed to do. This may have been one of the biggest surprises to me about this approach when I was first learning it, how beautifully it works. How we can trust children to be able to do this from a very young age, and the younger that we start, the easier it is for the child. But we can start later, it just takes more commitment on our part, more conviction. Calm conviction, happy conviction, none of it is heavy or stern or challenging to the child. We’re not trying to put them on the defensive. We’re just gently, kindly offering rules that will help them to stay safe, stay focused on their message from their tummies, have wonderful eating habits and manners that will take them far with other children and other families later on. Helping us to take this job off our plate of having to get food inside our child. This is a job we do not need to take on.

Now I want to talk about this family, where they’ve gone and how to shift this cycle that they’re in with their child. It sounds like, I don’t know if it’s both the parents, but they seem invested in their child eating a certain amount and feeling like it’s their job to get the food into him. They said, “he refuses to come to the table and sit down in his chair during mealtimes. We’ve tried to let it be and pack up his food if he doesn’t come back again later, but he ends up hangry.” So if they offered the mealtime very openly, just were offering it, “You don’t have to come if you’re not hungry.” I’m not sure if they did that, but that’s where I would start this.

And then if this certain amount of time has passed, maybe it’s 10 minutes if the parents are not eating themselves or maybe everybody’s eating, so you wait until you’re all done eating, and he still hasn’t come. And we haven’t repeated it to him, we haven’t nagged him in any way or pushed our agenda. Then let’s say he doesn’t come and now he’s hangry. That’s a tough one, right? That can happen when we are shifting a pattern, that our child has to keep finding out if this is really going to be true, are we really going to hold to this or are we going to be worried about him not eating enough? And then that may be the result, that he’s hungry.

And what I would do then is really try to allow him to share those feelings and know that while hunger may be a part of it, there’s something there that he probably does need to express about, I don’t know what, because I don’t know much about what’s going on in this family. But it could just be this dynamic that’s uncomfortable where he feels this pressure coming from us, or there are other things that he wants to take control of, that he needs to control, like the eating stuff. Maybe he’s felt too much of our agenda and he needs to resist that. There’s a reason that he has the feelings that go beyond hunger, so I would encourage him to share the feelings however he does. “Oh, now you didn’t get your food and now you seem really hungry or you seem mad.” And whatever those specifics are where he’s showing this feeling, you could talk about that a little. Not a lot of talking, really just accepting those feelings. And trying to trust that, just as with everything that I share here, when we accept the feelings, that’s how our child moves through to the other side. If we feel like we have to fix the feelings, Ooh, now we’ve got to make sure he’s going to eat enough that he doesn’t feel like this, and this is our job, we’re taking on this role that really doesn’t belong to us, that’s when we start the cycle where now we have to help him avoid a certain feeling. We’re taking that as our job, instead of allowing all feelings to be shared. It’s hard for me to explain because I don’t know how this is playing out with this family, how he’s showing his feelings, but I would accept that.

And then as soon as he’s done, even if he has a tantrum or this period where he does seem dysregulated, I wouldn’t rush to get him food then. I would wait until it passes, especially if it’s a tantrum. And then gently offer him something. Maybe not a formal, we’re all sitting down together for food again, but just, “Come, I have some food for you,” some kind of snack or something that you’re comfortable with him eating. “Would you like to sit on my lap?” Not urgently trying to change his feeling, but still helping him get something to eat, with that gentle requirement that he sits on your lap. “Okay, you want to sit next to me? I do ask that you sit. I know. You don’t want to sit. You really don’t want to sit. You seem so mad,” or whatever. Again, reacting to those specifics is always the safest thing. “You’re yelling at us, you don’t like that we said that,” or “You’re having such a hard time. When you’re ready, please come sit next to me,” or “Please come sit on my lap.”

But not letting go of the sitting. Because if we let go of the sitting and start doing what these parents have gotten caught up in, now we are changing the role and we’re changing his expectation. So the expectation is becoming, My parents will chase me around or make sure that they put food into me. And if we think about that, it really doesn’t make sense on any human or mammal level that our job is to make sure somebody gets enough food in them. That’s not going to be a working relationship and a workable approach to food. It’s not going to be a successful approach. Because whatever we do, of course, teaches our child something about what to expect. And in this case, expecting that I don’t really pay attention to food. It just comes to me, whatever I’m doing. And that becomes what he’s used to. So, that isn’t sustainable.

And they say they hate it. They can stop this any time by dialing back to calmly setting these rules, making eating something that’s available for a certain amount of time, that you welcome him to partake in, but you’re not pushing it. You’re not trying to get him to eat. And if you’re not trying to get him to eat, he can’t refuse, right? So the way this parent frames it is, “he now refuses to come to the table.” So if we’re not asking him to, he can’t refuse. If we’re offering it, he can choose not to, but that will help him go in a healthy direction.

Alternatively, if we let him know loud and clear, Here’s our agenda!, now you, as a child who’s developmentally inclined at 27 months to resist parent agendas, you’re going to switch into that resistant mode. Even if you don’t want to, even if you’re really, really hungry. This need to resist can be very strong in a child this age. That’s why people call it the terrible twos. But it can also be this incredible time of life, the development of will, the development of personality, of holding onto their autonomy. And they don’t have that much, but they do have it around what they put into their mouths. And they need to. So it’s not going to serve us or him to get in the way of that. We want to encourage his autonomy. “Do you want to come to eat? We’ve got some great food for you here.” Not trying to sell it, but, “It’s here for a little bit. Hope you’ll join us.” It’s okay if you don’t, that might be our subtext. Fine if you do, fine if you don’t. We trust you. If you’re hungry, you’ll come. And then he will reconnect with owning his choice and he will come.

But we have to clear out all this agenda stuff and also, at the same time, welcome his feelings in the transition. Because there will be feelings that come up for him as he’s now letting go of holding onto this kind of control with us that we’re doing anything to get him to eat. It’s not a comfortable feeling for him, but he’s gotten stuck there and we’ve gotten stuck there. So as he’s letting go of that, there will be feelings. I would be ready for them, I would welcome them. I would see them as part of the solution, not part of the problem. And help yourself not have to do these jobs that are really impossible for us and that get harder and harder the more we try to do them.

As we’re doing this transition, I would express it to your child, setting up beforehand the rules and rituals that we’re going to follow at mealtime. Maybe say, “We’re going to be having dinner in a few minutes,” and admitting, “We know that we’ve let you move around and we’ve tried these different things with you. We’re not going to do that anymore. That’s not healthy for you. So we expect you to sit for however long you want to be eating, and as soon as you’re done, please feel free to get up and go.” If he’s in a high chair, “We’ll help you down right away. If you get up during mealtime, though, we’re going to know that that means you’re done eating.” Be very clear ahead of time. This is for him, but it’s also for you to sink into feeling very comfortable in following through so you can get to that place where you really can let go and stick with your plan. You’ve been clear with him. You’ve done all the things that you need to do to be fair and clear. It’s not unkind, it’s very kind to help children with these kinds of dynamics. Allowing him to have whatever feelings he has, not trying to control those or fix those.

And then I would be paying attention to him during mealtime. Children at this age, they really do need our presence at mealtime to help them to stay focused. Sometimes a family meal doesn’t work as well at this age as it does for a four- or five-year-old. But paying attention regardless, even if there’s other people there, I would try to be paying attention to him, at least in this transitional period. And you can see when he starts to get up, remind him, “Oh, it looks like you’re trying to get up. Remember, we don’t want you to get up until you’re done. Oh, are you saying you’re done?” Then right there, we’ve got our hand gently on him, hopefully we’re close enough. And then he’ll clearly show us that he’s done or he’s going to sit down and eat some more. And even if he gets up all the way, we weren’t able to sort of hold him back in time and he gets up, I would definitely give him that one opportunity, especially in the beginning, to come sit down and eat some more. But not popping up and down like a jack-in-the-box. That’s going to get him stuck there, in testing that. So trust him, believe him, believe what he tells you.

Of course, he may get up before he is done again, because it’s been so different these other times and he needs to check this out again. So, if he does: “Okay, I’m going to help you get down. Thanks for letting us know you’re done.” There’s no reason to be mad at him. No reason to be disappointed in him or worried about him. He knows what he’s doing in terms of eating, we’ve got to believe that. All children do, it’s natural. And if he does get hangry, acknowledge: “Now you’re saying you want to eat. Wow, you’re really hungry now.” Even though it’s just a couple minutes after you left the table. But we don’t have to say that part, that’s just for us to know how many minutes since he left the table and that we accept that. He’s in learning mode and he’s relearning. “Oh, now you’re saying you’re really, really hungry. We’re not going to give you food again right now. In a few minutes you can come sit with me and get some food.”

And know that he really does know what he’s doing. Our honesty, being upfront, and following through, he can’t learn another way. And I know a lot of us get afraid and we worry, Oh, what if he was really hungry and he just forgot what he’s supposed to do?, but we had already given him that chance, we had reminded him. We have to believe that he is a bright guy who knows what’s going on and that this is what he needs to be able to learn. He’s not a bad guy, he’s impulsive.

If we can be 100%, or at least 60%, comfortable with how we’ve laid it out, then children get this gift of being able to learn a wonderful ritual that’s going to be a lifelong ritual around eating, and to be able to express feelings that are about more than not getting what they want in that moment. They’re about this power dynamic or this over-control that he feels in this area or something that we can trust. And we don’t want to keep teaching him to be distracted, to eat when he doesn’t even really know he’s eating, that he shouldn’t pay attention to life right now or be present with what’s happening to his body. And we can easily teach those things through our fear, I totally understand that and can relate to that. But then we end up actually creating the issues that we wish to avoid.

So let the feelings be, let him be hangry. When we’ve done our best to present food to him, we’ve been very clear, we’ve been very honest. “I know we used to do that. We’re not doing it anymore. We love you too much. This is our job, to do what’s best for you.” Let him do his job, you do your job. And know that a big part of his job at this age is not only to eat what he needs, but to express feelings. And young children are very, very good at this. And that you’re helping him by eliminating all these distractions of figuring out his dynamic with you, his dynamic with food, your dynamic with rules. Clarify it, simplify it, so he can feel free to eat and to sleep and to play and to be a little kid and not try to be the leader in these areas that aren’t going to work for him or for you.

I really hope some of this helps.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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