Remember those long, enjoyable meals with friends, sipping wine and engaging in uninterrupted conversation with no one throwing their food at you, whining or asking to be taken to the bathroom mid-bite? If you can hardly recall what that feels like, and the latter resonates with you in an irritatingly fresh way, you’re definitely the parent of a toddler who’s not about to still at the table! With these simple, parent-tested pro tips, you’ll be able to buy yourself a few extra minutes and instill a bit of patience that will get better with age.
First, know you’re not alone! The fact is, toddlers are all the same when it comes to sitting still—which means the length of time they can stay calmly seated hovers around the five-minute mark before they go into self-destruction mode—your nerves along with them.
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It might seem like you’ll have to endure every meal from here on out in a cacophony of chaos, but I can tell you firsthand that the road to peaceful family meals is possible with this three-part approach.
Teach and Model Patience
Modeling patience is key to setting up toddlers for the inevitable delays and disappointments that are part of life. And these important teachings can be applied at the table by showing your little ones that mealtimes are meant to enjoy food and conversation together.
Child psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, M.D., advises parents to “be present and avoid multitasking, being distracted or rushing during meals.” Yes, that means putting down your phone and really tuning in. For those littlest ones who need a little extra help, Victoria suggests using a timer to practice waiting calmly. “Start with just a few minutes (or less), then work up,” she says. “Patience is like a muscle and requires the child to self-regulate.” Depending on your child’s abilities, try adding a minute or two every couple of days until they’ve developed the patience to sit at the table for a reasonable amount of time.
Show Up to the Table Prepared
Sometimes a big plate of food set in front of a child can be overwhelming and backfire on that patience-growing plan. Just like in a fancy restaurant, serving meals in courses can set the tone for a relaxing, enjoyable meal. Victoria often uses this approach in her home, serving her child “salad or veggies first, followed by main courses or sides. Then I wait a little while, say 30 minutes [with a break from the table], before offering fruit as a dessert or snack before bedtime.”
During the meal, include toddlers in the conversation as much as possible to keep them engaged and distracted from the physical act of staying seated. Allowing a small toy or washable book on their high chair tray is also a useful alternative strategy to keep you sane when you need quiet or the conversation isn’t going as planned.
And whatever you do, do not make the mistake of letting your child get hangry. A small, healthy snack before dinnertime can make all the difference between a cooperative child and a cranky one.
Because life isn’t perfect, you’ll have to realize when your mental health is more important than keeping your child in their seat. So, mix it up, incorporate different mealtime environments or change up the ambiance to help your toddler get excited about coming to the table. Set up picnics, eat at the patio table, plan a dinner and a movie night, go out to eat or invite friends for dinner. If staying at the dining table is your comfort zone, a little music or change in lighting goes a long way.