Please sit down and eat!

Jumping boys by Madaise - Flicker Creative Commons license

Jumping boys by Madaise - Flicker Creative Commons license

Please sit down and eat. I must repeat this sentence 20 to 30 times a day. And no, this is not an overstatement on my part. Every meal at our house starts with the same prompt: “please sit down and eat”. After the kids have gotten up a few times, it turns into “come here and sit down to eat”. It’s all downhill from there and I usually end up barking “SIT DOWN ALREADY!”. And we’re not even halfway through the meal.

I have a problem. A meal eating problem. A serious and exhausting problem. My kids won’t sit down to eat. If they’re hungry, they’ll cooperate and get to the table when prompted. Their buttocks will touch the seat of the chair for just a few minutes when they decide to take off with some mind of their own. I swear the buttocks control their bodies, because my kids will walk aimlessly around the room until I remind them to come back to the table. It was never a problem while we used high chairs and boosters we could strap the kids in. But let’s be realistic, no five-year-old will fall for this trick again!

I’ve mostly solved this problem at dinnertime. We don’t have cable TV so the kids can’t plop themselves in front of the idiot box hours on end. Instead they get to watch DVDs during dinner. Curious George, Elmo, Blue’s Clues and Charlie & Lola help them stay seated long enough to eat their meal. I usually sit down with them and have dinner too, and we get to discuss the video we’re watching. I know all the experts advise children to not eat and watch TV at the same time, but they clearly don’t have to feed my kids every night. I draw the line of video watching at dinner, so breakfast and lunch are still no-sitting zones.

I’m not sure what my kids’ problem is. My youngest is often the hungry one so he’ll sit down promptly. His temporary state of hunger will entice him to make a dent in his meal but as he gets satisfied, he’ll often get up to “get something”. If my oldest could survive without ever eating anything, he probably wouldn’t put any food in his mouth, except to enjoy the taste of it. Although he’s an adventurous eater and likes good food, he’s rarely inspired enough to sit down for more than a few minutes. Unless I remind him he’s supposed to eat, he’ll go through the whole meal without putting a forkful in his mouth.

I’ve tried it all, the easy way, the hard way. I’ve put the food away when they weren’t interested, ending up with hungry, cranky, whiney kids an hour later. I’ve allowed toys and books at the table if it will help them stay in their seats. Unfortunately they always want something else to play with, something else to read… I can read books to them during the meal, but it means I don’t get to eat. And clearly my conversation topics are not interesting enough to keep them at the table long enough.

So I turn to you, parents of younger and older children. Have you experienced the “ants-in-the-pants” behavior at the dining table? How have you dealt with it? What has worked for you? Thank you so much for sharing your successful parenting tips.

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20 responses to “Please sit down and eat!

  1. Exact dilemma I’m facing with my 2.5 yo daughter. She refuses to sit down & eat, preceding to wander about ‘exploring’ & playing, often times with a cup in hand or food or something. I know I’m probably doing this wrong but I’ve begged, bribed, screamed to no avail. Sigh! If you figure out a magic trick, PLEASE share it. The TV thing won’t work because she’ll either get up & dance or want to point (read: touch) the characters on TV. So, stains on floor & food smudges on TV.

    • Well, I don’t feel so bad knowing the same thing goes on at your house. But still, it really annoys me. I don’t have any memories of myself at that age, so I’m not sure if I ever did that or not. I know kids can’t stay sitted too long but I’d expect mine to eat in 20 to 30 minutes and then want to get up. They clearly have no motivation to eat and stay healthy… I’ll let you know if I figure out something that works.

  2. We have a have a definite mealtime behavior problem at our house, but it’s not of the ants-in-the-pants variety. Instead, my boys take turns refusing to eat what’s put in front of them. Like you, we’ve tried 1001 solutions, but none seem to work consistently. I wonder what it is about kids and meals. If you come up with any solutions, please let me know!

    • The only advice I’ve heard about your situation is to leave the food in front of the child for the duration of the meal. If they don’t eat it, it goes back in the fridge and out on the table at the next meal. I’m not sure I could go through the drill myself. If I’m 100% sure I know my kid likes the food on the plate, maybe he’s not hungry, and yes, I’d offer it again. But sometimes kids do something just to bother us (not eat) and test our reaction. So putting the plate away should work. The problem is you’ll end up with a cranky kid until the next meal…

      I just got a book that’s supposed to be great on raising boys from 0 to 18 for my birthday, so I need to dig into it and see if there’s anything about mealtime. I let you know if I find some great tips!

  3. Interesting. Mine are much older (15 and 17) and we certainly went through periods of round bottom syndrome…

    My eldest actually was better on a cushion, rather than on the slippery wood surface of the chairs in our kitchen. I used to put a piece of non-slip matting under the cushion and that held it in place better. It made a significant difference.

    We also had the no pudding rule… that is no pudding if the table manners weren’t good enough. We often had main course, then a piece of fruit and then yoghurt as pudding or from frais which they both loved. In difficult times 5 chocolate buttons as a prize for the better behaved between the two of them could help too.

    The there was the no getting down with out, ‘Please may I get down?’ rule, consistently enforced.

    I was pretty against TV at the table, but found, sometimes story tapes, or a reading tea would work… so I’d either read to them, or play a tape.

    Another trick was the distraction one. Play a word game while they eat – such as ‘I spy’… or which of them can recount a certain nursery rhyme. I can’t remember how old your two are… but quite small I think. I promise you it will get better :)

    • Your point about the cushion is interesting. My kids used to have very uncomfortable boosters and I’d have cushioning so they wouldn’t get up as much for that reason. Maybe I should do the same for the chairs they use now. I’ve used word games and stories at the table and even when they sit and are interested, then they forget to eat!

      We saw the pediatrician yesterday for my oldest’s annual physical and I asked her about the non-sitting daily exercise. She told me it was normal for active boys to not want to sit for a long time and to keep bringing them back to the table. She also suggested maybe having them do some physical exercise (like run a few laps) just before dinner to let off some steam. She did tell me it’d get better too eventually. Well, that’s something I can’t wait for!

    • When you look back this will only be short period of their life… though it seems an eternity at the time.

      Setting a good example of what you expect is the best way forward… and sometimes talking about expectations of meal time behaviour at another time is good… maybe on a car journey, reinforcing the positive
      “Dad and I are always so impressed with you two when you can sit at the table ……”

      Reminds me of the time I was so frustrated with my eldest being unaware of bumping into people in the street. No matter what I said, it didn’t improve.
      However my husband told him the people on the street should be viewed as a part of a playstation game and contact with them should be avoided – worked a treat!

      • I love your husband’s idea to make the outside walk a game!

        Funny what you say about the early years feeling like an eternity. That’s exactly what the peditrician told me this week. The first five years feel as they drag on, but she warned me the next five will go by very fast as my kids become more independent. She said, don’t blink, or you’ll miss something. For now, I want to be able to blink and still find my kids sitting at the dining table!

    • Just think, in about 10 years one of them, or both will be taller than you! I’m the shortest in my family at 5’9″

  4. I think that I am lucky because my boys will sit down during meal time. Even the youngest also ask to sit on his high chair when meal time :)
    But every kids are different and I see some of my friends’ children will run here and there.

  5. I’ll be honest in that meal time and sitting at the table together as a family has always been a big issue for me.

    It sounds the same for you.

    The things that helped the most with our mealtimes (including with the ADHD one):

    – Set strict rules. Meal time is meal time. No distractions. No toys. No books. No TV. No music. Every one is expected to come to the table when dinner is called. And needs to ask to be excused.

    – Lunch and dinner time is also family time. We discuss the food. The weather. Their day. Tell jokes. Tell stories. Then it’s like a treat to sit at the table because they get so much attention (we often sit for an hour and when they were younger even longer). We do not answer the phone. We completely concentrate on each other.

    – The children help to cook. And to lay the table. They also clean the table and sweep the floor afterwards. Every day we thank the ones who cooked and show our appreciation of their efforts. The child who helped wants to see people eat their food and wants to sample what they cooked. They are also really pleased when they are thanked by the others.

    – Food is always served in bowls or from pans (I suspect you maybe do that already being French, it’s not typical in the UK). That way the children eat small bits and then add to it. They choose what exactly they want to eat and can stop when they are no longer hungry. Then remaining at the table is a way of being involved in the conversation.

    – There’s lots of table language like “Please pass the butter.” and if the little one leaves the table and walks around to get something, we send her back to her seat empty-handed and she’s asked to return to her seat and ask for the item.

    That’s our technique. I don’t know if it fits for you. Another possibility could be that a reward chart might help too.

    I totally get why this would bother you. My in-laws children cannot sit at the table but I think it’s not important to my in-laws so it’s not an issue for them but it would be for me.

    • I understand our pediatrician’s encouragements that things will get better as the kids get older. Right now, it’s hard to expect a 3 year old to sit more than 20 minutes without starting to squirm. The problem is when he gets up (and usually has eaten most of his food). His brother will want to get up too but will have barely touch his food. Now this one could probably stay at the table a lot longer because he’ll keep on talking but his food interest is minimal. Balancing the two is a challenging act every day but I won’t give up!

      Now that I think of it, I should have put that on my 101 in 1001 list. It would be the biggest challenge of them all! :-)

  6. Your paediatrician is right, it will improve with age. And your determination will mean that you will sort it and have it exactly the way you want it.

    Our 4yo daughter stood up again last night and went to take something from the other end of the table instead of asking someone to pass it to her. I immediately thought of you!! She’s pretty good now most of the time, but it took time, determination (and a few times my patience!).

    Also important to note, is that boys are in general, more wiggly than girls. Sometimes that is a bit hard for me to judge as my son is super wiggly and I’m not sure what is because he’s a boy and what’s because of his ADHD!

    I guess a big part of your concern is not just the sitting, but how much your younger son actually consumes. But as long as he’s healthy and growing then I don’t think you should worry too much. Your paediatrician would tell you if something was wrong.

    You’re right, it is definitely a challenge! I wish you much success with it and in as short a time as possible. (With as little pain as possible).

    • My kids are both on the lean side (an unusual pattern for American boys!) and my youngest will mostly eat his food on his own. I often find myself still feeding my oldest, or else he’ll just sit at the table not eating. And if I don’t feed him, he really won’t eat and will be cranky until the next meal. I’m sure this will change eventually too and I can’t wait for that day!

  7. It will change, for sure. And then you’ll be on to a new phase! ;-)

    I can completely understand your frustrations and your concern.

    But see, you’ve already solved the problem of him being cranky in between meals and that he eats properly. At some point he’ll grow out of needing help to be fed. It may be that at some point he’s embarrassed that his mum needs to feed him (because a friend is over, or his younger brother can do it better). It could even be his way of being mummy’s little boy, perhaps.

    My very good friend is frustrated because her third daughter will not dress herself. (Although she’s capable). She’s 4yo but wants her mum to dress her all the time. My friend is really bothered because it makes them late, and causes problems at Kindergarten as she refuses point blank to dress there also. The teachers keep complaining to her and telling her to sort it out, but nothing she says or does makes a difference.

    With four of my own, I am not at all surprised I am starting to go grey!!

    I think that you’re doing a good job. You’re sticking with it and that’s the main thing.

    • Wow, my kids waste a lot of time getting ready for school too (as in putting their shoes on) but when I tell them I’m leaving and I get in the car, they manage to finish the task. Funny because they’re the only reason why I’d have to leave home at that time but they don’t seem to grasp this yet!

      My biggest challenge is breakfast when my youngest is always hungry and eats promptly while my oldest isn’t and that’s when I feed him most of the time. If he doesn’t eat, then he acts up at school and gets in trouble. Whoever said breakfast is the most important meal of the day was right!

      By the way, I should complain about my kids’ eating habits more. This whole weekend, they’ve been great at eating most of their meals when asked, by themselves!

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