Today we’ll solve two common mealtime problems!
Problem #1: Toddlers who only want to eat off their parent’s plate (and not their own, even if the food is the same)!
Problem #2: Toddlers who will NOT stay seated at a meal.
Note: this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
About Feeding Toddlers Made Easy
I’m Kacie Barnes, MCN, RDN. This is Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, where we demystify your toddler’s wacky and frustrating mealtime behaviors, and talk about how to get them good nutrition, too.
Please follow the podcast if you find it helpful and you like hanging out while you’re driving, or walking, or cleaning up dinner, whatever you are doing I am glad you’re here.
Get your free PDF printable cheat sheet to get them to stay seated at mealtimes here:
Today’s parent question:
Hey Kacie, this is Matthew, long time listener, first-time caller. Our two children are a year and half and eight weeks. But our questions are about the toddler. He’s a pretty good eater. He really eats what we eat. And I know we’re very lucky with that. To the point where we have to give him the same food that we eat on his plate and he still wants to eat what’s on our plate even though it is the exact same thing. We just cut it up into smaller pieces for him. We repeatedly show him that we are eating the same thing, but he wants what’s on our plate.
And then the other thing we’re running into, is he has his booster seat on the table. He starts off there and within five minutes is roaming around from seat to seat around the table. When we have the eight-week-old on the bench with us, he’s very inquisitive with her. So any tips you have to keeping him in his seat for more than six seconds would be great. Thank you.
Mealtime problems, solved
Today’s episode is totally taking me back to when my oldest, Teddy, was a toddler. I would make myself salads a lot for lunch, and he’d just walk on over and want to eat basically my entire salad. Yet the second I put any of those foods on his plate, zero interest. Zero appeal.
Toddlers are tricky but that’s why we’re here. I’m sharing tips on what to do when your toddler is always wanting to eat off your plate, and some tips on keeping them seated for more than 6 seconds, as Matthew puts it.
What to do when they only want to eat off your plate
First, I want to say that Matthew and his wife are doing a great job of serving the same food to their toddler as they are eating. This can be a huge barrier for a lot of families with toddlers! So I love that they already have this in place.
I will say that their food does not have to be EXACTLY the same as yours, especially if they are very selective. But in general you want to avoid falling into the trap of always making separate meals. Instead, aim to serve components of your meal to them. For example, I made chicken noodle soup the other night. My daughter is weird about soup so I used a slotted spoon to remove the broth and serve her just the noodles, chicken, and carrots. My son had some of the chicken, and ate raw carrots, and a roll. So our plates looked different but it all came from the same meal.
So tip #1 is serving the same food to your toddler as you have on your plate.
Tip #2 is to try family style serving. Sometimes their desire to eat off your plate stems from their desire to be more independent. To be a big kid. So allowing them (maybe with some help, depending on their ability level) to scoop a portion onto their own plate can help.
My daughter actually LOVES to serve me too, so sometimes we pretend she is a server at a restaurant, she has so much fun with that.
Tip #3 is to offer “adult” utensils and plates. I like the kiddobloom kids set of utensils because it looks very grown up. But the size is easier for a little one to handle. You can do adult plates for them, too. Something like melamine that won’t shatter if they throw or drop it is a good place to start if they tend to fling things.
Tip #4 is to give choices. Sometimes they just want more control or to feel more grown up. So let them decide where they will sit at the table, what plate they choose, would they like milk or water, etc. It may seem like little things, but instead of the, “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” mentality, in this case it can go a long way. Think about your partner handing you a mug of tea and you say, “oh I was planning to drink coffee today,” and they say, “well too bad this is what you get.”
What if instead they ask you, “I’m heading to the kitchen, would you like me to get you a coffee or a tea?” That feels so much better.
I’m not saying you need to cater to every whim! Just think about where you can provide them with some choice and small decision making.
Tip #5 – remember that it’s normal for toddlers to do this. Like many things, it’s a phase that they will grow out of!
Get your toddler to sit at mealtimes
Make sure to grab your free PDF download to print out so you have a reminder of all the steps at mealtime!
First, let’s talk about expectations. About 5 minutes of sitting is about what you can expect from a toddler. Some will be able to work up to more than that, and some will do okay with 10 minutes one day and be freaking out at 3 minutes another day. It’s not always going to be completely consistent, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t behaving or you’re not doing a good job. It’s just part of being a human and not being able to keep it together all the time.
But I know you want to be able to sit down and enjoy your food for a few minutes, and also not have to say, “sit down” five thousand times while you’re eating.
You’ll want to prepare them for the transition because that can be the hardest part for kids, if they are involved in play or an activity right before the meal. It can be hard to leave a fun, stimulating thing and have to shift focus to mealtime. So give them a warning 2 to 5 minutes in advance.
Pro tip: get dinner ready BEFORE you have them sit down! I’m the worst at this. I’ll tell my kids, “it’s dinner time now!” and I’m still cooking. When you’re almost done with preparing the food, give them the warning. That way when they come to the table, it’s time to eat. You don’t waste precious sitting time before the food is ready.
Pro tip #2- for a wiggly kid, add an exercise band to the legs of their chair or highchair, like this kind that you can tie on. My kids both have this on their chairs! One, it helps them to have a place to put their feet. But it also allows them to get out some energy by kicking their legs or feet against it. My son used to kick me under the table just for something to do, but the band completely stopped this behavior.
One more note on proper seating: the table should be mid-chest height or lower. If they have to reach up to eat it’s not going to be comfortable and they won’t want to stay seated.
When you start the meal, have a common trigger that becomes routine. Whether it’s a song, a prayer, a family cheer, I don’t care what it is but it will help them transition to mealtime.
Take a deep breath, if you need it! Positive or at the very least neutral vibes at the table help make it a place where people want to be.
I’m okay with one small toy at the table, like a little figurine that they can pretend to feed. They will naturally phase out of needing this as they become school aged.
Then reinforce the sitting behavior right away! “I see you sitting calmly at the table.” Or, “I like the way you are gently using your fork.” Find something that feels somewhat natural to you (it may always feel a little unnatural to make these kinds of comments, that’s ok). But the point here is that you are focusing on the good.
Last tip – use a visual timer! Start at as little as 3 minutes if they really have a hard time with sitting. Let’s get some positive momentum going! You can increase a minute at a time, every couple of days or every week. Work up to about 10 minutes and go from there!