7 Ways to Teach Your Child to Sit at the Table

Behavior, Self-Help, Special Needs Parenting

Sitting at the table is one of those things that’s hard to decide on.  Should I have my kids only eat at the table?  Is it better that I just feed them?  Even if that means it’s chasing them down or letting them eat while watching the iPad?


If you haven’t read my previous posts on medical reasons your child isn’t eating, common mealtime challenges, and mealtime schedules – check those out first!)


If your child has difficulties eating new foods and has a history of hating being at the table (or in the highchair), it’s easier in the short term to just feed them a few bites wherever they are playing.


However, today I am going to cover why sitting at the table is worth teaching to improve eating (and other skills).  I’ll also talk about how to teach this and what to do if they won’t sit at the table.


Why Sitting at the Table May Not Be Happening Yet


It’s very common for toddlers and preschoolers with autism and other developmental delays to not want to eat at the table.  Instead, they prefer to just graze throughout the day on the few foods they feel comfortable with.


Many foods are packaged to be eaten on the go with little mess (food pouches, fruit snacks, crackers, dry cereal, cheese sticks, etc).


So, if your child is only eating a handful of snack foods, it’s convenient to just hand those out during the day and know your child is fed.  


This is especially common when you’ve had a lot of unsuccessful attempts to get your child to eat at the table.


I’m going to go out on a limb, however, and say that sitting at the table is a skill that all kids should learn.


Yes – even toddlers, preschoolers, and our kids with special needs.


Before We Jump In


First, let me say that when I say “table,” that can mean different things in your home.


That could mean sitting in a high chair.  


Or a child-size table.


Or the kitchen counter.


It might mean your child is sitting in a booster seat at the dining room table.


Second, if you aren’t sure if your child is safe to sit or supported enough where you want them to sit, ask for help.  If your child is already seeing a physical therapist or occupational therapist, they are great resources!  


Being able to sit safely and supported will help a ton with being able to try new foods!  You want your child to be able to sit without sliding or slouching and with their feet able to touch the ground or a step or ledge if they’re using a booster seat or high chair.


Why Sitting at the Table is Important to Teach


Sitting in a highchair, booster seat, or a chair is a really valuable skill for your child to learn early on.


  • Attention span – Your child’s attention span will improve when they are able to sit at a table and focus on the meal or activity.
  • Awareness – In order for your child to eat new foods or try new activities, they first have to be aware of what is happening around them.  If they are watching a show or playing and you are feeding them bites, they don’t have to be aware of which food is being fed to them (they don’t even have to touch it or look at it).
  • Age appropriate limits and expectations – Your child will learn that certain activities happen in certain places.  It’s also the beginning of following directions.
  • Predictability and structure – When you’ve established that snacks and meals happen in a certain place during certain times of day, you greatly decrease the chances of tantrums, screaming, fussing, etc.  When things are predictable, kids know what to expect.  This is INCREDIBLY important for our toddlers and preschoolers with developmental delays, autism, behavior challenges, and feeding issues.


I Want My Kid to Sit at the Table, But…


There are a lot of reasons kids don’t want to sit at the table to eat.  


Many times it’s because they’ve had bad experiences there.


They had to try new foods.


It’s not comfortable.


They had to leave something fun they were doing to go to the table.


It’s too noisy, smelly, or otherwise overwhelming.


No one is sitting there with them.


All of those behaviors we see (tantrums, screaming, running away, etc.) are your child’s way of protecting themselves from doing something they don’t want to do or is too hard.


Sitting at the Table Plan


Consider the following when you’re thinking about teaching your child how to sit at the table:


  • Where will they sit right now?  Do they prefer a child size table and chair?  Will they sit on your lap at the table?  Will they sit in their high chair?  Would they eat at the coffee table?
  • What’s going on at the table?  Are siblings noisy?  Are there lots of foods placed on the table?  Is the TV on in the other room?  Is your child sitting by themself because everyone else eats at a different time?
  • What’s happened at the table before?  Forced to try new foods?  Never had to sit while eating before?  
  • What would make sitting at the table more enjoyable for my child?  Certain foods, toys, iPAD?  Would they stay at the table if someone is sitting with them?


Remember – this is a new skill for your child!


If sitting at the table was easy and enjoyable, they would do it!


Think of sitting at the table as a skill you need to teach!


Your child didn’t walk in a day!  They certainly didn’t take those first steps by themselves.  You had to build up to it.  You provided a lot of support and encouragement and started off with a couple of steps at a time.


There’s NO WAY I could run a marathon today!  I wouldn’t even try!


But I could run to the corner of my street and back (I think).  As the days go on, I can do a little more and a little more.


Start where you and your child can be successful right now!


How to Teach Sitting at the Table


Look at the Environment


These are quick and easy changes that you can make.  This could include:


  • Minimize Distractions / Sensory Issues – Decreasing and minimizing distractions and sensory input allows your child to focus and learn better.  Practice sitting at the table when siblings aren’t around.  Turn off the TV and other screens.  Make sure the table isn’t too busy.  Have foods that aren’t too smelly if that bothers your child.  
  • Plates / Utensils / Cups – Choose items that are easy for your child to use and that they enjoy.
  • Preferred Foods / Drinks – Remember, sitting at the table is the work.  If we too quickly jump into trying new foods, your child isn’t going to like it!  Start by having foods your child really likes at the table.


Add Reinforcement


Having something fun and enjoyable at the table makes it much more likely your child will sit at the table.


  • Favorite food or drink – As soon as your child sits at the table, they get to have a sip of their favorite drink or they get to have a fruit snack.  
  • Small toy – While your child is sitting at the table, they get access to a small toy.
  • Music or show – After your child sits at the table for a certain amount of time, they get to watch a few seconds of a show or listen to part of a song.


Using rewards is NOT bribery!  Here’s the difference:


  • BRIBERY – You tell your child once they sit at the table, they get some ice cream.  Your child screams and fusses.  You give them the ice cream and then take them to the table.
  • REINFORCEMENT – You tell your child, “Sit at the table and then ice cream.”  Only after your child is sitting at the table, do you provide a bite of ice cream.”


Sitting at the table is hard work for some kids!  Using rewards temporarily helps your child learn that going to the table isn’t a big deal and something cool happens when they do!


However, they only get the reward AFTER they have followed the direction – “Sit at the table.”


The Grandma Method


When you go to Grandma’s house, you don’t have to do anything to get rewarded, right?  


She just gives you stuff because you’re there!


You can use this for teaching sitting at the table.


Choose an item that your child likes (fruit snacks, chips, favorite drink).  As long as your child is at the table, they get that item!


They don’t have to ask for it.  They don’t even have to look at you.  


You provide another fruit snack or drink every few seconds they are at the table.


You’re teaching your child the table can be enjoyable and good things happen there.


You’re setting up a new pattern!


Practice Sitting at the Table Outside of Mealtimes


If your child has a lot of negative memories of sitting at the table and eating, do other things at the table.


You can read or color or blow bubbles.  Play with cars.  Do a puzzle with mom or dad.


Doing other activities at the table also establishes a new pattern for your child and is a great way to get them sitting at the table without the worry of having to eat.


End Before Your Child is Done!!!


As a mom and teacher, if things are going well, I let it ride!


But that can sometimes blow up in our face when we realize we pushed it a little too long.


All of the sudden your kiddo is throwing food or whining or running away from the table.


Watch closely for signs that your child is done at the table.  This goes for whether you’re eating at the table or doing another activity there.


We want to end while your child is still happy and doing ok.


When you can tell your child is close to being done, tell them, “Ok, 2 more minutes.  Then all done.”


(You aren’t held to an actual two minutes.  You’re setting up a predictable routine.)


After a minute (or few seconds) say, “Ok, 1 more minute, then we’re done at the table.”


Let them play or eat another minute (or few seconds) and then say, “Great sitting at the table.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5…….all done.”  Help them out of their chair and move on to what’s next.


Keep It Short – Build Up Time as You Go!


Go back to the marathon example!


I can’t run that today and if someone expects me to – I’m not even going to try.  I’m not even putting on my running shoes.  It’s too hard and too much!


Give me a short little run and let me be done!  Even if you think I can do more.


After those short little runs to the corner and back are no big deal, then you can gradually have me run a bit longer.


If your child is able to sit at the table for 10 seconds, that’s where you start!


If they can sit at the table for 1 minute while playing with their car, that’s great!


Start with practice sessions – allow your child (and yourself) to feel successful!!


Ignore “Junk Behaviors”


Lastly, but certainly not the least, ignore “junk behaviors.”


Several years ago I read “The Power of Positive Parenting” by Dr. Glenn Latham.  One of his suggestions that’s always stuck with me is “ignore the junk behaviors.”


The junk behaviors are the things that kids do that drive us parents crazy but aren’t that big of a deal.


For example, when I was teaching my oldest how to sit at the table during meals, it went pretty well.


He could sit for several minutes and would even eat a few bites.


Great, right?


Except for the fact that he was constantly moving around in his chair and he was such a messy eater and he fussed about anything that wasn’t meat or bread.


It drove me nuts to watch him constantly moving around.  It drove me nuts how messy he was.  It drove me nuts that he fussed about most of the foods I gave him.


Then Dr. Latham entered into my brain.


“Ignore the junk behaviors.”


My goal was that my son would eat at the table.


Was he doing it?  Yes!!


Was he eating?  Also, yes!!


Was he doing it exactly how I wanted him to do it?  NO!!


Did I have to look away from the constant motion and messy eating?  Absolutely!!


I had to remember that he was eating at the table.


That’s what I wanted!


I had to look away and remember that we could focus on how he was eating later on.


Right now he was doing what I had asked him to do.


Sitting at the Table is a Marathon


Training for a marathon takes time.  It takes practice.  Lots of practice.


Some will be able to do it before others.


Think about what your child can do right now.


Think about how you can make sitting at the table easier and more likely to happen.


Start small and get out quick!


Sitting at the table is a skill your child will need for home, school, and daycare.


It’s worth the time and effort to teach your child how to do this!


Is there something that worked for your child?  Any questions?  Leave a comment below!


1 Comment

  1. Lily Bridgers

    Thanks for saying that when your child is able to sit at a table and concentrate on the meal or activity, their attention span will increase. This is why I want to bring my kids to an Italian restaurant this week. I just noticed that they focus on the TV than the food in front of them when it’s lunch or dinner time. Besides going out with them, it’d be nice to have delicious pasta and sandwiches we can all share.

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