She Says… Dinnertime Woes

Remember when I wrote about how we are doing our best to institute family dinners? I’ve made great strides in coming up with meals that can be ready quickly so we can eat by 5:30pm, and cooking dinner together (usually with me cooking as fast as possible, Owen climbing in and out of his learning tower and Benjamin making sure he can’t get his hands on a hot pot handle or sharp knife) has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

Owen hops up next to me and we talk about what we’re making. He usually samples whatever I’m chopping (Bonus! He chomps away at veggies and foods he wouldn’t even try if we were sitting at the table) and bangs his own spoon around a bowl and arranges ingredients on the counter. It’s usually a bit crazy, but I love a little crazy.

So the preparing dinner part is going great. It’s the eating dinner part that is going through a bit of a rough patch.

We wash hands, grab our drinks and sit at the table. Usually that involves Owen shouting “Noooooo!” while running away and crying “Nook! Nook!” (milk) while we wrangle him up to the sink to wash his hands. What is the big deal with washing hands? Why does he hate it so? The world may never know. The learning tower has helped with this recently, since he likes climbing up and doing it himself instead of having us tie him down hold him and wash his hands. Anyway, once he washes hands, he gets milk. And we sit down.

He usually points at his plate happily for about 30 seconds and talks about all of the food. The second I dig into mine, however, he’s all, “All done! Done. All done, Mommy.”

Uh, what? Didn’t we just sit down?

“Doggie? Doggie?” He leans over the edge of his seat to peer under the table where the dog is laying silently. “Yes, buddy. The doggie is under the table.”

“All done!” He does sign language and moves his plate gently off of his tray and onto the dining room table, out of his own reach. “DOWN! PLAY. Toys. Doggie.”

“No, Owen, it’s not time to get down. It’s time to eat dinner! Mommy and Daddy are eating dinner. Yum, yum! Isn’t this chicken delicious? Did you try a piece? Oooooh, look how green that broccoli is! Can you find something orange on your plate?” Yes, I am crazy.

It’s not the food that’s the problem. I mean, he’s been going through a weird week or so of eating what with the ear infection and stomach bug (forgot to blog about that, but we got a minor version of the major stomach bug that’s been going around on Monday), but he’s generally a voracious eater. He’s especially good at just trying new things, even if he doesn’t like them or doesn’t eat more than one bite. That’s my goal at every meal — to get him to try one bite of everything on his plate. However much he eats is up to him.

No, the problem here is not food (as far as I can tell). It’s that he just simply doesn’t have the time to sit and eat. There is too! much! fun! to! be! had! Oh, to be a toddler.

I’m struggling with how to respond to his protests. Of course I want him to eat dinner so that he is nourished and not hungry at night. But honestly, he eats pretty well the rest of the day. It’s pretty much just dinner that seems to be the issue. He’s growing perfectly and beautifully, so I’m not worried about him not consuming enough calories. I also want him to grow to love family dinner time, and not think that he’s being held captive in a chair. I won’t be able to strap him down forever!

I know in theory I should be letting him make his own food decisions. If he says he’s done, he’s done. That’s generally how I’ve reacted for the last week. I encourage him to eat a few more bites, but then if he demands that he’s done, he’s done. But it’s after we let him be done that I don’t know what to do.

  • Ideally I would like him to be able to sit in his chair and just be at the table, even if he’s not eating. Eventually I believe this will turn into eating, if he’s sitting in front of his plate long enough. But the talking and engaging around the table every night is important too, and I want him to be a part of it. But is that asking too much of him right now, especially after a long day at daycare when he just wants to play with me?
  • I have considered letting him get down and play, but maintaining that Benjamin and I are still eating dinner, so we are going to sit at the table. (Subtext: Don’t you want to sit at the table too?) We tried this one night and he literally spent the next 3 minutes whining and climbing up my leg while I did my best to ignore him. I gave up and said we were done.
  • The other night I asked him if he wanted to sit in my lap instead of the high chair. He did, and he ate a few bites off of my fork and then played pretty happily while I finished my dinner (eating over his head). Now, every night since then, as soon as he gets in his chair, he’s reaching for me, shouting, “Yap! Yap! Mommy! Yap!”. The lap idea backfired. That’s not the way I want to be eating dinner every night!

I’m going to chalk this up to this too shall pass. But in the meantime, I think how I react to this behavior is pretty important. I want to be calm and have a response prepared. I want to be consistent and set behaviors that will someday turn into happy family dinners.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Stories of similar woes? Other things that backfired on you that I shouldn’t try?


18 responses to “She Says… Dinnertime Woes

  1. As you know I am nowhere near this stage, but how about giving him something to do while sitting down? Maybe conversation and eating isn’t enough for him at such a young age with a short attention span?

  2. We go through the same thing with Eli. We make him sit at the table while we finish eating, even if it means that he is whining the whole time. We engage him in our conversation and encourage him to eat one more bite of each thing on his plate. Sometimes, the best response seems to be no response at all. If he’s being particularly fussy, then James and I just ignore him and have a conversation ourselves (which is tough over whining!). This usually ends with Eli getting bored of complaining to nobody, and he eats a bite or two more. Then, we congratulate him.

    Eli hasn’t eaten much dinner for months now… I think that he fills up during the day and isn’t that hungry by dinner time. Like Owen, he eats well and healthily during the day, so I’m not worried about his nutrition… I just want him to understand and enjoy family mealtime. Needless to say, we have learned to eat pretty quickly!

  3. We’re having the same thing here. We usually get her down once she says she’s finished and then she sometimes plays and sometimes begs to be in my lap. I’m not too worried about it for now. I figure it’s just a phase. She normally chows down on her dinner, so I’m assuming she’ll regain interest in finishing her meal again soon. It’s not the most enjoyable dinner environment, but I figure that’s just part of having a toddler. She sure is entertaining 🙂

  4. This is insane. I picked Cameron up from day care last week with a fever which ended up being an ear infection. His now finishing up his 10 days of antibiotics which are YUCKY, gritty and are known to cause an upset tummy (Biaxin – first time ever on any meds). BEFORE this, he was an excellent eater, would always try everything and I would always respect his “all done” declarations whenever they came. Some nights he’d be ravenous, others, a few bites was enough. It was never an issue for me – I follow the same philosophy as you do. BUT since this ear infection, he’s hardly.eaten.anything. It’s the first time ever I’ve been worried at all about what to do. I don’t know if it’s the upset tummy that’s making him not want to eat or the illness or if it’s just a toddler stage.

    Pretty coincidental that it’s the same circumstances this is occurring with Owen, and they are pretty much the same age within a few weeks, so hard to figure that out for sure if it’s illness vs. age stage. He’s no longer cool with sitting in his chair for dinner, so I changed him to his booster seat up at the table and he wants on my lap, just like Owen! I tried pulling him up right beside me in his booster seat but that was not good enough, it’s on my lap. I should also add that there still isn’t any eating going on while on my lap, just playing with his fork and trying to then play with my food. In general, I’m ok with the lap thing for now, simply because he doesn’t see me all day long during the week and I totally get why he wants to be up with Mommy. I have all the time in the world for that right now, but it’s the not eating thing that’s troubling me right now.

    I’m hoping that at a minimum, it’s the medication/illness causing him to not be interested in eating much and that it will pass because at least before, I knew that he was eating well the rest of the day, but right now, notsomuch, just a few bites here and there.

  5. My 19 month old is doing a similar thing – he decides he is all done after eating one or two bites plus whatever fruit is being offered. I always worry that he’ll be hungry in the middle of the night – which has never happened and he eats well all day long…but still! A while ago he was consistently pushing his plate off the high chair tray and onto the table but then dragging it back to get a piece of food and then pushing it away again. Once we removed the high chair tray and let him sit at the table that seemed to help. (Of course, we did not think of this ourselves; one of the teachers at day care suggested it!) Now at least he will sit at the table and wait for us to be done even though he has decided he is done. Maybe having Owen sit at the table like Mom and Dad will help keep his attention at the table a little longer?

  6. Maybe if you get a booster seat for the table and when you’re getting ready to eat, make a big production of letting him choose whether he’d like to sit in the high chair or special booster seat? I realize this may only buy you an extra moment or two of peace but it’s all I’ve got to offer, hahaha.

    But I do think it’s awesome how you include him in the cooking. You are creating some great habits by teaching him to prepare and enjoy fresh, home-cooked food and then sit down together as a family. If he doesn’t last the whole meal, I don’t think there’s much harm in that for now.

  7. My son is just about 17 months and I think we’re of the mindset to do option 1. Good luck with whatever you decide!

  8. Maeve, too, does not really eat dinner. At first I was quite worried about it and nervous that she would be hungry at night time. I remember Esme not eating dinner for ages around this age–I would say at least a year was spent with me trying to coax her to eat her dinner. Now she eats a great dinner. So I figure this is definitely an age stage and so I’ve decided to let Maeve eat as much or as little dinner as she wants. Now, if she only has one or two bites we do try to encourage her to eat more, but we try not to push it too much. I did notice an improvement in her eating when we moved her to a booster seat, but that only lasted about a week and she went back to not really eating much. I really do think that young kids are simply not really hungry later at night as I have heard this same scenario told to me by many parents. I think as long as they are eating well and healthily the rest of the day you shouldn’t worry. Now–as far as what to do when he’s done…we too have a family dinner and when both kids are done and have gotten the OK from us to be done, we let them down to play. It might be different because we have 2, but they seem to be fairly happy playing together while we stay at the table and finish our dinner. We generally try to wait to let the kids down until they are both done, but sometimes one will be allowed out before the other. It helps that our play area is in the same area where we eat dinner. They can be playing away and we can still be sitting down but we are all together. Maybe there are a few special toys you can put in the dining room that can be special after dinner toys to play with while you guys finish up? Maybe even the toy kitchen? He could “cook” you dessert–or do the dishes for you? Or does he do any coloring yet? I remember we used to let Esme sit and draw at the table while we ate. I know he’s a bit young, but sometimes even just something different that he doesn’t do the rest of the day could help–scribbling with some toddler crayons on paper, or sticking stickers on a piece of paper? (Stickers are like gold to our kids–they LOVE them!) Something that wouldn’t need your help so you could enjoy the rest of your dinner (yeah right!:) Good luck and remember–this too is a phase that will pass!

  9. My son is 20 months. Some days he eats a ton of dinner and some days not as much. Here is my advice: don’t let him have a snack close to dinner, even the veggies as you are cooking. Keep some and put them on his plate for dinner. Its ok for kids to be hungry! I tell my son that it’s almost dinner time and we’ll eat when Dada gets home. Somedays he gets upset, some days he just continues on with something else. But it’s good to teach kids to wait and that we have times for eating, not snacking all day (I wish I was better about this myself!).

    Also, he has sat in a regular chair at the table for months now and likes it a lot. He eats most his meals at the table on the chair. Right now, he does like to sit in my lap or my husband’s lap and we let him. He eats more that way. He likes to eat off our plates too. Its just a phase! And we trade off so we each get to eat. I think it’s better to have a family meal and all be eating, than have the distraction of the kids running around and not learning that dinner time is for family and sitting at the table.

    Good luck!

  10. In the case of my 3 year old, it’s more about activity than hunger. I think I commented about this before — the bottom line is that dinnertime is the first time we are ALL together all day and frankly, the last thing he wants to do is SIT DOWN with my husband and me when he would so much rather be playing with us. It has been an uphill battle since day one to get him to understand that sitting down and chatting with us can be just as much fun as running around the basement or playing with trains. I think that, as with so many others, he’s just not that hungry, and he’s frustrated because if he’s not hungry, why the heck do the rest of us want to eat??? We usually let him eat what he wants and then we try to entice him to stay at the table by asking lots of questions, telling jokes, singing songs, etc. But there are some nights that he just can’t sit still and we don’t force him; it’s not worth it! The good thing is that he’s perfectly happy to stay in the room and play, so at least he’s still there with us, just not at the table. And he usually participates in the conversation as he does whatever it is he’s doing.

  11. I let Faith have “lunch on the go” as well call it some days. She runs around and plays…then runs over and I feed her a bite of food…and then she runs off. I figure if I can get her to eat at least 2 meals at the table, I’m doing ok. Also, she eats more that way. 🙂

  12. Ugh its so frustrating! My son is 14 months and dinner time is a struggle. I want so badly for him to eat well, and I make all this healthy food for him and he turns his nose at it. He could live off fruit and yogurt! I got really frustrated..and my parents kept telling me…it’s hard to starve a kid…he’ll eat when he’s hungry. So I listened. I don’t get frustrated anymore. I put food out and if he doesn’t eat fine…I just try to give him good choices all through the day! He gets most of his veggies in those little packets that I squeeze into his mouth during snack. He likes it…so I continue to give it. I guess we’ll see what happens down the line!

  13. Can you try to push dinner back a little bit maybe so he has time at home with you to decompress a little before the dinner/bath/book (or whatever your family’s routine is) happens? Just wondering if that half hour or so with you might help him unwind, versus a harried meal situation because he doesn’t want to sit? It’s hard with toddlers. Some days we get home from daycare (at 5:45 usually) and she needs to eat STAT (based on the day’s menu, how much she ate, etc) and we are with her but eat ourselves later – and other days, she can play for a while and then eat with us. We try to play it by ear .. I wonder if I’m trying to push family dinners too soon, in many ways, but we try a couple nights a week. And she is a slow eater so when she is done she just fans the food on her tray. She eats what seems like plenty during the day and if she does, some nights she just wants her milk and a few bites of dinner…so be it. Good luck and I think it’s totally normal during this phase.

  14. Can you try to push dinner back a little bit maybe so he has time at home with you to decompress a little before the dinner/bath/book (or whatever your family’s routine is) happens? Just wondering if that half hour or so with you might help him unwind, versus a harried meal situation because he doesn’t want to sit? It’s hard with toddlers. Some days we get home from daycare (at 5:45 usually) and she needs to eat STAT (based on the day’s menu, how much she ate, etc) and we are with her but eat ourselves later – and other days, she can play for a while and then eat with us. We try to play it by ear .. I wonder if I’m trying to push family dinners too soon, in many ways, but we try a couple nights a week. And she is a slow eater so when she is done she just fans the food on her tray. She eats what seems like plenty during the day and if she does, some nights she just wants her milk and a few bites of dinner…so be it. Good luck and I think it’s totally normal during this phase.

  15. for the hand washing, I used to volunteer at a children’s hospital and they had this soap that was pretty awesome. There is a stamp for the kids to put on their hands, then they just scrub until its gone, it takes about 3 minutes (the appropriate scrubbing time), and gets them involved.

  16. I lied, it’s 30 seconds with the soap, I knew 3 minutes sounded like a long time!

  17. I don’t have much to offer on the subject of family dinners (other than to mention that I’m jealous that you have them!)– We had to turn our dining room into a playroom (aka baby jail) & our kitchen is not an eat-in kitchen. So, there’s a pub style table with two stools next to the high chair. One of us sits on a stool and feeds Liam dinner. Then after he goes to bed, Rob & I sit on the couch with our plates in our laps. ::sigh:: It’s not how I want things to be. Soon, the pub table will probably have to go to make room for a 2nd highchair. Yikes!

    Eventually, when the boys are old enough to share a room, we’ll make the nursery the playroom & move the table back into the dining room… and then, family dinners!! For now though, we’re just doing the best we can in a house where we’re bursting at the seams.

  18. Thank you all so much! These are such great suggestions. I’m glad to know this is something we’re all struggling with and hoping we can move on to longer family dinners soon.

    @Laura, Love that soap! I bet he would totally get into that. Thanks for the suggestion.

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