Getting a squirmy toddler to sit at the table and eat a meal can be a huge challenge. These expert ideas for fostering good mealtime habits will help.
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Toddler eating at table
Credit: unclepepin/Shutterstock

Getting my 19-month-old to eat an actual meal can be a real struggle. We got off to a great start transitioning from only breast milk to fruit, veggie, and even meat purees when she was just shy of six months. But here we are, more than a year later and she hasn't exactly made an enthusiastic leap from slurping purees to scarfing down solid foods. In fact, we still fall back on her sucking down a pouch or spoon-feeding herself a jar of baby food on days when she wriggles away from the table with the meal on her plate going untouched.

My kiddo's preference for pouches and purees makes sense. They're fast and easy to eat, and the texture of these finely blended foods is consistent and familiar. Plus, she's got a whole lot going on right now.

"Toddlers are busy little people," says Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN, of Tribeca Nutrition. "Plus, their growth slows after 12 months, so they do not need as many calories. So sitting down for meals is not their priority."

Short of bringing in live tableside entertainment, how can parents get finicky toddlers to sit still and actually consume solid foods? These tips may help.

1. Keep expectations in check

Stasenko recommends parents remember this rule of thumb: Your toddler should eat a tablespoon of food per year of age. For a 2-year-old that means 2 tablespoons of chicken, 2 tablespoons of rice and 2 tablespoons of broccoli at dinner. If that doesn't sound like your toddler, don't worry. Kids frequently don't eat in such a balanced way and often stick to just one or two food groups per meal. "At times, it will be just a lick here and a bite there. Other times they'll astonish you with the amount of food they can eat," Stasenko says. Either way there's probably nothing to worry about.

Dr. Dina DiMaggio, a pediatrician and co-author ofThe Pediatrician's Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers agrees. She notes that a 1- to 2-year-old should be eating 900-1,000 calories a day, while 2- to 3-year-olds should be consuming about 1,000-1,400 calories a day. But instead of focusing on what your child eats every single day it's better to make sure they're generally eating well throughout the course of a week or so, and that they're following their growth curve at doctor's visits.

2. Get the timing right

It's important to make sure your child is actually hungry and ready to sit, otherwise mealtime will be a frustrating battle of wills. Stasenko suggests making meals and snacks on a set schedule 2-3 hours apart with only water in between. If your little one is running around all day with a sippy cup of milk then they'll never get the chance to become hungry. Think of milk as food, not as a drink, and know that tots need just 2-3 servings of dairy per day. And if your mini seems to be simmering with energy, allow plenty of time for running around, jumping, climbing, wrestling, and whatever they can safely do to get their wiggles out before trying to sit down to eat.

3. Tap into that independent spirit

Your child is craving agency and independence at this age. Use that to your advantage at mealtime by asking for help picking out items for dinner at the grocery store or fresh produce at the farmer's market. Up the ante and have little hands help out in the garden by picking and preparing ingredients. DiMaggio suggests making a "color day" and letting your tot pick a red vegetable (like bell peppers) and healthy red dessert (like watermelon).

Another option:  Include your kiddo in the decision making! Next time they need tiding over, have them choose between healthful options like a yogurt or something with whole grains, like Gerber Puffs, which have 2g per serving.

4. Mix familiar with new

Try to always put a familiar favorite on your kid's plate, especially next to food that's brand new. This works especially well if your child is shy about trying new things, DiMaggio says. Healthy dipping sauces can also encourage sluggish or easily distracted eaters. DiMaggio suggests unsweetened applesauce, yogurt, hummus, puréed fruit, and homemade tomato sauce. And there's no shortage of cute culinary ideas to enliven your kid's platescape, like using cookie cutters to make fun shapes or preparing foods in bite-sized portions such as mini egg frittatas or turkey burger sliders.

5. Set the stage

Get your tot from playtime to mealtime by creating a little ritual. Stasenko recommends hand washing and a short song, prayer, or whatever works for your family. Plop tots in a comfortable high chair or booster seat with foot support until they're at least 3 years old. "Although they love sitting on big chairs, lack of proper support makes toddlers extra wiggly and tires them very quickly," she says. And don't forget to put away the smartphones, tablets and television. Being an active role model and sitting at the table with your tot can go a long way in showing the type of behavior that parents want from their kiddos, DiMaggio says.

6. Be both consistent and flexible

Aim to consistently schedule well-balanced meals and snacks full of healthy foods both new and familiar and then let your child decide what and how much they're hungry for, Stasenko urges. Pressuring kids to eat more will likely backfire, so focus instead on keeping a routine and being persistent with offerings. "Picky eating is just a phase, so just hang tight. It will pass," DiMaggio assures. As hard as it is not to get stressed out over eating habits, just know that an inconsistent appetite is totally normal.