When should my kid be sitting at the dinner table?
Let’s face it - little kids are BUSY people. There are stuffed animals to tend to, blocks to stack, and an imaginary pie that needs baking. It’s no wonder it can be difficult for them to stop what they’re doing and eat at mealtime. However, with a little bit of strategic planning on your part, kids can learn to sit at the table for family mealtime.
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At what age do kids sit down at the table for dinner?
Ideally, babies should start sitting with the family at the table for dinner when starting solid foods (baby-led weaning is a way to introduce solids) around 6 months of age. While they may not be able to sit in a dining chair, their high chair can be pushed up to the table. Including babies in mealtime from the start allows them to watch and learn about mealtime. They begin to learn proper manners and, hopefully, that mealtime is a fun, positive event.
As babies turn into wiggly toddlers, getting them to sit and stay at the dinner table becomes a bit more difficult. However, if the expectation of sitting down at the family table for meals is already in place, it is a bit easier. Hold your expectation that they eat at the dinner table and allow them to leave when they are done eating. A toddler does not need to stay at the table until everyone is finished eating to experience the benefit of joining family mealtime.
How much time is reasonable for my child to sit at the dinner table?
The amount of time that is reasonable for a child to sit at the dinner table varies from family to family, but a general rule of thumb is 10 to 15 minutes . They may stay for a shorter or longer period of time if their appetite allows for it. In some cultures or on special occasions, mealtimes may last much longer and children actively participate the whole time.
Typically, it fits into most families' lifestyles to allow the child to come to the table to eat at the start of the meal and then get up when they are done eating. This, of course, works best with meals eaten at home and not out in a restaurant. Forcing your child to sit longer at the table for whatever reason usually backfires and makes them resist coming to the table even more.
When should my child know table manners?
Learning appropriate table manners takes time. The best way to ensure your child is learning manners is to include them at meal times consistently and to model the behavior you’d like to see. Avoid making meal time a battle by constantly overcorrecting behavior, yelling, or punishing. Anything that makes the meal feel unpleasant or like a negative experience will likely lead the child to continue the behavior and may make them resistant to joining family meals.
Some manners you may want to work on and model for your child are using a gentle or “inside” voice, taking turns talking, using utensils properly, and keeping food on their plate. Even if your child is at a stage where throwing or not using utensils may be developmentally appropriate (though maddening!) it's still helpful to set a foundation through modeling. Really anything your family values as good mealtime behavior is beneficial to model for your child.
How to help your child sit and eat at the dinner table
Know that getting your child to sit and eat at the dinner table will take time and consistent effort. However, there are a handful of ways to make it a little easier. Keep reading for some tips on how to smooth the transition.
Create a positive mealtime environment
Simply put, make mealtime something your child wants to be a part of and looks forward to. Involve them in conversations and don’t pressure them to eat. Allow them to choose what they want to eat from what is served and how much they would like. Keep the mood light and save important adult conversations for another time.
Involve them in meal prep
Kids are natural-born helpers so involve them in meal prep as you can. Let them rinse vegetables, pour ingredients or set the table. If possible, let them make a choice. Would you like broccoli or carrots with dinner? When kids are involved, they are more likely to want to come and join the meal.
Adjust snack schedules to manage hunger
If your child is eating a large snack close to dinner time, they will likely have a harder time coming to and sitting at the table. The reason is simple: If they aren’t hungry, they really don’t have much motivation to come to the table. Allow for at least two hours before mealtime or if your child is really hungry, try serving part of the meal, such as fruit, if it is ready.
Allow for enough physical activity during the day
As much as possible, let kids get their wiggles out throughout the day. They truly need time to run around and play. If they’ve been sitting most of the day, it may be difficult to sit down during mealtime even if they are hungry.
Give them a warning before mealtime starts
Transitioning to a new activity, especially when it’s not on their terms, can be difficult for some kids. Giving a five-minute warning and using a visual timer before mealtime can help manage your child’s expectations and get them prepped to come to the table when it’s time.
Serve at least one food they like
You don’t have to plan your whole meal around your child’s preferences — in fact, I encourage you not to. But make sure there is something in the meal they typically will eat. Knowing there is something they like makes kids feel more comfortable and willing to eat at mealtime.
Dinner table FAQ
Q: What age should a child sit still at a restaurant?
Sitting still at a restaurant is a tough task for younger children who have shorter attention spans. Typically, school-aged children can sit still for longer at a restaurant, but it really depends on the child and the restaurant environment. For younger children, try family-friendly restaurants with quicker service as well as spaces for them to walk and move around.
Q: Should I make my toddler sit at the dinner table?
Yes, as much as possible, your toddler should sit at the dinner table for meals. This is where they will learn proper table manners as well as learn to model eating habits. If they aren’t hungry, they only need to stay for a few minutes. They do not need to stay at the table until everyone is finished eating.
Q: At what age do babies learn table manners?
Babies start to learn about table manners as soon as they are involved in meal times. However, there is no set age when they will have them mastered by. Many toddlers can follow simple table manners, but more fine dining skills likely take well into the school years.
Q: How do I get my child to behave at the dinner table?
It is highly dependent upon the child and the behavior, but a great way to get your child to learn at the dinner table is to model the behavior you’d like to see. Create a mealtime environment that is positive and fun. Give it time and be patient with them as they are learning (not mastering!) these skills.
Q: At what age should children stop eating with their hands?
Around age 5 or 6, many children start primarily eating with utensils instead of their hands. Up until this point, parents should offer utensils and model how to use them, but know that kids may default to eating with their hands because oftentimes it is easier.
Q: At what age should a child use utensils to feed themselves?
Children will typically start feeding themselves with utensils around age 2. Usually, kids master feeding with a spoon first as it tends to be the easiest utensil to use. Around age 5, many kids will have mastered feeding with a spoon and fork. Knife skills take longer as safety may be a concern.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
Ellyn Satter Institute. (2018). How long should kids stay at the table? https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/long-kids-stay-table/