Have you ever felt like mealtime is the most hectic and stressful routine of your day? You rush home from work only to find your work isn’t done. You try to put something nourishing on the table but instead are faced with fidgety tots, rude behaviors and picky eaters.

Getting a toddler to behave at mealtime is like herding kittens. Cute, but exhausting.

Some toddlers pick up mealtime etiquette quickly, while others struggle to get the basics down. Here are some helpful hints to help you stop mealtime madness. These little additions to your family routine could make all the difference to take back your family mealtime.

• Get organized. To get mealtime organized, you will need to get a routine (set a workable time for mealtime to begin) and stick to it (use a timer to keep the family focused). Enlist the entire family to do their part and set reasonable expectations. Set time for meals that fits your family’s time together.

• Keep mealtime short. Children only have enough attention span for about 20-minutes if the activity is interesting to them. Toddlers who are allowed significant amount of screen-time have even less ability to focus at the family table. So, keep it short.

• Model the behavior you want to see. Toddlers aren’t always listening to what you are saying. However, they are watching almost everything you do. Be a good role-model at mealtime. Eat at the table. Use the table manners you want your child to demonstrate in public. This might take a while, so be patient.

• Be proactive. If your family has lots to do before and after mealtime, then work smarter and not harder. Plan simple meals and prep meals on the weekend.

• Praise. When your toddler is well behaved at the dinner table, praise them big time!

When your toddler ignores your instructions and behaves poorly at the dinner table, remove them immediately. Do it without a fanfare or fuss. When they return to the table, give your instruction again. If your toddler refuses, keep your cool. Turn away from them and finish eating or cleaning up. If a meltdown ensues, take your tot to their calm down space to cry it out. Wait until their tantrum storm has blown over. When they are calm, like a broken record, return them to the scene of their misbehavior to undo or redo what they did wrong.

Perhaps the most important tip for mealtime is don’t sweat the small stuff. There are going to be hiccups in your mealtime routine. You might have to occasionally eat on the run and cut it short to deal with rude behavior. Don’t sweat it. Try to find joy in being together.

After all, that is what family mealtime is all about.


Bridget Barnes has over 30 years of experience as a Health and Human Services professional. Bridget joined Boys Town's Family Services Research and Development department to assist with creating what is now the evidence-based Common Sense Parenting program.

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