Keep Your Kids at the Dinner Table Longer – 6 Tricks to Try


My three year old is a terrible eater. Besides insisting on a steady diet of empty carbs and milk, he refuses to try new things and barely sits at the table to eat anything at all. After two bites of his food, he shouts, “All done,” and pushes his chair away from the table. 

Some of this behavior will resolve itself over time. Our four year old is a way better eater now than she was at his age, but still, we want to encourage him and train him to stay seated longer for lots of reasons: 

  • It gives him the opportunity to eat more food in a single sitting.
  • It lets us model healthy eating for him, even if he’s not interested in doing it himself.
  • It shows him that having a meal together is as much about reconnecting with each other, as it is about the food in front of us. 
  • It makes our meals at restaurants easier and more enjoyable when he’s accustomed to staying seated. 

When we mean business about having a nice meal together as a family, we pull out some of these tricks.  

Dinner Winner

This is our go-to game at home because it kills four birds with one stone: both kids sit at the table longer, they eat more food, we reinforce things they’re learning, and we learn more about them. 

I ask an easy to answer question to one child at a time. If they get it right (which they are guaranteed to do), they “win.” The prize is that they take a bite of food. 

I know that sounds ridiculously simple, but it actually works, like every time. They even ask for the game some nights. The questions run the gamut: 

“What sound does a cow make?” 

“What’s five minus two?” 

“What letter starts your first name?” 

“What is the name of one of your friends at school?” 

“What’s one funny thing you did today?”

“Where did we go on vacation last month?”

Once I’m satisfied that they’ve eaten a good amount, I raise the difficulty level of the questions to keep it interesting. By this point, they’re in the groove of eating, and end up shoveling food into their mouths while they try to figure out the answer. 

Trolls and Worms

If you meet kids in their imagination, they’re more willing to go along with anything you need them to do, and this includes eating their vegetables. I don’t know exactly how the game started, but I know it came on the heels of my kids’ love affair with the movie “Trolls.”

When my son gets antsy and wants to run off and play instead of eating his broccoli, I pretend the broccoli is a troll and he’s a big bad Bergen. In a high pitched voice, I beg, “Don’t eat me,” as I make the broccoli run from his mouth. He gobbles it up without a second thought. I also turn roasted carrots and spaghetti into worms, squirming on his plate, and he’s a big bird who swoops down to eat them. File this game under, “Whatever works.”

What’s Missing?

I am done with bringing a big bag of toys with me to restaurants to keep the kids entertained at the table. While I’m not above handing them an iPhone to stretch our dining time or give my husband and me a chance to chat with less interruption, I really prefer that they build their stamina to dine without electronics. 

This game keeps them interested while we wait for our food to arrive: I take my napkin and hide three to five objects underneath. A fork, spoon, and knife or crayons work well. I line everything up, and then put my napkin over top. When I pull the napkin away, I take one object with me, and they have to guess what’s missing. They like to be the “disappear-er,” too, and have my husband and me guess what went away. 

Hand Songs

I’m sure you’re familiar the “Daddy Finger” song from YouTube. The makers of that song have infiltrated every “Other Videos You May Like” line up, making it impossible to avoid hearing that song on a regular basis. There’s a way to use that to your advantage, though.

When we’re stuck at a restaurant table waiting for the check, we pull out silly songs like this that require hand gestures. We sing “Five Little Monkeys” and make our fingers hop up and down, or “There Were Ten in the Bed,” or “One Little, Two Little, Three Little (whatever).” We fit their names into the songs and add a few silly sounds when we can, and this game can stretch out for a good fifteen minutes.

You’ll notice the above suggestions require constant parent participation to make them work.  Here are two more that we use at home when neither my husband nor I have the patience or energy to host to a private dinner theater for our children.

Let Them Stand 

Sometimes they want to eat but don’t feel like sitting, so we let them stand on step stools at the table. Their sense of freedom actually keeps them at the table for longer. 


Eating with chopsticks isn’t customary in our house, so when we do use them, it’s novel and fun. When I want to keep the kids interested in their meal for longer, I pull out training chopsticks and let them use them instead of a fork or spoon. The chopsticks challenge their fine motor skills and keep the kids focused on the meal at hand. 

How do dinners work for your family? Comment with your tips and tricks!


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