Care and Feeding

Every Dinner Starts With a Toddler Tantrum

Is there a toddler-whisperer secret for making this easier?

A toddler in his high chair, crying.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wonderful son, at 2½, has decided he no longer wants to sit in his high chair for meals. For his entire life, he has been at the table while we ate dinner—first in a portable rocking bassinet, and then his high chair. The only problem we had at mealtime up until this point was the toddler standard: projectile food, and only when he felt ignored.

For the past month, it’s been a fight and a half to get him in his chair. Out of desperation, we’ve tried bribery, “flying” him through the house to his chair, explaining why it’s important to us, and begging. Some of these tactics worked once or twice, but it’s pretty standard for dinner to start with 10–15 minutes of trying to negotiate and still ending up forcing him in his chair, which results in a crying tantrum. When he calms, he eats well, and we’ve been trying to make dinner more fun and engaging for him, but the fight to get there remains.

Is there a toddler-whisperer secret for making this easier? I’m pretty sure it’s just appropriate behavior for this age, but it really puts a damper on what is an important ritual to my partner and me.

—I Just Want to Eat

Dear IJWtE,

Toddlers are notorious ruiners of mealtime, as you well know, and unfortunately, there’s no sage secret that I know of that will guarantee a peaceful nightly dinner. However, it’s entirely possible that there’s a version of peace at supper that can work for all parties.

It doesn’t sound like you all have tried an alternate seating arrangement up until this point. Is it possible that the high chair has become undesirable for your son? Has he articulated any sort of reason it bothers him so? Might he have outgrown it? Perhaps there is a place where it rubs against him uncomfortably? Would you be open to allowing him to eat in his pack-and-play, or on the floor on a mat? Does he have any other chair, perhaps a booster seat as opposed to a free-standing high-chair, in which he could sit? Maybe you all sit on the couch until he’s old enough to sit comfortably at the table.

That may not align with the image of a family dinner that you want to ritualize, but if it’s a comfortable setup in which your son can eat and you can have some peace, then it may be worth considering. Switch things up and see if he’s a little more keen on mealtime.

—Jamilah