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reader question: distracted, wandering kids at the family table…

Posted by on Feb 21, 2011 in Blog Posts | 22 comments

“We’ve been doing the Satter method with great results, but now that we don’t have the “sit down and eat!” barking order in our repertoire (thank goodness), what’s a good way to get children to focus on the meal if they are becoming overly distracted? i have been trying “ok! let’s enjoy our meal!” if they are wandering from the table or getting preoccupied with something else. Is that staying within the right ideas? i’m trying to maintain that the “meal” is the whole of us sitting and sharing and eating as a family, not *just* eating. anything else i could use?”

What a great question, and good for you for going to all the effort of having family meals, and no mistaking, it IS an effort to arrange schedules and get food on the table. After all that work, the least we can do is sit there and enjoy ourselves, right? I am glad that using Ellyn Satter’s philosophy is helping. The Division of Responsibility is an amazing tool for making meals more pleasant and cutting down on the power struggles. But these are the kinds of questions that can pop up, the nuance…

So, my thoughts on your question? Of course, it depends…

Often kids are antsy or misbehave at the table because they are feeling pressured there. Kids don’t like being at the table if they have to get through tasks, if they have to eat arbitrary amounts, or earn dessert… They don’t enjoy the battles either. But, it doesn’t sound like that’s happening here.

So then, I start thinking about other possibilities. Are the kids full? Is snack too close to dinner, are they grazing and distracted simply because they are not hungry? How old are they? Do you have developmentally reasonable expectations? A two or three year old won’t be able to sit and be companionable for thirty minutes, maybe only five or ten minutes. Is someone watching TV in another room and the kids want to watch to? Are you still talking too much about nutrition or talking too much to the adults and not paying attention to the kids? (This is tough, and gets easier as kids get older and can participate more.) For example, if I get into something “grown up” with my husband, M will try to get the focus back on her, though this is getting better. Are they hopping up if you’re not including them, in other words? You don’t have to only talk to or focus on the kids, but having them participate is important. Consider going around and sharing your “best thing” fromย  the day. Who did they sit with at lunch? Did something surprise them that day? There are even dinner conversation starter kids you can buy, or ask the kids to make some questions you can pull from an envelope… Are you a stickler for manners? Are you harping on them to use knife and fork or struggling over other issues? (Remember, kids use a combination of utensils and hands to eat intoย  the grade school years…)

So step back, take a few minutes to analyze the situation and see what you think it going on. It’s OK with younger kids to let them leave the table and entertain themselves quietly while you finish dinner.

Some nights with M she is participating and into the discussion, or the food and she keeps us company. Other times she might not be as hungry and after ten minutes or so asks to leave the table. We remind her that her dinner is done when she leaves, she carries her plate to the sink and then she’s off to play Nintendo or color while Dad and I get to enjoy our meals.

Does that help? Moms and Dads out there, how have you dealt with this issue?

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  1. Camilla

    I ask my son to take his own plate out to the kitchen, when he’s done; he’s four, and generally enjoys being helpful (and gets praised for helping us). It worked nicely to eliminate the “I’m not done yet” tantrum.

    Along the same lines (giving him ownership of the process), when we were getting him into a big boy bed, I started the routine of having him push me out of his bed, after I tuck him in (I play up the prat-fall). It was a big hit, and over a year later, we still do it sometimes (but not always).

  2. Heidi

    I think this may be where you and I diverge somewhat in our rules around mealtimes – I don’t mind at all that my four-year-old (he’ll be five in June) sometimes feels the need to hop up halfway through a meal and go play for ten minutes before coming back to eat. I always ask him if he’s done/full, or if he’d like me to keep the plate out on the table for him, and he’ll tell me either way. If he’s full, I toss the food. If he’s not, I know that within a half an hour he’ll be back to eat more. This frequently happens with dinner; he’ll eat half his plate and then come back again after twenty minutes, even if we’re up from the table.

    If we need to head out and I’m concerned that he’s gotten distracted enough that he’ll be hungry in twenty minutes, I don’t mind having a snack in my bag, or letting him know that we need to go in X minutes, so if he’s hungry, he needs to eat now.

    So long as he sits with us for a while, I don’t mind if he gets up. As a child, I don’t remember much that was more compelling to eat more when not hungry than sitting at a table talking with food in front of me, watching everyone else eat. I felt like I “should” be eating more and did, whether I was hungry or not. I don’t need my son to get that message, so when he’s done, he’s done.

    • katja

      Sounds like you have figured out what works for your family and temperaments of everyone involved ๐Ÿ™‚ I always tell families, if it works for you, and you and your kids enjoy family meals, eat a good variety of foods and are tuned into hunger and fullness cues then go with what works for you! I do think kids can learn that just because food is there, doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to eat. I bet your son is learning that message from you already. Sometimes I am done before my family and I sit and chat, so I know M sees others stopping and chatting too.

  3. Holly F

    I am watching these responses with great interest. Our 3.5 yr old does a lot of this stuff too! Its hard to get him to the table at all, then he often takes literally one or two bites and is off again. I must say we are generally good about not pressuring him about eating EXCEPT at dinner. But we end up playing all kinds of games to get him to eat more because when we don’t make sure he eats well he wakes in the middle of the night, or too early in the morning, because he is hungry! He is about 3rd% for weight, but our family is genetically small. No one has ever been worried about his size, but I mention it because I think he frankly just doesn’t have a lot of reserves to make it through the night! We never make him clean his plate and we respect when he says he is full. We give him a lot of messages like “listen to your tummy” etc. He is just so distractible by the end of the day and he really just can’t concentrate! Sometimes he even asks us to help him get the bites into his mouth, not like a silly thing, like he really wants to eat but he just can’t. He is not a picky eater either. I partly wonder if we went strictly to the DoR at dinner, if it would really work, and how long it would really take? Would we just feed him in the middle of the night if he wakes up hungry, because that is not really sustainable for our family!

    • katja

      Sorry I didn’t “approve” this earlier, it slipped by! I think I addressed your comment in another response. Playing with the schedule might help. he might not be hungry, or he might need a “rescue snack” to take the pressure off dinner. Maybe he really likes all the games when everyone is finally home and sitting together ๐Ÿ™‚
      I’d be happy to chat with you around more detail if you need it.
      Even a small child often can make it through the night, but the schedule might be key here. Hard to know. If you’re playing games to get him to eat more, is that really respecting him when he says he’s full? Is it before he says he’s full? Just something that stood out in your note. Schedules will change over time with naps, age, work schedules etc. For example an earlier dinner just with mom or dad and a “rescue” snack later might work wonders…

  4. jessidehl

    My son will have the occasional meltdown (once a week or so) saying he’s done then insisting he is still hungry. He turned three in December. For our family, we just enforce the rules and we don’t let him eat after he leaves the table. I don’t think he is feeling food pressure because he has the same reactions about other non-feeding issues. Are the issues just around mealtime or do you have other power struggles? I’m about to have our third baby and I think he is having some anxiety about it all. I’m interested to see what Katja has to say, though. Even once a week is annoying. It happened last night and I literally gritted my teeth (plus, at 39 weeks I have very little patience).

    • hayley

      oh, she is always looking for a power struggle! she has been “spirited” since day one of her life. i always have to be ten steps ahead of her to figure out creative ways to diffuse power struggles and turn them into something more constructive (which is why the Satter method has worked SO well for us… the removal of the power and performance aspect has completely relaxed her)

      • katja

        I’m so glad this has all helped you get rid of the power struggles. It is a powerful tool! Remember, it does get better as they get older. Sounds like you are doing a fantastic job!

    • katja

      Even sometimes M will say, “I’m hungry!” after dinner, but I know she’s had her chance to eat. Usually something else is going on. I remind her dinner is over, offer a cuddle, play a game, draw, whatever, and 9 times out of 10 she is over it in a few minutes. I don’t waver, I decide, even if I sometimes regret it, overall it works incredibly well. And, that one in ten times when I reflect back on our day… (were we out all day and snacks were too distracted, was dinner a little early, was something else going on, has she been sick recently?) I know her pretty well in terms of her appetites, rhythms etc and occasionally I do let her have a bedtime snack, but that’s a slippery slope for some parents. Generally if you’re annoyed or feeling like you’re being played like a violin, something else is going on. Sit, reflect…

  5. AmandaL

    Ha! I just found my original comment on the “Crying Over Rice” post, from back in October. Guess the behavior HAS been going on for a while. now onder it feels like forever!

  6. AmandaL

    Our issues happen when our son says he’s all finished and removes his plate, or gets up from the table after repeated warnings that the meal will be done when he gets up from the table and we clear his plate for him. He will either a) freak out instantly that he “needs to eat” and a tantrum ensues, or b) go play and come back after a period of time (anywhere from a minute to half an hour or more), freaking out that he “needs to eat” and a tantrum ensues. This happens pretty much at every meal, sad to say. We reiterate that once he gets up or tells is he is done, we’re going to call it a finished meal. He’s 3.5 and this has been going on for months. I’m wondering if the pressure he’s feeling is us reminding him of the rules about leaving the table, which is another way of saying “finish your food or you’ll be hungry”, which he invariably is. Do we just ignore it, and quietly follow through? Feeling stuck!

    • katja

      again, I wish I had the time to really go into detail on these questions that come up. I get several a week, and simply don’t have the time, nor enough information to do a good job addressing individual families. A few thoughts, read up as much as you can. Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family is awesome. Look at your schedule. Are you offering food every 2-3 hours? You might play with your schedule somewhat. (This goes for the mom with the child you wakes up wanting to eat in the middle of the night.) I’ve had success with clients by playing with timing. Move dinner a little earlier (even if that means Dad or Mom can’t join in) and then have a “rescue” snack right before bedtime of something acceptable, but not favored. Maybe if you could say to your son. “Dinner is over when you leave the table, but we’ll have a bedtime snack in a few hours” that might help. Kids will tantrum, they know our pressure points, and our need to nourish and provide for our children is about the biggest pressure point I can think of! Remember, it will get better as they get older, so stick with it as much as you can!

      • AmandaL

        Yikes, I didn’t mean for my post to come off as “help me please write back ZOMG!!!1” It was really more of a rhetorical question as we work out the next round of tactics. especially given that we’ve been doing the same thing since October (wonder if I should strat keeping track of these things), maybe it’s time to switch up. we’ll try the “relief snack” tonight. We do pretty much follow Secrets and COM.

        • katja

          It’s not you, it’s me, really ๐Ÿ™‚ I am a fixer and tend to try to jump in, even when not being directly asked, and I get so many emails asking for help on little things that I often answer. (What does ZOMG mean?) Let us know how it goes!

          • AmandaL

            ZOMG!!1! is a blogging/IM joke, taken from times when someone typing is so overcome that they hit the “z” at the same time as they hit “shift”, and then let go of “shift” before they’re done typing exclamation points. Saying we’ll have a bedtime snack has helped a little, but we’ll keep working on it. It doesn’t help there’s a new baby in the house who eats whenever she darn well feels like it. He’s too excited to sit still when she’s around, and then too smart to say he eats only at specific times since “the baby doesn’t do it that way.” We’ll get there!

          • katja

            Yup! You’ll get there! I did the best I could when I had my little one. It meant we ate less variety in my cooking, and I used take-out more, but things calmed down and we’re doing well. I think that kindness to self and letting go of guilt when things are crazy is key. Hang in there!

  7. hayley

    this was my question ๐Ÿ™‚
    my daughter is about to turn 4 and my son is almost 2 (but he’s still in a highchair so this isn’t his issue so much as hers)

    to answer, it’s actually not dinner that is as much of a problem. usually it’s lunch. we have cut out ALL talking about food (unless it’s helping her serve herself or telling her what things are)… we no longer comment on how much she’s eating or make any remarks on food “performance”. if she says “look, i ate it all!” (habit from our old ways), i’ll just say “did you enjoy it?” rather than praise her. i can tell from her atitude at the table and openness to new things that she doesn’t feel pressured anymore.

    breakfast is around 8, snack at 10 or 10:30, lunch at 12, snack around 3, and dinner at 6. would that make snack too close to meal time? i have eliminated grazing and juice-drinking between meals and snacks, and try to keep the snacks fairly light (as much as they want, but usually fruit or veggie with a carb or protein)

    i wouldn’t expect either of them to sit 30 minutes for a meal. it’s more that i know she is hungry and intends to finish her food (because if i go to clean up, she still wants it), but she gets into silly games with her brother instead of eating, or wants to go to the bathroom 2 times, or remembers something in the other room that she wants, or feels the need to run around the kitchen for a minute. it’s not that she wants to “leave” without eating, she just doesn’t focus. usually it’s just me and the kids at lunch, so she wouldn’t be getting bothered by adult conversation (if i happen to be on the phone during lunch, all hell breaks loose i’ve noticed, so i tend not to do that anymore). and even at supper when my husband is home, we tend to engage with them more than with each other for meals. and nope, we don’t enforce rules about utensils.

    if they are done eating, i have no problem letting them go play while we finish. it’s more about her still wanting to eat but she’s dragging it out forever by goofing around and it gets to the point where WE are done eating and want to leave! is there a subtle way to encourage her without making it a pressure situation? especially in cases where we have to finish up quickly because we’re heading out somewhere.

    • katja

      You are doing so many things well. It’s always hard to give really concrete answers over email since by definition I am missing part of the story and can’t know all that is going on. A few thoughts. If lunch is less than two hours after snack, they might not be hungry, and sometimes it does turn into pressure or a tantrum. If you are annoyed by the situation, chances are something is going on. I believe that your motives are “pure,” meaning you are not looking for help to try to GET your kids to eat more or less, or different foods. So sometimes, especially since you know snack is coming soon, you might have to be firm as you would with other situations and try something like, “Lunch is over in five minutes and then we’ll all play X together.” and then it’s over. (cue meltdown) but stick with it for awhile and see what happens. You know she won’t go hungry because you have that lovely structure to fall back on…

      • hayley

        thank you! overall it’s going so well and i don’t want to do anything that might “rock the boat” again and fall back into old habits. my husband, without thinking, last night said something along the lines of “you can only have dessert after you eat your supper” and i shot him a look of death!!!

        • katja

          Oh, and my friend reminded me this is what I do for work ๐Ÿ™‚ If you need more help than this blog is offering, I do phone consults where we can get into more of the details!

          • hayley

            overall i think we’re doing ok. i just want to make sure that if do mention to her that we could all focus (without it being an order to eat), that it doesn’t go against the goal of creating that pressure-free eating environment. from what i can tell, it isn’t even food related for her, it’s just her personality and age to have that short attention span, but i want to tread lightly here because of how much progress we’ve already made.