Under the encouragement of our special education teacher, we have been trying to get our 2 year old to eat at the table in his booster chair more often. With some adjustments to the chair, namely to give his feet a resting place, it has been going better than it did in the past.

However, I've noticed a troubling trend - if the food we are trying to feed him is not to his liking, he will refuse to eat a single bite of it at the table, even when it is food he has previously enjoyed (Ham and cheese, chicken nuggets), unless it is one of his favorite foods (PB&J, french toast, certain snacks).

If we take him away from the table and allow him to eat his food from a small folding table, or offer it to him throughout the evening, he will gladly eat it - but will otherwise refuse until he is given something he prefers.

And if we do not give him either, he will wake in the middle of the night hungry and miserable.

I'm not sure what the best answer to this is - should we encourage him to sit at the table for all his meals, even at the expense of keeping his food options diverse? Should we allow him to eat some meals away from the dining table, at the risk of this becoming a habit? Should we allow him to go hungry if he will not eat dinner, and then drag him back downstairs for food when he wakes up at night?

Or is there a better way that I haven't seen yet?

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    This is about as opinion oriented as possible, but hey, this is parenting, and the questions you ask are related to good parenting practices. I like it. :) Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 16:10
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    @anongoodnurse I'm aware that this may boil down to a matter of opinion unfortunately - since ultimately I'm trying to make the best choice and it may not be possible to objectively determine the correct path forward. But I gotta ask, in case there's actually been some kind of study about the importance of food diversity and/or sitting down at the dinner table.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 16:28
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    Can you tell us why the special education teacher asked you to eat together at the table more often? That could help us in formulating a good answer. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 9:48
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau To encourage socialization and develop communication.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 12:59
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    Have you tried eating together at the small folding table? Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 17:55

3 Answers 3


The answer depends on a lot of missing information, parenting styles being perhaps the most important (this has been borne out in many papers.) It's clear that you have a gentle and respectful approach to your child's rearing, which is very admirable and not as common in the US as the more authoritative/authoritarian approaches*. The question I would ask myself in your shoes, though, is which is more important, social issues or nutritional issues? If nutritional issues are most important, go with the separate table approach. But if you want your (completely appropriately) "picky" child to eat at the table with you later on, go with the table approach.

Nutrition is likely more of a focus in your country than in my obesity-prone one. Obesity in my country, however, is often an economic issue, so I'll assume there's no economic issue at play here.

Nutritionally, it is important to expose, and encourage your child to/towards lower caloric, healthier foods. Exposure is more than putting it in front of your child; while that is important, so is setting an example through what you eat. Children are genetically predisposed to sweet and salty foods, which is especially evident in 2-3 year olds. However, calorie dense foods are unnecessary in this group as their levels of physical activity does not require it. Avoidance of bitterness is also genetically determined in this age group, your child is behaving pretty much exactly as expected, so this is a given, whether at your table or not. So, what matters more?

You can't set a good example of healthy eating behavior if your child isn't at the table with you when you eat. One study showed that a rejected food is much more likely to be accepted after being offered eight times. Sitting with you at the table and continuing to offer these foods in the mix is doubly reinforcing healthy eating behavior later on, even if the child rejects them. Encouragement is gentle; anxiousness or forcing the child to eat is correlated with food-related issues later on.

I'm not sure that, in the presence of parents who (and a culture that) value and model healthy eating,, exactly what the child eats is as important as you might think. You'll find papers in the literature that are all over the place about this, so I'm basing my recommendation on what I've observed myself: early pickiness is normal, and most kids outgrow it, especially by the time adulthood rolls around.

The merits of offering (and accepting) different foods at a separate table are (imo) less convincing, but again, consider the source. Nutritionally, it's great, but not perfectly predictable of health and good eating habits. And while I sincerely admire the respect you're showing your child by this behavior, I'm not sure it's encouraging much pro-social behavior.

I would recommend the at-the-dinner-table approach, even at the expense of your concern for nutrition. Offer and eat healthy/nutritional foods yourself, but let the child eat enough of his favorites that he's not grumpy. I would also not rule out occasional bribery (e.g. offering a sticker chart with his favorite stickers, one per bite of rejected food, with a reward in full view to be dispensed after low-number-x bites of previously rejected food, e.g. a small toy.) I did this with my children, who loved inexpensive toys. It gave them pleasure and (?) a feeling of agency to obtain the toy, and it gave me pleasure to give it to them and see their happiness. No needless fussing if consistency is maintained.

*Just so you know where this answer is coming from, my approach was a mix of authoritative with a light helping of gentle. It's interesting that many papers coming out of Western countries don't even mention the more gentle approaches, settling on only authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and "neglectful".

Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices
Nurturing Children's Healthy Eating: Position statement


We actually ended up doing a mixture of all sitting together, and child sitting on his own little table. Perhaps as its what he had in his childcare setting, we found him trying to drag his own little chair and table into the dining room! We dispensed with the high chair and set up his little table at the end of our table. Often he'd insist on me sitting with him on his little table (my poor back!) but then we could all eat together and he felt in control of his ability to sit there (or not).

I echo anongoodnurse in saying that the 'pickyness' seems entirely normal, and it comes and goes in phases. We use the 'division of responsibility' for feeding, I'm responsible for presenting a range of food I'm happy for the child to eat. They are responsible for the eating, and no amount of cajoling, bribing or otherwise trying to force them helps at all. Though it is very frustrating when you prepare something nice (that they loved last time) for it to be roundly rejected! It can be good to present a thing they really like along with the rest of the food and they might give it a try. also dips/sauces, if they love ketchup, maybe they'll try something less preferred if its been dipped in ketchup!

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    The approach to eating that you outline is also the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, with a few additional caveats. People tend to have strong feelings about bribery. My approach is a gentle one, not coersive. It's an option if they want it; it's fine if they don't. My kids are "foodies" now, and none are even slightly obese. It probably helped that I was a "foodie" before the word was in common use. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 13:56

Go for food diversity. Food habits seem to be grounded in early life and difficult to change later. Social skills, on the other hand, can be learnt on many other scenes than the dining table. Your child seems to need privacy when eating, just like we (you and I) need privacy when exerting other bodily tasks (needs that are determined by cultural norms, by the way). -- My boy wouldn't talk to his daycare mother for a whole year. Then, one day, he just began talking to her like nothing special. Kids do these peculiar things. Don't make a fuss about it.

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