It’s a universal problem. The 6-month-old dropping food to test gravity. The 9-month-old who takes a single bite and tosses the rest. The 12-month-old throws a piece of food across the table to see what happens — Does it roll? Splat? Make a sound?!
And of course, there are the toddlers who throw food just to get a rise out of you.
When it comes to food throwing, there is good news and bad news.
The bad news: Food throwing is going to happen. A lot. For a long time. Prepare yourself.
The good news: You can minimize food throwing by coaching your child and controlling your reaction.
Having problems with your toddler at meal time? See Toddlers at the Table.
As with any behavior you’d like to change, it’s important to determine why your child is acting that way.
For most babies, throwing food is simply an exploration of cause and effect. At this age, they are little scientists. There is so much to discover, test, and explore. Dropping or throwing food? Whoa, gravity!
A smaller percentage of babies may drop or throw food because of taste or uncertainty about eating. If you believe this is the case, it’s important to chase the “why” even further. Is your baby full? Tired? Expecting or hoping for another food? (Common culprits are baby yogurt, puffs, yogurt melts, teething cookies, or sweet purees.) Are they bored? Unfamiliar with the food choices? Concerned with the way the food feels on their hands? Figure out the why and get to the root issue. Let’s explore two common ones.
Babies have little motivation to bring food to their mouths unless they are hungry. Explore why they aren’t hungry at mealtimes. Are they drinking too many ounces of breast milk or formula for their age? Eating too often? Filling up on snacks and puffs? Look closely at their schedule and modify it as needed so they are hungry—but not too hungry—for solid meals. A good practice here is to treat the bottles before solid meals as appetizers—reducing the ounces or time on breast—and then topping baby off with a milk feed after the solids meal as a dessert. This way your baby is not too full for the solids meal—or too hungry—which can also cause problems.
Babies sometimes throw food that is challenging to pick up and hold on to, as well as food that is challenging to chew. It’s hard work! Explore the size and shape of the food you serve. Are the pieces too small for your baby to pick up successfully and get to the mouth? Some babies thrive on a challenge, while others may lose interest quickly and clear the food to the floor out of frustration. Even babies who love a challenge may have days or times when they don’t have the stamina to keep trying. Recognize when your baby keeps losing grip on food and try to modify the food before it gets thrown. Intervene to help prevent building a habit of food throwing.
Now that we’ve chased the why behind throwing food, let’s talk about what to do in the moment. Do you replace it? Leave it to teach them a lesson?
First, it’s important to create a positive experience when your baby starts solid foods. Try to let go of any anxiety or stress about your baby eating or not eating the food you serve and approach behaviors like food throwing with calm confidence. Your baby can develop picky eating habits or refuse to sit in their highchair if they feel reprimanded, controlled, or pressured during meals.
Leave the food on the floor for a minute. Let your baby realize that when they drop food, it goes away (cause and effect).After a minute, and without emotion, say, “Is your food on the floor? That’s what happens when we drop food on the floor. Let’s pick it up. Food belongs on the table.”
Pick up the food and replace it so your baby can try again. Verbally remind them in a calm and pleasant voice that food belongs on the table. Replace fallen food two or three times; anything more can cause your baby to feel pressured to eat or lead to the pattern game of “I drop, mom/dad picks up.” Again, chase the “why” here. If your baby is dropping food, rubbing his eyes and appears tired, simply acknowledge, “Looks like you’re all done. Next time you can tell me, ‘all done’ instead of throwing your food.” Then pleasantly end the meal.
Some babies need to be shown and told. Stand next to your baby and gently “catch” their arm as it shoots to the side to drop the food and coach their muscle memory to bring the food back to the plate/table. Calmly add the line, “food belongs on the table” to help your baby connect the ideas. Remember to keep it gentle, so it’s a pleasant experience for your little one.
At this age, your child is no longer a baby and is now a toddler. Toddlers LOVE to test limits, and their brains are hardwired to learn this way! Food “dropping” is now officially food throwing and often intentional!
Now’s the time to set limits and start coaching. Your toddler’s job is to test boundaries. Your job is to stay cool, and calmly coach. One trick to keep in mind: avoid pushing yourself to the point of over-frustration where you might yell or act annoyed. Always set your boundary and limits where you can calmly and confidently enforce them. For example, if you can calmly tell your baby that food belongs on the table one time, but feel exasperated or snappy the third time, simply set your limit to one warning, not three.
Toddlers often throw food for one of three reasons:
If your toddler doesn’t like the food, teach him to move it to the side of the plate or the tray by saying, “Food belongs on the table. You can move it here [show by putting the food to the side of the plate or tray] if you don’t want it right now.” If your child has a difficult time learning this, make it more obvious by creating a “discard” plate – a plate on the table where unwanted food can go. (Many parents find a different-colored plate or bowl works well.) Coach your child to put unwanted food on the discard plate by showing, telling, and gently guiding their hand.
Whatever you do, don’t raise your voice, lose your temper, or harshly reprimand your child. Doing so can create a negative experience around food and increase the risk of your child using food to control things. Set a clear limit and stick with it. This might be one verbal warning: “Food stays on the table. You can put it in this bowl if you don’t want it. If you throw the food again, your meal will end.” Then, if your toddler throws food again, calmly and confidently say, “You’re telling me you’re all done with the meal. Let’s clean up.” Then remove your toddler from the meal into a safe spot where he or she can wait while you finish your meal. Remember, be consistent. Do not give two more warnings if you said the next time would end the meal.
Note: toddlers learn very quickly that throwing food can end a meal. Serving your toddler snacks 15 minutes later can also teach them to use that strategy to end the meal and demand snacks! Avoid this potential pitfall by sticking to a consistent meal schedule. If your toddler throws food at breakfast, and you end the meal, there should not be food available again until snack time, at least 90 minutes later.
If your toddler is full or bored, they are going to play. And if food is the only thing to play with, they will likely throw it. When you see this, ask, “Are you done? Are you full? Because food is for eating. All done? Okay, lunch is over now. We’ll have more at snack time.” And swiftly remove the meal with a smile. Again, do not lose your temper or harshly reprimand them. In this case, it’s all about helping your toddler learn to tell you “all done” with words or baby sign language rather than throwing food.
If you think your toddler is testing you, your job is not to give in. Feign indifference. Coach them verbally that food is for eating and ask if they are done. Kindly give them one to three chances. Remember, if you’re going to lose your cool by the third reminder, set your boundary at one or two. If you have impeccable patience, employ a “three- strikes, and you’re out” approach. We do not recommend more than three chances.
The key is to stay steady. Try not to react too dramatically (your child will only find it funny and want to make it happen again!). Stay cool as a cucumber, while keeping to the rules of your house and table.
Remember: If you aren’t finished eating, don’t stop the meal and play with your toddler after throwing food; this teaches a toddler that throwing food leads to playtime with a parent. The natural consequence of leaving the table and waiting for a parent to finish a meal (in a safe, contained spot such as a Pack ‘n Play near the table) is often enough motivation to stop the throwing food. The goal here is not punishment; help your baby see that you matter, and you’re firm on your rules.
Children learn by exploring. Playing with food, smashing it, squishing it, pouring it, and yes – throwing it. It’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are with what level of play. Set the rules and be consistent about your child adhering to them.
But no matter what you do, remain calm and keep your eye on the long-term goals you want for your child and eating. Create a positive eating environment free from drama, shame, or punishment. When in doubt, put on your coaching hat and see what teachable moment is presenting itself.
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