Toddler Food Throwing
My son used to do this when he was a toddler: he looked me in the eyes when he was about to do something that he knew would drive me nuts. What I didn’t realize then was that he just wanted my attention.
At the time I thought, ‘he’s trying to break me.’ And it totally worked. I called him King Edward for a while- he’s Teddy, but his full name is Edward- and I called him King Edward. I’d have to give myself pep talks and tell myself, “you’re in charge, Kacie, you’re the parent, you’ve got this…”
So today is gonna be a quick episode touching on one of these unwanted behaviors, one that really frustrated me as a parent: food throwing. We’ll talk about food throwing and how to get them to stop, or at least to do it less often. Kids may throw food for a variety of reasons, so we’ll dig into what’s going on and what to do about it.
Unfortunately, there are very few things that you can do that will turn your toddler into an obedient robot, but I’m going to try to at least give you some tips that will decrease this behavior at meal time or snack time.
The first thing that you’re going to do is tell them what you expect. Tell them where the food belongs. That could be telling them food stays on the tray or the plate, or you can give them an alternate place- a “no thank you” spot or plate for them to put any unwanted food. Some high chair trays have a little indented section for a cup that could be used as the “no thank you” area.
You can decide what works for your mealtime setup, but it is helpful to have a designated spot to tell them to place the things they don’t want. This takes some of the pressure off them to eat all of what is in front of them, and gives them some autonomy to make decisions about what they do and don’t want to eat. Telling them what you expect before the meal starts is the foundation we want to start with.
You want to avoid giving too much food at one time to a toddler. It can be overwhelming when they see a large quantity on their plate or tray, so starting with less food is key. I like to use starter portions- which means one tablespoon of each food per year of age. If you’re serving a mixed dish, then you can give more. For example, if you’re serving lasagna, you don’t need to give them just one tablespoon, but if you’re serving multiple different foods, a tablespoon per year of age for each food is a good starting point.
The main idea is to avoid loading up the whole high chair tray to give them a ton of ammunition to throw on the floor. Start small and give them more if they need it. For new foods or foods they’re still learning to like, you want to start very small- about the size of a grain of rice or a pea. They can always have more.
Sometimes when kids see new foods or something they don’t like, it can trigger a reaction like, “I need to get this away from me”-hence the food throwing. So if we only serve them one little piece of the new thing, it’s a much less messy reaction than swiping the entire tray onto the floor.
Try a tasting plate
You can also try using a tasting plate, especially if they’re a little bit older. Some older babies or young toddlers may be able to catch on to the tasting plate, but it can be especially beneficial for children 2 and up. A tasting plate sounds very fancy, but it’s really not- it is just using a separate plate to the side of their main plate, a napkin, a paper towel, etc. Putting the new or unwanted food on a separate surface can sometimes give picky eaters some more breathing room around the new food instead of having it on their main plate.
Providing what they want: your attention
As soon as they start meal time, you’re going to focus on acknowledging and complimenting their good behavior. We want to catch them being good or doing a good thing. We want to give them attention for the positive behaviors that we see, not the negative.
It can be something as simple as saying, “I love how calm you are right now” or “you’re doing such a great job with your spoon.” Try to find something that you can call out as positive so that they think, oh, I get attention when I do this, I will do more of this.
They want your attention more than anything. Whether the behavior is good or bad, they just want to do what you’re going to notice. You’re their parent- they love you more than anything in the world and they just want your eyes on them, so they’ll figure out a way to get that. But when they do start throwing food, you are going to take a deep breath and summon all of your power to ignore the throwing.
Remind them gently where the food goes- “the food stays on your tray”- and continue on with the meal. I know it’s very hard to completely ignore it, but when we think about reinforcing behavior with attention, ignoring it makes sense. If we don’t give that behavior attention, then they don’t really have much of a reason to do it. We’ll talk about some additional troubleshooting things related to dogs, pets, etc, in a bit.
Stop food throwing
You can also gently take their hand and stop them from throwing if you see they’re about to do it. You can take their hand and say, “I can’t let you throw that,” and have them place the food back down, but the best way to approach food throwing is to not react. As soon as we react, we’re giving them the attention they’re wanting but simultaneously reinforcing the undesirable way they are trying to get it.
You don’t want to get into the game. They throw it. You pick it up. They throw it. You pick it up. No, we’re not doing that.
Let’s talk about some troubleshooting. Kids often love to feed their pets, so the most helpful thing to do during meal times is to put the pets away so that it’s not a temptation. Put them in the crate, in the other room, whatever you need to do. Because even if you’re not giving them attention for food throwing, but the dog is having the time of his life licking up the mess, it’s hard to really get them to stop doing that.
A lot of times food throwing is attention-seeking, and it can be hard to always give your child the attention they’re asking for with this behavior. Maybe you have other kids or you’re working from home and mom-ing at home, or you’ve got a lot of stuff to do- there are a million valid reasons why you can’t give them your full attention while they’re eating, so don’t be too hard on yourself. That being said, they really do love to have your attention, so if you can give them at least, say, three to five minutes of engagement with them at the meal, it can be super helpful. You can definitely be eating too. There is a ton of benefit to a family meal.
Engagement can just be eating with them, talking with them, paying attention to what they’re doing. “I love the way you’re trying your spoon” or “you picked up a pea- cool!” Whatever it is- giving them attention so that they’re not having to find alternate ways to get your attention is a useful strategy to stop the food throwing.
A note on older siblings
If you have other young children- especially ones who like to be mini parents too- they might be unintentionally stoking the fire by trying to reprimand the food thrower. If an older sibling understands that food throwing is unwanted behavior, they might say, “No, no! Don’t throw your food!” But when they do this, they are giving attention to it as well. You might need to talk to them at another time and get them on the same page about what to do when they see their sibling throw food.
This too shall pass…
I just want to remind you: this is a phase. You might not be able to be perfectly consistent with all of these strategies to nip it in the bud. You might not be able to give them attention while you’re still trying to finish cooking a meal and doing 10 other things at the same time. Try primarily to focus on not giving the food throwing behavior any attention and they will phase out of it. It may take some time and you may wonder when it will stop, but I promise you, it will. Even if you were to do all the ‘wrong’ things, it would stop eventually.
I am just here to encourage you: don’t turn it into a game, don’t be constantly picking up after them. You might even have them clean up after the meal if it’s appropriate for their age and ability, but don’t pick every little piece up as they toss it.
If the food waste bothers you, that’s a really normal feeling. We don’t want the nutritious meals we make to end up on the floor instead of in our kid’s belly. It can be frustrating on many levels. Remember to start with really small portions so that they have less to throw and less is wasted if it ends up on the floor.
Quick recap to get them to stop food throwing
- Tell them what you expect: where the food belongs
- No thank you bowl
- Don’t give too much – use starter portions
- Very small amounts for new or unliked foods- size of a grain of rice or a pea
- Tasting plate option
- Catch them being good- compliment their good behaviors as soon as they sit down and throughout the meal
- Ignore the throwing and remind them where the food goes
- You can gently take their hand and stop them from throwing and just say “I can’t let you throw”