When Toddlers Throw Food (and Other Mealtime Mischief)

I’ve noticed that when parents ask me what to do about their toddler throwing food or dumping water, there’s usually a key respectful care practice they’re missing: pay attention.

Child specialist Magda Gerber encouraged parents to give infants and toddlers our focused attention at mealtimes whenever possible, beginning with breast or bottle feedings. As a parent and a parent-child class facilitator, over the years I’ve found Magda’s guidance beneficial for several fundamental reasons:

1. Paying attention helps us to spot testing behaviors early and gently nip them in the bud lonnnggg before we’re even close to getting annoyed or angry. As an added bonus, our calm, upbeat, early responses make testing far less interesting and therefore much rarer. Here’s how setting limits at mealtime might look:

We see signs of imminent food throwing, which will generally happen right around the time our child’s interest in eating has waned (which we’ve noticed, because we’ve been paying attention). We say to our child matter-of-factly, “I’m going to stop you from dropping that… Looks like you’re no longer interested in eating the food. Are you all finished?” Then, if our child indicates he isn’t, we might wait another moment to see if he returns to eating. If the test begins again, we can be certain he’s done. “Ah, you said you wanted more, but you are making it clear that you’re done now. I’ll help you down.”

2. Paying attention helps me to structure my day, focus and prioritize my energies (truly a godsend for a scattered person like me). As Magda wisely notes in Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect, “What an infant needs—what every human being wants – is to experience the full undivided attention of a parent or other significant person.” And then her reassuring caveat, “But nobody can pay full attention all of the time.” Here’s the basic parenting framework she recommends in her book:

“During care activities (diapering, feeding, bathing, dressing, etc.), we encourage even the tiniest infant to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient of the activities. Parents create opportunities for interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being wholeheartedly with the infant during the time they spend together anyway.

Refueled by such unhurried, pleasurable caring experiences, infants are ready to explore their environment with only minimal intervention by adults.”

What this means is that if we only have a limited amount of time to spend with a child, connected care activities like mealtimes are one of the most productive ways to use it. Here’s an example:

In the RIE Parent-Infant and Toddler Guidance classes I facilitate, we begin doing snack time once the babies are all mobile and able to sit independently. Up to this point, my role with the children has been as a mostly passive, though responsive, observer of their play. My attention is divided between watching them and engaging with their parents. With the addition of snack time, we really begin to get to know each other. I am their fully attentive leader. I invite them to participate, always meeting them where they are, while also gently insisting they follow the rules (see a video demonstration HERE). We develop rituals and in-jokes. I have the sense that our relationship shifts dramatically to one of far more trust on their end. We bond in this 15 or 20 minute period of focused time together each week.

3. Paying attention keeps us connected, builds and deepens our parent-child relationship. My children are now 22, 18, and 13, and I only recently realized that I’m still making a point of giving them my full attention at mealtime, although it looks a bit different now. Whenever any of them wake up at our home (with one a college grad and another a college sophomore, these days are rare and even more precious) and they’re ready to get something to eat in the kitchen, I try to put down whatever I might be doing to hang with them. With their full lives, there are days when this is the only time we really connect. I might offer to make them breakfast or just watch while they make their own. I might get to hear what they did the night before (if they returned home after my bedtime) or their plans for the day. Sometimes there’s a lot of dialogue and laughter. Other times, we don’t speak much at all. That’s okay. For me this will always be prime time, and the company is enough.

“The beauty of this special kind of availability is the way it affects the older child and later the adult who was raised with it. You will find that they do not feel forced to talk. They can peacefully sit with the parent and then open up if they want to. The child does not feel manipulated.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

 

I share more of my experiences implementing Magda Gerber’s approach in my books, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!) and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

 

(Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr)

27 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. What if the throwing food begins as soon as you give it to them?
    And you know they are definitely hungry.
    He’ll just casually drop half of his food straight away and then start eating.

    1. I think that may have something to do with sensory experiencing food. My child slapa the food, squeezes it and throws it before putting it in his mouth. I guess it is part of his process.

    2. Stak – be very clear with your child beforehand…especially if you have not set this limit before… “Here’s your dinner. Please let me know when you are done, so I can put it away. If you throw the food, that will tell me you are done.”

      Then you are right there to stop him when you see his hand reaching up to throw the food. You gently stop his hand. “I don’t want you to throw the food. That tells me you are done and I will put it away.” Then, the first time you do this, give him another chance to show you he’s was just testing 😉 If he tries it again, he’s being VERY clear and needs you to be as well. Let him know you will put the food away and will check again later to see if he’s hungry. He may object to this strongly, especially the first time. That’s healthy.

      Children need and deserve this level of clarity and respectful communication and follow-through from us. That’s how they learn acceptable behavior.

      1. avatar Stephanie says:

        At what age would you start this? I understand the idea that kids understand more than we give them credit for, but I feel pretty confident my 10 month old does not fully understand these kind of directions yet and I’m reluctant to take away food when she might still be hungry, just because she doesn’t know what I’m saying. However, the throwing food on the floor makes me crazy and I’m really struggling to not let it overtake mealtimes.

        1. 10 months is more than old enough. I babysit a 11 month old, and at 8 months, if he wasn’t interested in food, or was trying to grab the spoon, I’d tell him that he wasn’t allowed to play with the spoon while it was messy. If he continued to play, I’d put up the food for an hour or so (or switch to a bottle). Then when he let me know he was hungry again, we’d go back to food. She’s not going to starve if you wait an hour or so before trying again.

  2. Another example of how just being present with kids is so important- all their lives! Thanks for the reminder!

  3. thank you for this post. A timely reminder for me to slow down and pay attention to my children (1.5 and 4 years old), especially when our family has been so busy getting around a new home ready in a couple of months. The children have been patiently sending out signals like asking for us, testing limits or losing interest in routine tasks etc. all they really need is us to be present with them. It will be an anchor for them.

    1. You’re welcome, Lianz! And yes, “all they really need is us to be present with them. It will be an anchor for them.” And not all day long! Just periodically… during these important caring moments we share.

      In a recent study, 500 teens and tweens were interviewed about their parents cell phone use.. and the results were interesting. The children were far more bothered by this than they had felt safe letting on to their parents. The study showed that mealtimes was one of the times they were bothered most by a distracted parent. So, this study essentially confirmed what Magda Gerber taught 50 years ago. I share more about the study here: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/06/do-wired-parents-need-time-out-or-less-guilt/

      1. Hello this is great,but I have trouble with knowing when to be present and when not to be. I’m at home with my 2.5 and 1.5 year old, and the amount of physical work associated with caring for them at home is so overwhelming for me sometimes. I’ve done the whole, lets just play today thing, and it doesn’t end well, with a disaster zone and complete lack of organisation. I need some tips please.

  4. From what I have learned about toddlers what they are basically doing is discovering and exploring that they are separate. They were one with Mom and at age year and a half or so they start expierencing themselves as a being who is separate. This is fascinating to explore and terrifying that is why they enter the stage called the terrible twos. That is why peek a boo is so fascinating to them because you literaly appear and disappear. So to me what they are doing when they throw food is just another way of exploring and experiencing separation. They also throw toys and silverware. So for me it is just a process of exploration thhat will fade away as they move their attention from explring immediate separation to exploring more about the world. Saludos

  5. This is wonderful, simple advice for all stages of child rearing. Takes determination to put it into practice, though! May be easier if you can unclutter your family life first, so there’s less to drag your attention away from the kids.

    1. Yes, or even uncluttering just for these few times each day. It actually feels very good to empty our minds and be present.

  6. Dear Janet,
    First, I have to start off by saying that I hang onto your blog like some life sustaining apparatus… I discovered your place when my son was approximately 5 months old (he is now 13 months)and I am so thankful and full of appreciation. I would NEVER be the mother I am if not for you. And I am sure that my son would never be the well-behaved focused child he is without my drinking up your words. From the bottom of my heart, Thank you!
    I was so happy to see this post. Mealtime looks like a storybook by me because of everything you’ve written until now. Sometimes we try the floor and a small table (breakfast and snack), sometimes we try the highchair (dinner and formal meals)and it’s always a wonderful experience. When my family and friends watch they stand open-mouthed. with your guidance he helps me with his bib, drinks from a cup, doesn’t mush around his food, uses a napkin, and calmly starts moving away when he’s done. Lately though, he started with food throwing. I try dealing with it in a smart way using the knowledge I picked up from your posts. I don’t make a fuss, just comment calmly “Oh, it looks like you’re not hungry anymore. We don’t throw food or put it on the floor. Please give that to Mommy.” I hold out my hand and he gives me the offending morsel. He then proceeds to pick up anything he put on the floor and gives it to me as well. I didn’t even say anything about the floor! That’s the amazing thing about this approach; they get a feel for it.
    I’m just left with two questions: 1) If the food throwing business is not fun and it’s dealt with properly, why is he still doing it pretty often? 2)I understand that if he throws food he is probably done eating. Sometimes it happens pretty much right away, though. Does he really have such a small appetite?
    Thanks again,
    Rose

    1. Mine does it too at 16 months. I think it’s an age thing. She likes seeing the cause and effect of watching the food drop. She’ll drop the food and say “Uh oh”. But with practice she’s getting better at clapping for “All done” and putting her fork/spoon on her plate when she’s done eating and not dropping too much food on the floor. But I’ve noticed it’s been a gradual improvement and not an instant thing, making me think it’s just developmental.

      I use a combination of ignoring it and “scolding”. If she’s just curious about food dropping, I ignore it and tell her to eat the food still on her plate. If she’s looking for a reaction from me, I tell her we eat our food we don’t drop it. When she’s done and throwing food out of boredom I just take away the plate and tell her she’s throwing food so it’s getting taken away and make her wait until everyone else is finished eating. (and of course I lavishly praise her when she claps and puts her utensil on her plate like she should) She’s getting the message about table etiquette. You can tell it’s a learning curve though, and that she’s learning a skill.

      Your child is probably the same way. At 13 months he’s probably new at this skill and needs more practice. It can be frustrating when they’re throwing food to test boundaries though.

    2. Hi Rose! Thanks for sharing this wonderful story about your progress… and for all your kind words!

      1) I have the sense this has become a bit of a game/routine between you that your boy enjoys repeating. He drops the food, you say what you say.. (I recommend using first person: I don’t want you to throw the food, rather than “we”, which isn’t direct enough and also not entirely accurate, because one of you is throwing food. 😉 ) He hands food to you and then gets down and picks up the food.

      2) What seems missing is being clear with him about the limit and then following through. So, when he throws the food, even if it’s right away, try to stop him in the act. Either way, say something like, “I don’t want you to throw the food. That tells me you’re done. Are you done?” If he indicates “no”, but tries it again, I would follow through no matter what. “Okay, you must be done then. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll put it away for now.”

      If you are worried he’s been left hungry, you can offer him mealtime again in as little as 20 or 30 minutes, but he needs to know that this is a clear expectation, instead of just a game/routine. And I would give him the full scoop on what you expect before mealtime begins.

      Can you see the difference?

      1. Wow! This is so true. It really HAS become a routine. Thanks for making it so clear.

  7. avatar Lindsay Moore says:

    My daughter is 18 months old. Although she’s learned to say “more” and the sign for “all done” and can use it with me at mealtime she has gotten into the habit of throwing her plate (or napkin, or spoon) when she’s finished eating. When this happens, I calmly say “we don’t throw”… “no throwing”. She will then reply and say “no throw” but continues with the behavior at mealtimes on and off (whether my husband and I are sitting with her or not). She seems comfortable with it and is not making the connection that it’s something she shouldn’t do. So I see I’ll need to use different language and be more direct – also that I’ve created a routine or story that she follows. She continues to throw and I continue to say “don’t throw”and she’s comfortable with this scenario. What is the best way to proceed? She seems to throw things when frustrated and I want to be able to diffuse the situation and guide her in the right direction. I feel like I’m failing her because I don’t know how to communicate and consistently help her with this. Thank you so much for all of the wisdom you share!! It’s appreciated more than you know!

  8. Wow this is really helpful to read. With a 3 year old and a 20 month old we’ve slipped into parenting habits I don’t like, but have felt lost in what to do, so I slip into habits of what I see/was raised with (same with the husband). Our 3 year old eats almost nothing at dinner now and complains as soon as he sees dinner, no matter what it is, and claims to not like most things we make (though he used to eat everything, and lots of it). Its frustrating and we get upset with him about it and coax him to try things, ask him to eat 3 bites before he’s done, and my husband especially gets upset. Our 20 month old is still eating a good amount and most of what we make. Also, our son, the 3 year old, will usually want fruit after dinner or ask for something to eat before we go up to bed, and I’m torn on how to deal with that when he won’t eat his dinner. Also, our kids eat breakfast and snacks at a small kid-size table in the kitchen, and usually breakfast is served while I’m packing lunches or doing some dishes, etc. and they ALWAYS now make a big mess or start getting up and down and chasing each other or playing, all with food in their hands or mouths or with their cups, and I’m just so distracted that its mayhem literally every time and by the end I’m sooooo frustrated, even furious some mornings. I guess my multitasking should stop and I should really focus, and set limits and be consistent, huh?

  9. Oh, what wonderful timing, Janet — thank you, thank you! I have two additional questions, and am hoping for your guidance:

    My son will immediately slide food off of his tray that he does not wish to eat. Do I respond as though he’s telling me that he’s done eating, even though I know that the real issue is that he doesn’t wish for those awful, terrible veggies to be near his main course?

    Additionally, how do you respond to picky eaters? I usually provide two options at mealtimes; one that he often likes, and one that he may or may not. But these days, the list of “often likes” has diminished considerably. If a toddler refuses to eat his meal, evidenced by sliding it on the floor as soon as it is served, do you offer something different or do you nonchalantly skip the entire meal? My toddler will both get “hangry” quite easily yet steadfastly refuse food that he doesn’t like. On days with skipped meals, I’ve fallen into the trap of heavy snacking to tame the hunger beast, and I know it’s not the best solution.

  10. Hi Janet,
    What age do you think babies start intentionally throwing food and we should start setting limits? My girl is 8 mths old and likes to tip her drink bottle upside down and shake it. She also has excited arm flapping that ends up with food flung across the room. She’s not really eating or drinking much yet. Do you think she’s throwing intentionally at 8 mths?
    Thank you,
    Frith

    1. Hi Frith,
      Everything children do is about learning something… So, your response is either going to teach her that, yes, this is okay for her to do… or, no, it’s not what you want. Do you see what I mean? It doesn’t really matter if it’s “intentional” at this point or not. But, yes, I think an 8 month old generally knows what she’s doing, particularly if this isn’t the first time she’s tried it.

  11. Janet – We have been struggling with food throwing for months now. Our tot is 14 months old. She sometimes does it as if to clean off her hi chair tray or get rid of items she does not want to eat. And then when we say “No throwing please, are you all done? If you’re all done, give it to mommy/daddy.” And then she gets upset because we are telling her to not do something and she starts throwing almost defiantly. (Even outside of mealtime, she generally doesn’t deal well with being told to not do something – even if not using the word “no” … she immediately gets upset and throws a tantrum). More often, it is as if she is testing us, looking us straight in the eye and dropping food from her tray. At times this happens right at the start of the meal. I must say we are not consistent about taking her away from meal time when she does this. I just always worry that she will constantly be hungry.

    I know you advise to explain once (and prevent the hand from throwing if possible), give another chance, and then when it happens again, follow through and remove from the meal. (With little/no emotion). But I am pretty sure she understands what she is doing is unacceptable behavior; she just does it to be unacceptable, if that makes sense. Is the objective to teach her the consequence so that she doesn’t opt to behave unacceptably?

    Also, if she just does not want or like what is being offered, how many more options do we give her? And do we wait to give her option B until the next offering 20-30 minutes after she has thrown food, or do we clear her plate of what she clearly does not want, and at that same meal, give her another option(s)?

  12. Janet,
    Thank you so much for this post, as well as every other post/topic you have shared. I am learning so much from you!
    We have 20 month old twin girls, and my husband and I are trying to figure out how to switch over from the high chairs, to a “big girl table.” Im wondering if you have any suggestions for me when I’m alone with them during the week, in regards to getting their lunch prepared, etc. while both girls are tugging at me wanting their lunch. With the highchairs, I can place them in to them, have their water, and some crackers available there for them to snack on while I prepare their lunch. I’m not sure how to go about this if the high chairs aren’t in the picture? Thank you so much for your help ☺️

  13. Ah I feel like such a dummy! I usually feed the kids (3 year old and 2 year old) up at the bench and while they’re eating I prep the next part of their meal or our dinner, stack the dishwasher etc. We still talk and I help them but I’m definitely multi tasking – I was actually trying to not pay them too much attention (sometimes that can make behaviour worse). But after being away on holidays for a week and eating at a table while away the kids decided we would eat at the table tonight. And I just sat with them and it was delightful! They definitely tried all their normal tricks (not sitting on their bottoms, pushing plates away to get attention) but because I was right there (mentally!) nothing escalated and I didn’t feel exhausted by the end of it.
    Thank you so much for the continuing flow of great advice. So appreciated!

Leave a Reply to mamayaya Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations