By Cecilia Matson, MA, Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Galoop – Child Development Classes for Babies and Toddlers and Expert Advice for Caregivers
Everyone with a young child has lived through it: babies and toddlers will throw food out of their high chair at one point or another. And even though it can be sometimes funny or even cute, it is often frustrating and adds to the day’s cleaning, which nobody likes.
Before we talk about suggestions to stop this behavior, let’s talk about why this is such a common behavior in this stage of child development. There are a few reasons why young children throw food: very young babies are experimenting with “cause and effect.” That is, they’re performing little experiments: “Will the blueberry roll on the floor again if I keep throwing it?” “Will the yogurt splash?” “Will my pet come and eat what I throw every time?” “Will my Mom say no again?”
Older toddlers enjoy throwing food because they can control it, and there aren’t a lot of things they can control! And many times it is a way of saying “I don’t like this,” or “I don’t want this right now,” or “I am not hungry anymore.”
Now that we understand where this behavior come from, there is some bad news and some good news. Let’s start with the bad: there is no quick, easy, automatic, or instantly permanent way to fix this behavior; you will probably have to work at it consistently for a week or two. The good news, however, is that if you try some of the suggestions below consistently, it will get better!
- Try serving up less food. Big portions can be overwhelming for small people, and your child may jettison some just to feel like they have the situation under control.
- Be clear about stating the rule: the food stays on the tray/plate. When your baby throws food, remind him of this rule. If he throws more you can then ask: “Are you not hungry anymore? Are you all done?” If he throws again you can say: “Looks like you are not hungry anymore” while taking him out of the high chair. If you are worried that your child did not eat enough, you can offer a small healthy snack a little later so they can last until the next mealtime.
- Have your toddler clean up the mess with you: say, “You need to help Mommy clean up this mess,” and involve her in the process of wiping her high chair down and putting things in the trash. Kids don’t like cleaning up any more than adults do, and this process will help them connect the dots in terms of behavior and consequence.
- Don’t show big reactions: stay calm and matter of fact, and do not show the frustration you feel. Just keep consistent with the actions described above.
- Try introducing a “not now, thank you” bowl or napkin: you can tell your child that if he does not want to eat something from his plate, he can put it there. It may take a few reminders to get him to start using it, but this works for some children.
- Consider giving her utensils: some young children love the independent feeling of using age appropriate utensils, and this thrill will help them forget that throwing food is fun! (But please be ready to forgive accidental food on the floor, on their face, and on their clothing while they master them!)
- Try to eat together with your child if possible. When they are part of family mealtimes, the excitement of hanging out with the whole family makes them less likely to seek attention by throwing food. High chairs like the Tripp Trapp are designed specifically to enable family mealtimes that include baby – you can pull it right up to the table!
- Substitute a kid-sized table for the high chair: If family meals are not possible and your child is old enough, you can try to give your child his meal sitting at a small table instead of her high chair. Some children just don’t like the high chair because they feel too restrained in them, and meals can become more of a battle.
- Make sure your child is hungry: sometimes they throw the food because they just don’t feel ready to eat!
- And don’t forget, be consistent: choose the strategies you think are the best fit for your child’s behavior and her motivation for making messes, and then employ those strategies consistently for at least two weeks, and hopefully you will start seeing some change.
Do you have any other suggestions that worked in the past? Please share in the comments below!