What to do about your baby or toddler throwing food?

What can you do about the food throwing!?

The answer depends on the root cause - a one-size-fits-all approach wont work here!

Has your baby or toddler developed a "fun" new habit of throwing their food on the floor? Is your family dog eating more than your child at mealtimes? Are you constantly on your hands and knees cleaning the floor after mealtimes?

For babies and young toddlers (less than 18 months) the best approach is to simply ignore the behaviour. Maybe calmly pick up the food off the floor and put it back on the table but in general, try not to make a scene. As your toddler grows and starts to understand simple commands, like "put this in there", you can start to teach them what you want them to do.

Root Causes of Food Throwing

Before you react to food throwing, try looking at what is creating this behaviour:

Trajectory Schema

The trajectory schema, or "throwing phase" happens when your toddler is learning how the world works, cause-and-effect, and "what happens when I throw this from this height".

If your toddler is generally going throw a throwing phase, try to encourage more throwing activities in their day. Throwing balls and appropriate toys of different textures from different heights.

Looking for a Reaction

Food throwing usually starts when your baby is first learning about cause-and-effect. That is why it is important not to react or create a scene. If your baby notices they can get a rise out of you by throwing food on the floor, they will probably keep testing this. Those frustrating little scientists.

Start by ignoring the behaviour and instead focus on preventing it in the first place by:

1. Offering only one piece of each food at a time, or smaller portions

2. Putting the dog in another room during meals

3. Eating with your child, or sitting with them while they eat, without distraction

For older toddlers (20months+), it is still important to respond calmly and not make a scene about food throwing. As they start to learn how to follow basic directions you can begin to teach them what you WANT them to do (rather than reacting to what you DON'T want them to do). Saying calmly "food goes here" and pointing to either a discard bowl, your own plate, or a napkin (where you want them to put unwanted food) will be more likely to solve food throwing eventually.

Done Eating

Throwing might just be a sign that they're finished and wanting to play. If this is the case, calmly remove them from the table. You could say something like "You are throwing your food, I assume this means you are done eating".

Your child knows how much their body needs and how much they want to eat of the food you have offered. Try to avoid putting any pressure on your toddler to eat. If they are showing signs that they are done eating, there is no point in trying to get them to eat the amount you think they should eat.

Too Much Food on the Plate

Your baby or toddlers' desired portion size can be a lot smaller than you think. If you are pre-plating for your child, try starting with 1 tbsp of each food or try family-style meals where they choose how much goes on their plate.

New Food or Disliked Food on the Plate

If your baby or toddler is feeling uncomfortable with a food (or is just uninterested in eating it at that meal), they might just be looking for a place to get rid of it.

When offering a new food, or a food they frequently throw, try putting it on a separate learning plate so they can be free to explore it without the pressure to eat it.

Offer a specific location for where they can put unwanted food, like a discard bowl or a napkin. When you see your toddler about to throw the food, calmly remind them where the unwanted food is to go.

Mealtime Overwhelm

Putting pressure on your child to eat ("take one bite", "eat your food"), stressful adult conversation at the table, screens at the table, distracted adults, eating alone, loud siblings...these things can feel overwhelming for young children and could lead your child to look for an outlet, or attention. Put yourself if your child's shoes and see if there is anything at the table that might be making them feel overwhelmed.

Try and keep mealtimes calm, mindful, and positive as much as possible.

Remember that all phases eventually pass. With calm mealtimes, adult modeling of appropriate behaviours, and plenty of patience, eventually your child will stop throwing food (except maybe for the occasional food fight at summer camp).

For a simple cheat sheet for building toddler snacks (with 20 different toddler friendly snack examples) subscribe to the Nourished Nest Nutrition newsletter for the free Toddler Snack Builder download.

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