The first few times your baby grabs food off her high-chair tray and throws it on the floor, you laugh, pick it up, smile and say in your gentlest voice, “No throwing, honey.” You might even snap a picture because it’s so adorable. But when the cuteness wears off, and food throwing becomes a game—one where you’re the loser—it can become frustrating (the mess!) and worrisome (there’s more food on the floor and wall than in your baby’s mouth!).
Food throwing is a popular topic in my nutrition counselling practice; most parents deal with it at some point with their little ones. I always reassure my clients that it’s normal—most kids go through a food throwing phase in their early years. Mine sure did. Just the other day, I lunged towards our highchair to catch a full bowl of uneaten spaghetti from my one-year-old’s hands (I was unsuccessful) while simultaneously exclaiming, “Nooooooo!”. So I definitely understand the frustration.
In many cases, food throwing is a result of learning how to control and coordinate food, and developing fine motor skills. In fact, in babies ages six to eight months, food throwing is rarely intentional. For older babies (nine to 12 months), it becomes an exercise in learning cause-and-effect. What will happen if I throw this bowl full of oatmeal? Will it make a noise? Where will it go? Will it come back? Fast-forward to toddlerhood, and food throwing becomes an intentional attempt to trigger a reaction—positive or negative—and can easily turn into a power struggle, creating stress at mealtimes for everyone.
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Here are five tips to stop food throwing, and keep family meals positive (and as mess-free as possible!):
1. Don’t react
Babies and toddlers are natural attention seekers who thrive off a reaction. To avoid encouraging the behaviour, do your best to stay calm and neutral. Pick up the food (but don’t return it to the tray or table) and say something like “Food belongs on the tray” or “Food stays on the table.”
Be consistent with the phrase you use, and be sure to use one that indicates what you do want to happen, as opposed to a phrase like, “We don’t throw food,” which indicates what you don’t want to happen. By not returning food to the tray, you’re teaching your baby that once it’s thrown, it’s gone—they learn quickly!
2. Get the whole family on board
Talk to older siblings about why it’s important not to react to food throwing. As a mom of three, I know that my two older kids are often tempted to egg on my youngest when he throws food. It becomes their mealtime entertainment! But this attention fuels the food-throwing fire and usually intensifies it. Make a family plan to stay really calm and not react when the young one throws food. Make it a challenge to see who can be the calmest.
3. Consider ditching the tray
When older babies are learning about gravity and can see over the edge of a tray, it makes the food throwing game more enticing . The fact is, watching the dog scarfing down a piece of meat or the marinara sauce splattering all over the floor is fun! Consider removing the tray, and pushing the highchair up to the table so it’s harder to see the floor. Your baby will now be focused more on his food and interacting with other family members, which is less isolating and includes them more in the family meal. Bonus: It also offers more opportunity to model healthy eating.
4. Put the dog outside
When you’re a baby, what’s more fun than throwing food and watching the dog gobble it up and beg for more? If you can, let the dog out during mealtimes (or even just remove him from the kitchen) when you have little ones in the food-throwing stage.
5. Take it as a sign
Flinging food might very well be your baby’s last-resort effort to tell you “I’m full!” It’s easy to have a feeding agenda—you serve an amount of food that you believe is right for your baby, so you expect (and in some cases pressure) your child to eat it. When he turns his head, tightens his lips or pushes food away, it’s a sign that he’s full, and you need to respect that, and let your child determine how much he will eat at each meal and snack. Too often, well-meaning parents don’t recognize these signs, or choose to ignore them, by pushing food closer to their baby or following the baby’s mouth with a spoon, because they want to make sure that their baby receives enough nutrition.
Babies are born intuitive eaters—they know how much they need and when to stop, so we need to trust this and not pressure them to eat more. By offering five to six eating opportunities daily (meals and snacks), with lots of variety, we can rest assured that our little ones will meet their nutrition needs over the period of a week. Serve portions that aren’t large or overwhelming (this in itself can trigger food-throwing), offer more if your child indicates so, and take the pressure off. This will make for a much more pleasant eating experience, and nurtures your child’s natural ability to eat intuitively.
If you can weather the food-throwing storm, stay calm and focus on teaching your baby or toddler what you want them to do (keep food on the tray or table), it will pass and mealtimes will remain positive and low-stress. And you can invite the dog back in post-meal for clean up!