Toddler behaviour

Messy eaters

Squishy, gooey food is irresistible to experimental toddlers

By Holly Bennett
Messy eaters

A frequent theme in laundry commercials is the toddler who has upended a bowl of spaghetti on his head. It’s funny and cute...until it’s your toddler, and you were planning for a nap right after lunch, not a complete hose-down. Why can’t toddlers just eat their food?

Like so many irritating or baffling toddler behaviours, this one has more to do with development than discipline. “Toddlers are not doing this purposefully to aggravate their parents,” says Diane Dowling, a nurse with the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health Unit in Ontario. “It is an absolutely normal and expected phase in their development. They shouldn’t be disciplined for it.”

Young children are not very well coordinated, so naturally there will be spills and mishaps when they feed themselves. But on top of that, they are programmed to learn about their world using every one of their senses, explains Dowling. “That includes their food. They are going to experiment with it. They’re going to squish it, smell it, maybe even take it in and out of their mouth a few times before actually swallowing it. They’re going to drop a spoon or a bread crust just to see where it goes.”

That doesn’t mean that parents need to encourage mess making, says Dowling. In fact, it’s a good idea to start gently teaching your child that food is for eating, not playing. That way, says Dowling, by the time she’s ready to grow out of her messy ways, “the stage is set for appropriate eating and table manners.” Read on for some ideas.

Stay calm. A surprised or loud response, says Dowling, can make a child’s food experiments even more intriguing: Oh, this is fun — Mom got excited. Will it happen if I do it this way? Instead, she suggests a low-key, matter-of-fact reaction from Mom: “No, we don’t throw food.”

Limit opportunity. Provide small amounts of food at one time, so there is less to play with. When that’s eaten, offer a little more.


Model a better way. If your child shows she’s had enough by pushing the rest on the floor, say, “All done? Say, ‘No, thank you.’”

Minimize distractions. “Keep the TV off,” suggests Dowling, “and the dog out of the kitchen.” There is no better enticement for dropping food than a begging dog!

Don’t play retriever. If you keep bending over to pick things up, says Dowling, that’s a pretty fun game. She suggests cleaning up once, after your child is actually done.

Try the big table. Toddlers like to feel a part of the family and to imitate what we do, so you might find it works well to take off the high-chair tray and pull her chair up with everyone else (keep the safety harness buckled, of course!).

Sometimes a small change in routine can lead to a big improvement. Take Cynthia Lanoue’s experience with two-year-old Kyle: “As soon as he was done eating, he would say, ‘All done’ and toss the plate before we had time to grab it. We finally figured out that if Kyle saw that my husband and I were finished, he would decide he was finished too. And if we got up from the table, it was game over. Now that we stay at the table until he is done, things have improved.”

This article was originally published on Jan 07, 2008

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