Splat, saucy spaghetti hits the floor and you cringe. Another mess to clean up. Like there aren’t 20 others you had to clean up already today. You think, THIS HAS TO STOP!
Take a deep breath. You can get to the root of the problem of toddlers throwing food AND learn how to address it. There’s usually 2 main themes to food throwing and this article will walk you through figuring out which one is happening around your table and the steps you can take to stop it.
Read on to put an end to this painful mealtime behavior in your house and answer the question you’ve been searching for: How to stop toddler from throwing food!
Table of Contents
No Matter the Reason for Food Throwing – Consider This First
So many parts of parenting are super challenging and lead to frustration, fatigue, and overwhelm. Shifting your attitude before even digging into the problem can help, not just with toddlers throwing food, but with all parenting challenges.
Think about this challenge as a learning experience. It’s one phase of many and an opportunity for you to flex your parenting muscles, connect with your child, and learn together. Each time you go through this cycle together, you set everyone up for future success.
Also consider taking the approach of natural consequences rather than punishment. We want mealtimes to be a place children want to come, not only so they can eat for nourishment, but also because it’s a safe place they can rely on to share and communicate with you.
Overall, we want to be thinking about parenting with an authoritative approach. This means we have high expectations of our children, but also parent from a place of warmth, respect and responsiveness. We set clear and consistent boundaries and offer strong leadership to help our child respond to these boundaries.
If this approach resonates with you, check out the Mastering Mealtimes Membership for lessons on feeding kids with this approach. Now, with all this in mind, let’s dig in!
Why Is Toddlers Throwing Food Even a Problem?
Food Throwing for Sensory Reasons
Toddlers (and kids of any age, really) could be throwing food due to a sensory response. They may not want to be physically near the food or might not feel ready to smell or even look at it.
Additionally, if kids are pressured to eat foods (think one bite rules, taste everything policies, or take 2 more bites before you can have a cookie requirements), their anxiety around disliked foods is going to quickly escalate and could end in throwing, and worsening of picky eating.
When they see that food that they really don’t feel comfortable eating land on their plate, instinctually, they may want to remove it as quickly as possible, so they don’t have to eat it. If they don’t have anywhere else to put it, it might just land on the floor.
This response typically happens immediately after food is served, because they want the food gone as soon as possible! Other indications of this root cause include, saying yuck, crying, making faces, leaving the table, and a history of strong preferences. If this is what you’re seeing, this very well could be the reason your toddler is throwing food.
Food Throwing for Behavioral Reasons
For many kids, toddlers especially, food throwing could be a behavioral issue. Within this, there are lots of possibilities of what could be happening under the surface behavior.
First, let’s address the question: Is it normal for a 2 year old to throw everything?
Yes, it sure is normal that toddlers throw food (and everything else). It can also be expected to see a baby throwing food. So, rest assured, you aren’t alone. Typically between 8 months and 2 years old, throwing and dropping food is developmentally normal.
This leads to the question: So then why do toddlers throw their food?
Babies and toddlers often throw food because:
- It’s fun and they like throwing
- They are in a stage of testing limits and learning cause and effect (Think: What will mom do if I throw this? OR Where does food go when I throw it?)
- They are done eating and/or bored
This response typically happens after some eating and/or food exploration, at the middle or end of the meal. Very often your child looks happy or entertained or sometimes is even looking at you (watching for a reaction) as they throw or drop food. If this is what you’re seeing, this very well could be the reason your little one is throwing food.
Beyond toddlerhood (3 years and older), kids might still be throwing food, but for other behavioral reasons. One common reason is simply that kids are still learning regulation skills. That means when they get an urge, like throwing their juicy watermelon on the floor, they can’t yet stop themselves from actually doing it.
At this age it can also be a child’s way of feeling seen, similar to the toddler stage of testing limits and learning about your response. Combine this with unchecked urges and you might get food throwing at mealtimes. Painful, I know. But remember our attitude check: everything is an opportunity for learning and growth.
This response typically happens after some eating, at the middle or end of the meal. It may happen in response to a trigger or when you aren’t looking or paying attention. If this is what you’re seeing, this very well could be the reason your child is throwing food beyond the toddler years.
Hopefully by now, you can think about your specific situation and determine with confidence, the reason your toddler is throwing food and can hone in on what to do about it!
Addressing Food Throwing Related to Sensory Responses
What You Can Do in the Moment
If you’ve determined that your toddler throws food related to a sensory response, the best thing you can do is to have them put the food in an alternate location.
It’s important to facilitate an environment where your child is comfortable coming to the table, so we want to keep things positive. This is a necessary step in helping hesitant eaters, with strong sensory responses, learn to eat a wider variety of foods. Moving a challenging food to a distance that your child can regroup and calm down, is the most helpful thing in the moment.
A great place to put the food is right on a plastic (or easily washed) placement. This keeps the food close enough to learn about it, if at some point they do feel ready to do so, but far enough away that they are less tempted to throw it on the floor.
If a placemat is still too close or too big of a temptation to throw, toddlers love to feed Milton the Mealtime Companion. They get to pick up the food with a utensil or their fingers and place it in his mouth. Then it can’t be thrown, and as a bonus, they engage with the food as they feed him, which is helpful in learning to like new foods.
Another easy option, that doesn’t require purchasing a new tool, is a learning plate. Similarly to Milton, your child can place the food on a plate (or in a bowl) as a way to redirect the urge of throwing it on the floor. This is a great option for ongoing learning about the food, since you can still see it, even after it’s been moved.
What You Can Do After the Fact
Once your child has had the opportunity to move the food to a new location, where they feel more comfortable, it’s time to take the next step.
When food throwing is due to a sensory response, the goal is to over time, and at your child’s own pace, learn more about the challenging food. This is how the “learning plate” got its name!
You’ll want to wait until your child has settled down. Remember positivity around this exploration is key! Once everyone has regrouped, you can lead a discussion about the food, centered around using senses to explore it and neutral words to describe it. This is exactly why we call this place, the learning plate!
Avoid using words like yummy, yucky, good or bad. Instead think about its color, texture, temperature, smell, etc. Your child can even make up silly words that make sense to them. This process helps kids learn about foods and know what to expect when they do feel ready to taste.
What You Can Do in the Long Term
Longer term, it’s important to take steps to set up an environment that supports your child’s response to food and keeps it on the table instead of on the floor.
Strategies that can help kids be less overwhelmed by new food on their plate and therefore less likely to throw it, include:
- Give small portions – they can always ask for more
- Don’t pressure kids to try new foods or take bites – this can make mealtimes stressful and make learning to like new foods harder. The article My Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner! 10 Reasons Why and What to Do About It, has more on this topic.
- Explore foods outside meal time – read books about food, start a garden (even 1 pot is great), or do a craft that involves touching food. Check out The Easiest Strategy That You Can Actually Implement to Help Your Picky Eater Try New Food for a great starting point.
Addressing Food Throwing Related to Behavioral Reasons
What You Can Do in the Moment
Addressing toddler behaviors, including getting them to stop throwing food, comes down to one thing: setting and holding boundaries. It doesn’t matter if they are doing it for fun, to test limits, or because they are bored, boundaries are still the response.
When setting boundaries, we want to start by saying what WE will do, not what we want them to stop. Instead of, “We don’t throw food,” say, “I’m not going to let you throw food.” This communicates what we are in control of, which is our own behavior.
If throwing and dropping continue (as it so often does), we can share what the natural consequence is. We can say something like, “If you have trouble stopping, I’m going to assume you are done eating and clear your plate.”
This is a clear natural consequence that removes the opportunity to throw for a baby or toddler and removes the urge for impulsive actions for children beyond toddler years. Remember, it’s all about helping little ones learn, not be punished.
Then, when it happens after the warning, the only thing left to do is follow through on what you said would happen. You can say something like, “It seems like you are having trouble stopping. Now I’m going to clear your plate.”
Do your best to remain confident in your parenting decision, even if a meltdown ensues! You are the calm leader and you are giving them the opportunity to feel safe as you hear their protests, without joining them in the meltdown. They are learning self regulation from you.
What You Can Do After the Fact
After it’s all said and done, it’s all about connection. For toddlers, it’s important to be with them as they process and share their feelings (which unfortunately is often yelling and crying). Remind them that they are learning and that the next meal is another opportunity to try again.
As your child continues to learn, this is also a great opportunity to further their understanding of natural consequences. You can eventually start to let them know that they will also have to help pickup the food. Be careful not to phrase this as a question, as it’s the natural consequence, therefore it isn’t optional.
What You Can Do in the Long Term
In the long term, you can make some changes that can help you avoid getting to the point of removing the meal (and potentially having a meltdown). Consider the following strategies to avoid toddlers throwing food in the first place:
- Keep meals short – 5-15 minutes is enough for many toddlers to eat and you can work up to this over time. To make the most of this time, only bring them to the table when food is ready, so they can begin eating right away.
- Make sure they are coming to the table hungry – have a meal and snack schedule and stick to it. The article My Toddler Won’t Eat Dinner! 10 Reasons Why and What to Do About It, has more on this topic.
- Sit with them during meals – this gives the opportunity to give attention that they might otherwise seek by throwing food and helps you stop it and enforce boundaries quickly.
- Give other outlets for throwing – some kids really just like to throw food, and anything for that matter, and it can help to give time to throw balls and other appropriate things just before mealtime.
The Importance of Follow-Through When Addressing Toddlers Throwing Food
Whether your child is throwing food due to big sensory responses or due to behavioral reasons, the most important thing to remember is follow-through. You can have the perfect strategies and plans, but without follow through, kids miss out on the opportunity to learn from challenges.
The biggest barrier parents face in feeding toddlers and making changes to address challenges like a toddler food throwing, is that follow-through is hard and most definitely not the path of least resistance.
At the end of a long day, we don’t want to hear our toddler scream about not wanting broccoli as they throw it against the wall. So, we whisk it away to be replaced by something more appetizing.
We don’t want to hear the cries as we enforce the boundary of food throwing by removing our child’s plate and ending the meal. So, we endure the dropping of food over and over and over again, eventually dreading mealtime and resenting our child as we clean up.
However, in both these scenarios, our child has the opportunity to learn and work toward better mealtimes in the future. Through overcoming these challenges kids, yes even young toddlers can learn:
- Tolerance of new foods being near them
- Touching new food is something they can do
- Smells are something they can learn to tolerate
- My parent follows through with boundaries set and I feel safe in their leadership and enforcing of natural consequences
- I can feel big feelings and my parent isn’t scared by them, so they must be OK to feel
- Mealtime is a safe, reliable, and positive place
If you’re struggling with setting boundaries around mealtimes, being the study leader around food or following through with making changes at the table, I’d love for you to join me in the Mastering Mealtimes Membership. As a registered dietitian, parent coach and fellow mom, I walk you step by step through not just nourishing healthy kids, but how to deal with all the parenting challenges along the way.
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Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian, Quality Improvement Professional, Parent Coach and founder of On Your Table, LLC. She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to learn to eat a varied diet. Kim has helped countless families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her from her about page.