There are a lot of things to learn during my son's toddlerhood, but the one lesson I’m dying to know is how to stop your toddler from throwing food. I love my son more than life itself, but nothing drives me crazier than when my kid throws his food on the floor. Not only is it wasteful, but I worry he’ll go to bed hungry or he isn’t getting enough nutrients (thanks, anxiety). Plus, I have to clean it up if the dogs don’t get to it first. Not only do I need to know how to stop this behavior, but why in the world do all of them do this? All of those adorable, maniacal, calculating, mischievous toddlers, flinging bananas and cheese crackers into oblivion.
As you've probably learned by now, toddlers don’t just throw food, they throw everything, and child development specialist and parent educator Ann McKitrick says this is a big motivation for food flinging. “They're learning the wonderful cause and effect of using their arm in a big motion, letting go at just the right time, and watching what happens to the object they've thrown,” McKitrick tells Romper. “From a high chair, there are lots of opportunity for interesting cause and effect. One of the most compelling is the response from the grownups in the room. They learn, based on the adult response, that this is OK or not OK. If they're being ignored, throwing food is sure fire way to get attention. And toddlers love attention.”
Elizabeth Berger, child psychiatrist, adds that they’re also testing their new independence. “An infant must accept passively most of what life offers, but toddlers have grown up sufficiently that they can say, ‘No!’ The ability to say ‘No!’ is a wonderful thing, and shows that the toddler is embarking on the first steps to true independence of mind,” she says. Berger adds that throwing food is just one of the ways your toddler is exercising this ability, using their whole body to express their personal preferences. “This is the beginning of the toddler's emerging ability to develop a personal point of view — a crucial step in development.”
So how do you get them to stop? Perinatal and pediatric nutritionist Aubrey Phelps says to simply end the meal. “Typically, I recommend clients say something like, ‘Hmmm, food is for eating, not throwing; looks like you must be all done!’ If babe protests, you can respond cheerfully and calmly with an ‘OK! If you throw again, then you will be done eating!’ If the child throws again, end the meal, reminding them that food is for eating, not throwing. And don't offer again until the next scheduled meal or snack.”
I have personally always been too terrified to do this because what if my kid really is still hungry? “It's unlikely that your child will go hungry," McKitrick says. "If they just sat down to eat and begin throwing, take everything off the tray but one item. Give them one thing at a time. If they continue throwing, they must not be very hungry.”
Berger says even though throwing food can be wasteful, messy, discouraging ,and sometimes “downright insulting” to parents, it’s important to accept that it’s a natural and important “phase” for the toddler to explore. Sigh. Might I suggest adopting a dog to help with clean-up?
Ann McKitrick, MS, child development specialist and parent educator
Elizabeth Berger, child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids With Character
Aubrey Phelps, perinatal and pediatric nutritionist