Toddlers Throwing Food

See Also: Toddler Feeding

Archived Q&A and Reviews


June 2006

Any advice on stopping our 1-year-old from throwing food from his high chair? He does this, off and on, throughout the meal, with food he likes and food he doesn't. We've tried sitting with him and not sitting with him. We've said ''no,'' but he doesn't seem to understand (or doesn't want to). We've ended meals early but are reluctant to do that too often because he's skinny for his age and our doctor tells us we need to get more food into him. Thanks for your suggestions! Frustrated Mom

Most or all young children throw food from their highchair. They have no idea that this is ''wrong'' -- it's just experimentation and play to them. My two year old still does this a bit, but much less than she used to. The best advice I got, is to do your best to ignore it, and it will subside over time. This has not always been easy, but ignoring it seems to help. Instead of getting frustrated, I do my best to very positively tell her what is the right thing to do when she doesn't want something, like place it on the table or the tray. I thank her profusely when she does it, and it's sinking in and slowly working. Developmentally, your child needs at least another 6-12 months to even grasp what ''no'' would mean, and even then, it's spotty. Give this some time, and in the meantime, just revel in the mess -- this cute phase doesn't last long in the grand scheme of things! still cleaning the floor

I know your son is young but able to sit up on his own? We got rid of high chair as soon as our first born was about 10 months old. My second child never sat in a high chair. We try to work with Montessori method by teaching them to take care of themselves. If he throws food on the floor, get a paper towel and make him clean it up. Of course he isn't going to clean it all that well however he will soon learn that there is consequences to his action. I know it sounds crazy and ridiculous but it will work. Everything has consequences and he will learn eventually. Be patient and he will appreciate you. Get a small dust pan and a broom and leave the papertowel where he can reach it. My younger daughter who just turned 2 gets her dust pan from under the sink whenever she makes a mess. You be amazed. Montessori Mom

You've got to tell those one year olds how we do things on this planet. They really don't know, and they are little Newtons, just figuring out that things fall, and up in the high chair is probably the highest they get all day to practice this. They also observe the funny effect of mommy and daddy huffing and bending over to pick things up.

So, I pick the thing up once, and if it goes down again it stays there until it goes into the garbage. Eventually everything is on the floor and there is nothing else to throw. Then dinner is over, or, if you are really worried that the child might actually be hungry, you can offer something else to eat. If he doesn't want that, then dinner is over. Voila.

Also, this phase does not go on for ever. You can teach them to hand you what they don't want and then they become cute little tidiers ixnay on the ickingpay upay

When our daughter (now 19 months) did this around that age we simply said ''We don't throw food'' and then quickly took her out of her high chair. If it was early in the meal and she hadn't eaten much, we would then put her back in about 5 minutes later and continue the meal. It worked like a charm in about a week or so, but we had to be very consistent. Now if she doesn't want something she either hands it back to us or puts it off to one side of her tray. Good luck! Laura

He's learning about cause and effect, about gravity and about how far he can push you before you go insane. My son did the same thing, it doesn't last forever. My advice is to get a splat mat and a broom and remember to breathe; this, too, shall pass Jill

Put less food (or one piece at a time) on the tray. Too much food is overwhelming for some reason and causes the little ones to 'throw, throw, throw.' -anon

Food throwing is a standard phase because small children donbMay 1997t inherently know what food is for. They learn by socialization, and sitting down to meals with your child will help this process. Throwing food usually signals that they're done eating, and you can remove the tray after the 2nd or 3rd offense -- they won't starve. My husband was succesful in getting our daughter to place unwanted food in a corner of her tray, but he is more patient than I am.

The throwing food behavior will pass. However, it's annoying and even infuriating while it lasts, so take deep breaths and know it's temporary. I think my daughter did this for ~2 months? We just recently noticed that it's been a long time since she threw food off her highchair (she's 16 mos now) Hated it too

13-month-old is throwing food on the floor

May 1997

Is there any consensus on when and how children's eating habits should be shaped through discipline? My 13 month old likes to throw food on the floor but is other wise able to feed herself. Her new day-care person has responded by taking food away and she came home hungry. I would like her to stop throwing food also, obviously, but thought that taking food away was a bit harsh-- it meant she was hungry for some of the day. Has anyone else thought about this?

Limits are always necessary. But down the road, results of the learning process are determined by the methods used in teaching. I agree that removal of food and resulting hunger is not the right way to teach someone not to throw food. It would probably result in teaching the lesson, but the anger and frustration it could cause are a set-up for future dysfunction -- I think it's that simple. It's like spanking. Kids will often stop an action if they are spanked, but the resulting behavior and attitude towards life can be horrible for everyone, most of all the child. Talking, at any age, is better. Removal of the food for a few minutes and then returning it after talking would be better, if removal is the approach someone wants to take. Long-term or permanent removal should be reserved for items that are hurtful, such as playing with sticks in a park. Food doesn't come under this category. With patience, all theater antics of babies and children disappear -- they're a part of life. If dysfunctional behavior continues past the stage time limit, then of course it's another story -- and in that case we just get help. Good luck, Tamara Tamara

I seem to remember that dropping, smearing, throwing food is pretty normal behavior for a 13-month-old. They can't really handle cutlery at that age, can they? We used to spread a shower curtain under the high chair and then hose everything off after the meal, including putting the baby in the bathtub. Having a dog that eats table scraps helps too. I do remember that my out-of-town in-laws were appalled when we visited for a week and they saw how I let my one-year-old son eat. They really couldn't deal with the mess, so we had to feed him first, and then eat with the grownups later. But heck, they eventually got control over a fork and they are big now and they have OK table manners and we have never had any issues over food. My little sister's son, on the other hand, was born using a fork and spoon and cup. He wouldn't think of dropping food on the floor and becomes upset if his face and hands are dirty. So I guess a lot depends on the child. Ginger

Consensus on how a child should be raised? Ha. It's probably easier to find consensus between two parents on how their own child should be raised (a difficult feat no doubt) than it would be to find consensus among the experts. In any case, I do highly recommend Sears and Sears _The Discipline Book_.

In the case of food, the latest research indicates that children should be offered a variety of healthy foods and allowed to choose for themselves what, when and how much they will eat. This is MNSHO (My Not So Humble Opinion)-- Food should *never* be used in disciplining a child. Either witholding food or forcing it on an unwilling child will more than likely lead to psychological problems around food later in life. The child will learn that one pleases other people by what one does with food and is more likely to become anorexic or bolemic as a result. They will also fail to learn the very important lesson of how to recognize when one is hungry and how to eat until one is full. In this case, your daughter could start eating past the point when she feels full if she develops a fear that she may not get any more food until she sees you.

If I were you, I would have a talk with your new day-care provider and say that this is an unacceptable form of discipline and that if it happens again you will go somewhere else.

13-month old children sometimes throw food; it's part of the learning process and part of being a child. My son used to do it quite a bit and this is what we did. If he threw food or a utensil, I would pick it up, say, We don't throw X. When you're finished, say, Done and _give X to Mommy/Daddy_ I would then pick up whatever he had thrown, and let him _practice_ giving it to me. We did this a zillion times and he did eventually get it. He still sometimes threw things; and, in fact, at one point I realized that he thought Don't throw meant Look! It's landed!

HTH, Sophie

I am absolutely appalled by this form of punishment. Food becomes an emotional (and control) issue rather than a form of sustenance and an opportunity to gather in community/family. I think that it is very important to understand that very young children are still learning how to eat and feed themselves; making a mess is part of the process. Although it would be nice for all children to naturally have acceptable table manners, I strongly think that having a good relationship with food is of primary importance especially as you try to teach children how to become independent. I'll even bet that your child doesn't understand why she is being punished. (When my son was that age mealtimes were always messy and took a long time, but we tried to make eating at the table together an enjoyable experience. Now, at age 3, he's gone through times of misbehaving at the table, but more often than not it is to get a rise or reaction from us; now that he has begun to understand more about rules and learning about acceptable behavior, we are trying to teach him about basic table behavior.) You should have a long talk with your daycare person and set out ground rules; if she can't abide by them then you may need to reconsider your relationship. I'd hate to think what other typical toddler behaviors she punishes as well. Good luck!! Natasha

We just spoke to the pediatrician yesterday about our 14 month old's eating habits which have been a little distressing of late. She's not eating nearly as much nor the variety of foods that she was just a few months ago, she delights in smashing and rubbing it all over her high chair rather than eating, and she's started to have tantrums in order to get out of her chair. Delightful little Ellie!

The doctor said let her eat what she wants and you can't make her eat anything. All we can do is make a variety of food available for her, but she'll eat whatever she feels like. She laughingly called this phase the white diet, consisting of yogurt, cheese, bread, and milk, and that's basically what Ellie eats now. We're going along with it. Ellie is already over 30 lbs and is in no way nutritionally deprived, so we don't have much reason to worry. Fighting her about it has just been a waste of time and energy. Clay

Our son Noah is 15.5 months old and has been throwing food on the floor for a while now. He usually does it at the end of a meal, when food has more toy value than hunger value. We usually remove his tray and food at that point, but of course this point is ambiguous, since sometimes he will still eat a little, and we want him to eat as much as possible. Brazelton says somewhere that when kids start throwing food, the meal should be ended, and the kids will a)be more hungry for the next meal and eat better and b)learn that throwing food ends the meal. I got the impression he was talking about slightly older kids, though. It is hard to know what our little kids can understand. Carol

I can't resist chiming in on the subject of children's eating habits.

I agree, as it seems most did, that withholding food as a form of punishment is a bad idea. When our kids went through this stage--as they all do--we fed them separately, avoided restaurants and formal social events where food throwing wasn't likely to be appreciated, and waited for the stage to pass, which it did. If the children were particularly wild, we would remind them food is not a toy (how the words echo in my head!!), remove the food quietly for a few minutes, and tell them they could have it back when they were ready to eat. This was much in the same vein as one might put a child on time out very quickly for a few moments and then let the child return to his activity. The point was to interupt the behavior, not to withhold food. (I might add that a corollary to this that's a LOT harder to follow is not to use food as a reward.)

On the subject of WHAT they eat, I have a minority viewpoint. When our children were babies my husband and I agreed that one thing we did not want was children who refused to eat most common adult foods. We used a simple, consistent method that paid off well: we never forced our children to eat anything put before them, but we never offered to make them special food, and we never allowed them to eat dessert if they had not eaten most of the food on their plates. When they said they didn't like something, we'd say Fine, don't eat it and leave it at that. When they explained that they weren't hungry for dinner, but they WERE hungry for dessert, we'd just point out the implausibility of their response. This led my son to develop quite a routine about the SHAPE of the place in his tummy that was empty: it could just fit a cookie but couldn't possible fit a piece of broccoli, etc. (We would then offer to cut the broccoli up into finer pieces so that it would fit in the cookie-sized hole, etc. This was frustrating to him because he knew he didn't have much of a case, but he did eat the broccoli which he now loves.) We were absolutely consistent and we never got angry or punitive-just a matter-of-fact oh that's too bad when they didn't like something. Both of them (9 and 6) now display a flexible, receptive approach to food that most of my friends find astounding. Rather than approaching food with a suspicious attitude, they assume food tastes good, expect to like what's put before them, and generally eat just about anything. We still follow the same rules: never, ever, make them something separate, never force them to eat, and no dessert if there hasn't been a good-faith effort (by which we mean more than half of the food is eaten) on all food on the plate. They have each developed a few specific likes and dislikes (one won't eat polenta, the other doesn't like fish) and we work around these by giving them smaller portions, adding a special sauce or whatever. The difference is that I don't mind respecting my children's likes and dislikes when those preferences are in the context of a very broad, healthy eating pattern.

Of course I take great pride in this relatively minor accomplishment and lord it over all my friends with picky eaters at the same time that I know that my parenting approach may have had absolutely nothing to do with it and I just happened to be blessed with good eaters!


How to discipline food-throwing 16 month old

September 2003

I am a single mom and trying to work on my son who throws his food and sippy cup on the floor during his mealtimes. I have a very hard time trying to dicipline because I am a softy at heart and feel really bad correcting my little baby boy.

He is now 16 months and very testy with some of his actions. He is constantly thrwoing his food at the table and it's starting to drive me nuts! At first I thought it was funny, but now it's been a struggle everytime he eats. I say No and give him a very light tap on the hand...he laughs at me and continues to throw his food. Last night, I decided to take him down from hi high chair and said ''Thats enough... no more throwing your food'' He saw that I was seriuous and he started to cry. I waited for about 5-10 minutes (until he was calm and happy again). I put him up in his highcahir and placed some food on his tray...and he threw his food again! I am not sure what to do at this point. I belive in discipline, but having a tough time. Does anyone have advice or can recommend a book on how to discipline a 16 month old boy??? I want to do the right thing!

Thanks in advance for the advice! Georgina

My now 20 month old went through the same thing, I think I even posted about it. It also drove me completely nuts, but I learned (or somebody here told me!) to not make a big deal out of it when it happens. For one, he's learning about gravity and cause and effect, so it's completely normal behavior. For another, he's also learning how to ''test'' you, so if he sees that his behavior is getting a reaction out of you, it will only make him more likely to do it again so that he can get another reaction out of you.

I just stopped responding to him , or I would say very calmly ''Oh, I see your food is on the ground, you must be finished.'' Eventually he stopped because it just wasn't fun for him anymore. Now he eats like a little gentleman (with his hands, only, but that's another problem!). Jill

In our house, we say ''On the floor, you get no more.'' and that is the end of the meal. He'll catch on pretty quick if you are swift and consistent. Helena

I'm going through the exact same thing with my 16-month-old. I think it's just a developmental phase. I try to keep a very straight face when she throws her food-- when I react she does it more-- and ask ''Are you all done? Food goes in your mouth.'' If she puts the food in her mouth when I ask this, I try to give a big, happy reaction. If she keeps dumping food on the floor I say ''all done?'' and take away the tray and feed her by hand or just give her one or two pieces at a time (my highchair has a top tray that can be removed leaving the main tray still attached). I try to give her lots of attention when she is eating and not throwing anything. I'm not sure it's really working, but I have faith that giving her attention for good behavior and reacting calmly with a bland, serious face to behavior I want to discourage will work eventually. It is so easy to go about cleaning up the kitchen or whatever when she is doing what I want and only react when she starts throwing food, but I figure that will only teach her that the best way to get Mom's attention is by throwing food, so I'm making a real effort to be uninteresting when she's tossing food on the floor and interesting and chatty when she is making an effort to eat ''neatly.'' We'll see if it works! Good luck!

When a 16-month-old throws food, he's not hungry. Stop the meal immediately. It's that simple. Don't get mad or upset about it. Just say, ''it looks like you're finished''; take the food away, clean up and go on to the next activity. (And don't try to re-start the meal 5 minutes later!) It really is that simple, he won't starve, and he will very quickly learn not to toss his food if he'd really rather eat it. (Whereas, if you overreact, he's likely to continue this behavior because watching your reaction is really interesting.)

By the way, please don't ''tap'' your baby's hands to discipline him, ever! You don't want to discourage him from exploring the world; he needs to use his hands to learn. Holly

Two books I liked for this stage are ''Becoming the Parent You Want to Be,'' and the Sears' ''Discipline Book.'' Both are very good at helping you understand the developmental stage, and how to respond to behavior you don't like. I hope they will help you, too. Carolyn

My advice is: this is a phase, and don't pay too much attention to it. When he throws food, gently say, ''I guess you're not hungry, so meal time is over!'' and take him down from his seat. Try not to worry about whether he is still hungry. Believe me, if he's hungry he'll eat once he understands the connection between throwing food and being removed from his seat. It's hard to remember that he is not doing this with the intention of manipulating you and making you angry; it's just a very fun game with delightful results from his point of view (wow, I can make mommy yell and get red in the face and hey, this bowl makes a wonderful crashing sound on the floor!). He is still a baby, and he is experimenting. Gently show him that meal time is for eating, and if he's not going to eat then he can't be in his chair. Good luck. Six months from now, you might even forget that this phase happened! Been There

16 months is too young to expect perfect obediance, so take some pressure off yourself. It sounds like you're doing fine. For me, I have tried to address this problem behavior (which all 3 of my kids engaged in!) by (1) limiting how much food you give at one time to very small portions. Give more as each poriton is eaten. That way the mess on the floor is never too big. (2) Interpreting the throwing as a signal that the kid is no longer hungry. You don't need to be punitive -- just say, ''Well, I guess you're not hungry any more'' and take him down from the high chair. If you're really concerned that he's not eating enough, you can put him back up in another 20 minutes or so, with another small poriton of food. Same with the sippy cup -- I'll pick it up once or twice but after that it just goes on the counter: ''I guess you really don't want this right now.'' But also remember, your kid really wants to PLAY with you -- so be sure you're giving lots of fun time to your baby too. Good luck! susan

I don't think that 16 months is too young to say, ''no, we don't throw food. What we did (our daughter was blowing raspberries with a mouth full of food) was remove the food from the tray and place it where she could see it, but it was out of reach. We just said, ''we don't do that, if you do it again, I will take the food away again.'' The level of her protest made it clear whether she was still hungry or not, and she learned fairly quickly. Melissa

My son is one month older and we have just started to discpline him more than just saying no and re-directing which is what we have done in the past. I am not sure how capable they are of understanding even at this age but I figure they learn by rote so we should start now. I escalate the ''punishment'' starting with a simple no- please do not... pull the dogs ear, throw that on the floor, turn on or off the tv etc. I also use the term ''not for.. your child's name...'' because I don't always want to say the word ''No''. So when the no's and the re-direct attempts don't work I now am adding a time out if he continues to do the activity. I have a time out chair in his room. I take him there saying ''because you would not stop doing...fill in the blank.... you will now have to go in time out.'' I place him in the chair and stand close by but not touching him and not looking at him. If he gets down I tell him his Time out is not over yet. After a few seconds to a minute I say ''OK now you're time out for ... fill in the blank... is over and you can go and play again.'' As I said I am trying to establish a ritual so if he doesn't listen to the first few requests to stop then we will have to take further action. I'll be interested to hear what others have to say on this subject also as it is always a difficult and passionate topic. Juliette