Child Caring

Toddler's mealtime need not equal throw-everything-on-the-floor time

Dear Barbara,

I need some help with my 22- month- old son during meal time. The main issue is that he throws his food, cup, bowl, plate, place mat, utensils and anything else he can while he is eating. He does this throughout the meal, not just at the end when he may not be as hungry. In fact, in between throwing food he will happily shovel food into his mouth. So it doesn't seem to matter if he likes the food or not. He chucks it all the same!

My husband and I have tried praising when he eats and doesn't throw food, we have ignored him when he does it, we have also limited the amount of food on his plate so he has less to throw or what is in his reach. Sometimes [I] have fed him before my husband and I eat, so we can give him attention and we also tried eating together so that he can model our behavior as well. I know he is clearly looking for a reaction from us and wants to see consistency in our response but I'm at my wits end! I hear a lot that it's a "phase" and it will pass, but it is hard to ignore that all the food we spend so much time preparing ends up on the floor (organic chicken and yams aren't cheap!). The only thing we haven't tried is a "time out" because if he gets out of his seat, it would be difficult to get him to eat anything. Any tips you could recommend would help!

From: Jennifer, Swampscott, MA

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Hi Jennifer,

Yes, it's a stage (but I understand that that doesn't make it easier) and, no, time-out is not a solution for a child this age.

Some of the food-throwing is part of the process of learning about cause-and-effect -- "If I do this, what happens? Oh, mom picks it up! What if I do it again? And again...?" -- but after a point, it can become a game or a habit. Neither is fun for mom and dad. Consider these tweaks for the solutions you've already hit on:

1. Put only two bites of food on her plate at a time. When she finishes, ask if she wants more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Don't hover in between or give the appearance that you're watching every mouthful; that can fuel a rebellious response. Just dole out the food. At the same time:

2. Put a tarp of some kind underneath the high chair so that when she does toss, a) it won't be a wasteful amount, and b) the clean-up won't be onerous.

Here comes a choice. The combination of 1 and 2 means you can ignore her when she tosses, in the hope that lack of reinforcement will take the fun out of her game and, after a few meals, she'll give it up. Or: as soon as she tosses, immediately remove her from the highchair and say, "You must be all done!" If you choose this route, your reaction needs to be swift so that she can make the new association: "If I throw food, it means I'm done."

When she finds herself out of the chair, it's important not to hand feed her; that defeats the purpose. You want her to learn that mealtime means sitting in the highchair and eating, not throwing. Once you've removed her, tell her, "Lunch/dinner is over. You'll have to wait for snack time/the next meal."

If you are quick, consistent and non-judgmental in your tone, it doesn't take long for a toddler to learn she'd better eat her food instead of throwing it or she'll lose her opportunity.

Readers, can you share what worked for you?