12 tips for stopping fussy eaters throwing food
When babies and toddlers throw food, it can be frustrating and messy, but it is also developmentally normal. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t help prevent it, but it’s not the sign of a naughty child, but one who is throwing for a whole host of reasons.
If we have a fussy eater, the throwing may be more frequent. It also may continue long past the age when it’s developmentally normal. However, no matter the age, there are some great strategies that help stop the behaviour.
Like most parenting techniques stopping throwing requires patience, determination, calm and consistency. But before we look at how to stop the behaviour, let’s look at the reasons why.
Why children throw food
These may vary a little depending on the age of your child. Establishing why they are throwing however, can be important for picking how to intervene appropriately.
Remember, as challenging as it can be, it’s perfectly normal between about 8 and 18 months.
1. Experimenting. Your child is learning what happens when something gets thrown or dropped from the tray or table. Firstly, they want to know what happens to a piece of carrot if it’s thrown and secondly, what do you do when you notice!
Seeing whether a piece of carrot always does the same thing and if it’s different to what happens to a glob of mashed potato is great learning!
2. Impulse control. Younger children especially are not great at regulating their own behaviour. They see the peas and it’s just too tempting not to see what happens if they’re dropped off the tray.
3. It’s fun. Let’s face it, a pottle of yoghurt tipped over the side of the tray makes a spectacular mess. Children are supposed to be entertaining themselves and given the chance will!
4. Attention. Nothing gets a parent’s attention more quickly than milk tipped all over the carpet or pumpkin splatting on the floor.
Unfortunately, the more attention we give, the more this reinforces the behaviour.
5. Communication. When our child is throwing they may just be letting us know that they are done eating, they are bored, they don’t want to eat that food.
6. Boredom/done eating. When children are bored they are more likely to do something that’s annoying! If meals are longer than their attention span it’s more likely to see behaviour that’s more challenging.
If a child has done eating, throwing food may be the sign. Although we have in our heads a portion size for them to get through before the meal is over, they frequently have other ideas!
7. Defense mechanism. If they are finding food a challenge, they are more likely to get rid of it. This is especially true if they are concerned they may be pushed to eat something they don’t like or are struggling to manage.
8. Habit. If for any of the reasons above children get into the habit of throwing food, it can be something that continues for a long time. I have spoken to quite a few parents who are struggling with the problem from their 3+ year olds.
Pets can also encourage throwing. The dog sitting begging is too tempting to ignore, not to mention how fun it is to see them slurping up messes. If you do have pets who like to hover around the table, they are usually a bad influence
Working out which of these is something that fits for your child is a good start. Now let us look at strategies for preventing the throwing:
Ways to stop a fussy eater throwing food
Firstly, minimise impact. Putting down newspaper, a rubber mat or an old sheet are all ways to protect the floor and enable you to worry less if things do happen to jump off the tray/table.
1. Reduce ammunition. If your child is likely to throw food, don’t make it easier or more tempting by loading them up. Give minimal amounts of food and then top up supplies as necessary.
Having lots of food to begin with, especially for a picky eater can also make eating more difficult as they become overwhelmed.
2. Keep calm. Our reaction to throwing can exacerbate the behaviour. The more attention our child gets, the more likely they are to repeat the behaviour. As challenging as it is, remaining calm is essential (even if we don’t feel it on the inside).
Negative attention is still attention! If they don’t get a big performance from us it is less tempting to do it again. In fact, try to totally ignore the mess and do not offer more of any food that gets thrown.
3. Share meals. Sitting with our child, and even better sharing food with them is a great long-term strategy both for helping them eat more competently and reducing throwing.
Mealtimes when our child is locked in their highchair seems like the perfect opportunity to do a quick tidy or put dinner on, but our one-on-one attention is essential. If we can model eating food with them, even better.
4. Short meals. It’s really tempting to have a specific amount of food in mind we would love our child to eat, but it can often backfire. Instead, making meals short so the focus is on the eating, helps to prevent boredom or disinterest kicking in, which may lead to throwing.
5. Schedule. Having meals and snacks on a schedule helps to ensure our child is hungry and so ready to eat. If they are constantly eating, they may not be particularly hungry when we pop them in the chair, and therefore prefer to play than eat.
6. Pre-eating routine. If our child loves to throw things, then it can be really handy to get that out of the system before eating. Can you throw a soft toy backwards and forwards, go in the garden and throw balls against the wall, or even drop water balloons from a window?
Throwing that is more exciting than carrots from the tray may just satiate that need!
7. Reward good behaviour. Look for the behaviour you’d like to see more often. Even if it’s a momentary pause before the throwing begins, smile, and let them know that you love the way they are sitting nicely at the table.
8. Hold their hand. If you see them go to throw, gently but firmly hold their hand. Let them know with a specific phrase like “food stays on the table” what you want them to do.
Any time they go to throw repeat the hand holding and the phrase. This is a process, not a magic bullet and you will probably have to do it over and over multiple times until they stop throwing.
9. Other focus. Giving something else for your child to focus on can be helpful. Maybe they have their own spoon or fork, which can be good for independence too (if these get thrown, leave on the floor).
Or perhaps you divert focus with a game. Who can smush a pea on the tongue or chew like a dinosaur?
If there are foods that are not getting eaten, perhaps we can play with these rather than throwing them. For example, stacking carrots. This is also great for supporting our child to interact with foods.
10. Help them communicate. Food may be thrown because your child has decided it’s the end of the meal or they don’t like what’s being served.
Giving them the ability to communicate what is happening is helpful. If they are not speaking yet we can teach them a simple sign to let us know they have finished eating.
Or, if some food is challenging we can show them how to move to the side of the tray.
Doing these things also gives our child more control and the ability to make independent decisions.
11. Set expectations. Especially if your child is over 18 months. They are able to understand instructions and control their own behaviour.
Explaining that food stays on the table is something that we can have as a mealtime expectation.
12. Make throwing more difficult. There are ways that we can make it less likely they are able to throw. Pushing the highchair up to the table so they can’t see what happens if they throw, for example.
Using suction bowls and/or handing our child the cup when it’s time to drink rather than leaving it on the tray. If any utensils or serving things do get thrown, leave them on the floor for the remainder of the meal.
It’s also essential our child is comfortable at the table. If they are able to squirm around, this can also lead to throwing.
Overall, the most important points are to remain calm, give our child our full attention and respond consistently to the behaviour. It’s a frustrating phase that most parents have experienced (and not loved) but putting into place firm strategies really does help.
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/