How to manage food throwing at the table

Main image for the article [How to manage food throwing at the table]. Pictured is a baby eating his highchair and making a mess with his food.

Ahhh, food throwing. It’s like the ultimate test of your patience…can you keep your cool? Can you? Can you?

First off, know this. Most babies will go through this stage, and it is totally normal.

Does that make you feel better?

Didn’t think so.

But maybe you can take comfort in knowing that at least your little baby/toddler isn’t trying to drive you crazy on purpose (even though sometimes I swear they are looking straight at you when they do, like they’re just waiting for your reaction)!

You see, food throwing is a normal phase for a reason. And know that although it can be an extremely messy and frustrating stage for moms and dads, it usually doesn’t last long and can actually be corrected pretty quickly.

In order to do so, we’ve got to look at the reasons for food throwing first.

The most common one is that they’re going through a learning experience of discovering “cause and effect”.  They often wonder what will happen based off their actions, and when they are learning how to grasp their food and are practicing with solids, it’s only natural for them to wonder what would happen if they were to drop the food (or throw it). Will it make a sound when I drop it? Will it disappear for good? Will mom always pick it up and give it back to me? Will she smile? Will I get attention from it? The good thing about this is that if your baby or toddler can learn that action x will cause result y, you can use this learning equation to associate food throwing with a result that they don’t want eventually. I will explain this further in one of the strategies below.

Another huge reason why babies and especially toddlers may be throwing food is because they are looking for attention at the table. And for them, attention is attention, whether it’s good or bad. This really stems from their yearning to have us with them at all times, to notice them, and to interact with them. And to be honest, it’s fun sometimes to throw food and can become somewhat of a little game to them! So in learning that throwing food yields some sort of result that provides them with attention, you can bet on it happening over and over.

The next reason is that they are using food throwing as a way of communicating to us. Once again, where babies and very young toddlers who are non verbal, they may struggle with finding ways of letting us know what they are feeling/want. It could be that they don’t like the food, are full, are bored, want attention or a number of other things. Food throwing is often the solution for them to try and send us a message.

Finally, the last reason is more usually more applicable for toddlers, but it’s done out of a fear or retaliation that they’re going to be forced to eat something. This can be a perceived feeling even though they may not actually be being forced to, but generally, if there’s pressure or negativity happening at the table around them eating something in particular (or eating a certain amount of a food), this can be a trigger. So they’ll act up by throwing food.

So now that we know the top reasons why they throw food, let’s get into some expert strategies and tips to help manage and overcome this phase. 

1. Start by sitting down with your baby/toddler at mealtime

You may already be doing this, and if so, kudos and move on to tip #2. But if you’re like me, you’re likely tempted to wash up dishes from cooking your child’s meal, maybe load/unload the dishwasher, etc. If the reason that your child is throwing food is because they are seeking attention from you, ensuring you sit in front or beside them, look at them and talk to them while eating will provide them with the feeling that you are there, you are present and you notice them. Do this whether they can talk back or not! The verbal attention works wonders for giving them the attention and focus they seek. Sitting with them also gives you the opportunity to implement all of the tips I’m going to provide you next!

2. Present only a small amount of food at once

Does your child have tons of food and options on their tray all at once? You may want to consider that they are slightly overwhelmed by the amount of food on their tray. This also makes it tempting to “eat some and throw some” (some food play can be annoying after all). Limiting the amount of food you give your baby to one or two pieces at a time is a good idea – it will be less food to throw if they resort to that behaviour. If your little one eats all of the food you give them, you can always add to their tray until they are full.

3. Limit your reaction

Now that you’re sitting with them and have offered just a few pieces of food at a time, they may still throw food for any of the other reasons described above. If/when they throw food, I want you to try and keep your cool as much as possible! Try not to overreact and avoid immediately sighing, complaining or ordering your baby/toddler by saying things like “stop it”or “don’t throw your food”. If you do, they will most likely throw food again because they got the big reaction they were seeking. They also will be left without clear direction as to what they can do (more on this in the next couple tips). Take a deep breath, and slap on a smile or neutral face and then move onto tip #4.

4. Consider the role of siblings and the family dog

As discussed above, if babies/toddlers are seeking attention, notice if they are getting that reaction and attention from their siblings in the form of laughing and pointing, as they may also find this entertaining. Get your other kids on board and let them know that we all want to minimize our response as their reaction could encourage the baby to keep throwing food. As for the family dog, there would be nothing more exciting than your baby throwing food and watching their dog gobble it up. Instead, put the dog in another room when the baby is eating so that distraction will not trigger throwing food.

5. Tell/show your child what to do in a positive, clear and firm way

Ok so maintaining a neutral reaction doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t react at all. What you want to do is simply pick up the food they threw and put it back on the table or high chair tray. Avoid giving the food back directly into their hands, as this may seem like a game to them.

When you pick up the food and place it back on the tray, tell them what they should do with the food instead of what they shouldn’t do. This gives them a clear action step to take. An example is to say  “Food stays on the table/tray” or “We put the food here”. Be simple and direct. You will likely have to repeat this process a few times each meal, especially in the first few meals of implementing this, before they understand.

Here’s the kicker…you’ve got to be clear about this, somewhat firm in your voice and overall neutral. So…again…no sighing as you do this. Make sure they see where you place the food and clearly hear you say “food stays on the table”. A firm voice will help here (note: firm doesn’t mean angry. Firm means that you are confident in what you are saying…like no one can ever argue you out of the position that food indeed, stays on the table).

6. Consider bringing in a “Not right now” or “No thank you” bowl

no thank you bowl

There is always the possibility that your baby/toddler throws food simply because they don’t like it. Possibly the taste, texture or even the size of the food could be major turn-offs. I would suggest getting a bowl or plate (suction is best to limit knocking it over or throwing it) and calling it a “not right now” or “no, thank you” bowl. You can redirect your baby’s throw by pointing to the bowl and saying “You don’t want this now? Ok, put it in the not right now bowl” or  “Ok put it in the no thank you bowl!”. This will be for any foods your baby does not like or feel like trying at the moment. This will teach them that it is okay if they do not like or want to eat a certain food, but regardless does not belong on the floor. You will often find that even though they put something in this bowl once before, they may go back for it to eat it after a while!

If your baby/toddler is very young and you aren’t sure if they’ll understand through verbal words only, you can be quick to guide their hand into the bowl as soon as you see they are about to throw it and keep repeating the words. They will learn much more quickly through actions paired with words vs. words alone. Which brings me to my next point.

7. Interfere when you see it happening

So you know how much harder it is to stay calm when you see all that food on the floor. Don’t let your blood get to a boil! You can totally stop the behaviour as you see it happening! As you see their hand going for a throw, be there to block their hand with yours and say “I won’t let you throw the food”. This will also, once again show your baby that…you’re watching and you won’t let it happen. You can follow it up with “You don’t seem interested in eating…are you all done?”. If they go back to eating, great. If they go for the throw again…you’ve GOT to implement the last tip with confidence!

8. Be OK with ending mealtime

If your little one throws food after implementing the above strategies for more than 2-3 times in a meal (max!!), simply take the food (and bowl, cup, utensils) away and end mealtime. You should indicate to your baby that throwing food means mealtime is over – literally – say “Ok you’ve shown me you don’t want to eat anymore. Mealtime is all done!”. Again, be confident in this decision. The more you show you’re unsure and hesitant of it, the more they’ll realize…there’s not a firm boundary here. Mom or Dad is unsure. That makes them feel less confident in your ability to parent, and so they’ll try to take over more.

Your baby will soon realize after the first few times that the result of their action is that mealtime will be over and normally the behaviour will then come to a halt. Yes, you may get a tantrum once or twice, but the key here is being consistent for this to work and knowing that your baby will not starve by ending mealtime early once or twice. Be sure to keep in mind that if you are taking your baby’s food away due to throwing, you may have to compensate with a larger snack later on if they didn’t eat enough. No biggie. If you find they get crazy hangry and can’t last until the next scheduled snack time, you can always re-offer the meal 30-45 min. later after ending the first meal. The key is you want to make it feel like a new event. Do NOT let them feel like you went back on your word from before. Do something different for half an hour at least, separate the two events, and pretend it’s just snack time like usual.

One final tip!

I love the idea of teaching your baby sign language (yes – this is possible!). Once your baby is able to signal to you by actions what they want (if they are full or want more for example), throwing food as a means of communicating becomes obsolete! You can check out this website for a list of baby signs you can teach your baby related to mealtime (particularly “all done” and “more”) as well as more information on how to teach baby sign language.

At the end of the day, it’s also important to know the difference between your baby throwing food and your baby knocking food over or dropping it accidentally. Remember, you little one is still learning and therefore it is expected that they are still very clumsy with their food and dishes. You will probably always have to do a quick sweep or pick up after your baby finishes eating; however, there is a difference between a few pieces of food around the high chair and food flown across the kitchen.

I promise you though, this is a fleeting phase and we can help them find a solution to any one of the problems they are experiencing usually fairly quickly with the strategies above!

Need more help with managing baby or toddler mealtime behaviour? Check out my online courses – Baby Led Feeding and Feeding Toddlers to walk you through every aspect of healthily and happily feeding your little ones!


meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eater, and the creator of the Texture Timeline™ – an exclusive tool to help move your baby through easy to more advanced purees and finger foods to prevent picky eating.

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