This Q&A comes from a couple of mothers who are dealing with a very common toddler behaviour: food-flinging at meal times. Says Melissa (whose daughter is 15 months old), “I've tried every response from ignoring it, telling her firmly that food is for eating and not for throwing, and taking the tray of food away. None seems to have any lasting effect. (I should admit that I don't take the food away unless she's almost done, as it seems kind of hard-ass to deprive her of food for doing something that is not really harmful to her or anyone else, just irritating to me.)”
Betsy has pretty much the same problem with her 19-month-old son, except that it’s complicated by the fact that he’s using this behaviour to signal that he’s done his meal! Even though Betsy tells him firmly, “No throwing, [takes] the plate away... and [puts] him down on the floor”, she rightly wonders how effective this is “since he was done eating anyway -- it's no loss to him to get down from the chair and stop eating.”
My response to Melissa is straightforward: You have to decide how much you want to eliminate this behaviour. If you really want it to stop, well, hard-ass is just what you need to be! Your instincts are good. Go for it!
When you give her her meal, you’ll tell her carefully and clearly that “The food stays ON your tray. ON your tray.” Speak slowly. Point to the tray. Tap it as you say ON, so she is more likely to understand. The first time, she gets one chance. If she flings something, you put it back on the tray (yes, right back on the tray; the lesson is more important than hygiene squeamishness), and repeat it. “No, honey. The food stays ON the tray.” (She doesn't have to actually eat the food that was on the floor; you're just making the point clear: Food on tray.)
If (HA! this is a toddler - WHEN) she flings it again, you smile and say, “Oh, I guess you’re done then,” and you lift her from the high chair. Meal time is over. Even if she’s only had two bites. Don’t feel that you’re being unfair here: food is a HUGE motivator, and you’d be a fool not to avail yourself of it.
Now, she is only fifteen months old, so you can give her one more chance, but you wait a bit - three minutes or so - before you put her back in the high chair. However, she only gets this one final chance. If she throws her food again, no matter whether she’s eaten a single other bite, she is removed, and doesn’t eat again until her next scheduled snack or meal. I repeat: food is a big motivator. Use it!
You probably won’t have to do this more than a very few times before she figures it out; the most persistent child I’ve ever encountered kept it up for about ten days, and I’m quite sure he would have figured it out sooner if there’d been consistent follow-through at home. So, you have my permission to be a hard-ass about this. You don’t have to be mean or angry, just clear and consistent. You can even be regretful if you like: “Oh dear. Food on the floor. Time to get down.” It won’t take long!
Now, what about poor Betsy, who is already doing all that, but whose little boy doesn’t care, because down is what he wants, anyway? Hmmm... Much harder.
You might try a simple trick of timing. How about you remove him from the high chair before he’s quite finished, so he doesn’t get to the point of throwing? I’m sure you’re aware of the signals that indicate he’s almost done. At this point, clear his tray and put him down. Try that for a week. That may be all it takes to break the pattern. If it doesn’t work, try another week of timing it.
If it persists past the second week, I’d suggest you keep up with what you’re doing - the firm “no”, the removal from the scene. You might add to that a more intense response. When he throws something, ignore the flung food for the moment, and take both his hands in yours. Giving stern and direct eye contact, repeat the “No throwing” direction, and don’t let go his hands till he tugs to be released. Then you repeat “No throwing”, let go his hands and put him down cheerfully.
I think Melissa’s problem can be solved within a week or so. Betsy, yours may take a little longer! Hang in there. Consistency will win the day.