Messy mealtimes: does your child drop food from the high chair?

Tess high chairIf your child is throwing food off his or her high chair, here are some thoughts and tips that might be helpful:

Often a child, observing an accidental spill, becomes interested in studying and mastering gravity by watching various foods fall down in different ways.

With very young children, ages 9 to 12 months, you can simply remove the food from the tray and provide a distraction. Make sure that, outside of meal times, your child has plenty of opportunities to safely practice dropping, throwing, and dumping with balls and other soft toys and objects that will not break. These “science experiments” foster cognitive and motor development and can sometimes turn into fun back and forth games with another person.

At other times, dumping or throwing food can be a communication. Depending on how this is handled, the behavior can taper off or can escalate into a power struggle. You can respond to the behavior according to what you think your child is trying to tell you.

Below are some examples of what you might say:

  • If you feel the throwing means that your child is no longer hungry, you can say in a matter- of-fact way. “I think you’re done” and take him out of the highchair. Depending on your child’s understanding of language and expressive abilities, you can model verbal communication by adding, “You can tell me ‘all done’.”
  • If you think your child is bored, you can sit and interact with her as she eats, thereby focusing on a positive engagement.
  • If you think your child doesn’t like the food, you can say in a neutral tone, “I don’t think you like that” and provide another option. Again, if your child is able to express himself verbally, you can suggest that he say, “I don’t like it” rather than throw the food.
  • From about 15 months on, throwing food can become a testing behavior, especially when your child has seen you get angry and wants to see how you will react if she does it again. This can feel very exasperating, but again, if you can stay neutral, the behavior is likely to decrease. You can say to your “testing” toddler in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, “I think you want to see what I’ll say if you do that…we don’t throw food and dinner is over now”. If your toddler insists that she is hungry, you can say, “Okay, if you are hungry and are going to eat, you can stay in your high chair,” but if she throws food again, say “ all done” and take her out immediately. Try to do this using a calm voice and body language.


Here are some additional tips to help through this phase:

  • Place the highchair over a mat or on a floor that is easy to clean.
  • Stay away from tomato sauce and give your child a few pieces of food at a time.
  • Sit with your child and engage with him. This will distract him and allow you to grab the bowl before it’s dumped. This will spare you and your child the anger you will feel when you have to clean up a mess. Family meals will become important when your child is older, so sitting down with him now while he is eating is good practice and will have a lot of meaning for the future.

If you are interested in reading more about why children repeat schemas and gestures and what they are studying and learning, check out this recent article:


Upper West Side Parenting Support helps mothers and fathers in their transition to parenthood through family consultations and discussion and play groups. Our parenting experts address child development, behavior challenges, and common parenting concerns, such as sleep, eating and tantrums.

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