Toddler tantrums are a difficult phase, no matter where or when they occur. But when they manifest at the table with a toddler who throws food, gets upset about what’s being served, or otherwise misbehaves, this can (obviously!) create a lot of mealtime stress. And, if it goes on for any length of time, it can quickly become a habit and something that a toddler instinctually does when they sit down to eat. Thankfully, there are minor adjustments you can make to help make mealtimes happier for everyone.
Toddler Tantrums? Throwing Food? 5 Things to Try.
As a parent to two kids with vastly different personalities, I know that how we approach behavior needs to take each individual into consideration. So this advice is meant to give you new ideas that you can use in a way that works with your kids. My hope is that they give you easy ways to improve situations that are causing everyone stress. Because behavior issues at the table and away from it are seriously no fun—especially when they seem to spiral out of control! Here are a few ideas that might help.
- End the meal.
This can be difficult for parents with toddlers who don’t eat much, but a vast majority of the time, a toddler plays with his food, throws his food, or otherwise throws a fit because he’s not hungry enough to eat it. If your toddler starts any of this, give him the choice to eat or play. If he picks play, remove him from the table, put his food in the fridge, and try the meal again in 30-60 minutes if the schedule allows. It’s possible he needs more time to work up an appetite. (I do acknowledge that this is difficult when you need to be somewhere!)
- Offer easy choices.
Ahead of the meal, you can offer a choice between two foods to make your toddler feel happier about what you’re serving. A choice between two veggies or fruits can go a long way to making a child feel like they have a say in what they get to eat. You can also try teaching younger toddlers the sign for “all done”, which might give them something else more productive to do with their hands—and the independence to communicate more effectively!
- Sit with your toddler during meals.
Giving focused attention before a toddler tantrum or throwing food may help stave off the bad behavior—because often both habits are an effective, if problematic, way to get their point across. Sit with your child during a meal, talk to them (even if they don’t yet talk back much!), and pay attention to what they like and how they eat. Maybe she needs more help with the spoon or something cut up more so it’s easier to eat. And by focusing on your toddler during a meal, you may be able to see unwanted behavior start sooner than you have been—and you can end it immediately by helping them to get cleaned up and onto the next thing.
- Have together time when you walk in the door.
It can help to have 10-15 minutes of dedicated together time as soon as you walk in the door at the end of the day, instead of heading straight into the kitchen to start dinner and expecting your little one to entertain themselves. (I know this can be a lot to ask when you need to get dinner started so everyone can eat and get to bed, so here are a few make-ahead dinner options that can make weeknight cooking a little easier!) I also like to turn on music at the end of the day and dance my way through making dinner with the kids underfoot. It helps my attitude as much as theirs!
- Create new family routines.
Toddlers love routines and knowing what to expect helps them to know how to behave. To help a baby or toddler stop acting out at mealtimes, you may need to break the routines she’s currently in that cause her to do it every time she sits down. Think through what you currently do before and during mealtimes and change things up. Play music or move where people sit. Put down phones and talk about your day. This may help to reset their mealtime expectations—and it can work if you’re having issues getting out of the house, transitioning home after daycare, or any other spot in your day that seems to be a trigger.
- Serve meals family style.
If the main issue that’s causing toddler tantrums is what’s for dinner, try putting the food you’ve made on the table in serving bowls and helping the kids serve themselves. This lets you decide what foods are part of the meal, but it gives the kids the power to decide what of it to actually put onto their plates and eat—and toddlers typically LOVE to do things themselves. It does not guarantee that they will eat everything you make, but it does almost always diffuse any power struggles! (Just make sure you don’t badger them about what they decide to eat!)
- Serve a very small amount of food at a time.
A typical toddler serving is 1/4 the size of an adults. Which means that it’s entirely possible your toddler is eating enough, even though it may seem like they’re not eating much to you. Keep their size in mind and only give them a few pieces of any one thing at a time. (Tip: 10 Ways to Help Your Toddler Try New Foods.) This will help them to avoid having too much on their tray—which can be tempting to play with and overwhelming to picky eaters.
- Use an all-done bowl.
Some parents in my Facebook group said that they use an “all done” bowl where the child can put the food left on their tray that they don’t want to eat.
- Consider your reaction.
With many things involved in raising toddlers, the less you can turn something into a power struggle, the better. It’s entirely possible that your toddler tantrums are happening precisely because they always get a reaction—and toddlers like attention! Keep calm and try to keep your own emotions in check. You can hold their hand down, look them in the eye, and say something like “food is for eating, not for throwing”. Or an example that corresponds to whatever the situation demands. Be firm and consistent with your response, respond immediately, and hopefully they will soon realize they will no longer get the reaction they expect from their behavior.
- Don’t escalate!
Often, a parent who reacts with a playful and silly attitude can totally change the vibe in the room. This is great for minor offenses and can help everyone to move on more quickly rather than escalating the situation. We’ve used this tactic a lot in our house for toddler tantrums at the table and ones that happen anywhere else…and I remind myself of this advice not to escalate many times a week! (I love this Parents article about why tantrums are actually a good thing if you need more perspective.)
And remember: This is a phase that will, at some point, pass! Toddler tantrums are not necessarily a sign of a huge problem and can often be handled with minor tweaks to your routine and response.
What do you do when your toddler throws food or a tantrum at the table? Share in the comments!