My toddler plays with food | 6 tips for a quiet (r) meal

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  March 28, 2020

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Toddlers can make quite a mess when they eat. They sometimes spit, throw or crush food, talk with their mouths full and fidget.

Yes, it is okay for your toddler to play with their food, but within reason.

Toddlers are experiential learners, so resist the urge to intervene when your child is tearing, smelling, or stomping their food.

Of course you have seen carrots, applesauce and mashed potatoes for years, but these are just some of the fascinating new objects in your child's life.

Children learn through touch and play, and learning about food is no different.

For example, a little squeezing, mixing and mashing will teach your child about the texture of different foods.

That's how they learn!

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As hard as it is, it's best not to comment at all (resist the urge to roll your eyes too!).

Remember, it is perfectly normal for children to play with their food before trying to taste it, and it may take a few tries before your child gets the food even near their mouth.

Research shows that children can understand good manners by the time they are about five years old (although this does not necessarily mean that they will always eat the way you would like from then on).

Letting him play and experiment with it is the first step to acceptance.

However, if the meal turns into non-stop playtime, it's time to set some limits.

Let your toddler play less with food

Set up toddlers to eat

Toddlers are curious and energetic, which makes them run around and want to explore.

Sitting for a long time is an effort for a young child. Some toddlers even eat especially while walking and almost completely refuse to sit at the table.

Is it so bad with you? Hopefully, your little one will at least still be sitting at the table, even though he may be playing a bit with food.

In addition to being anti-social, eating while running around increases the risk of choking.

Suggestions for making your child sit during meals include:


Most children start playing with (and throwing) their food when they have actually finished eating.

So if your toddler suddenly starts tossing around with the oatmeal that he was still eating just a few minutes ago, it's time to end the meal.

If your child starts throwing food or uses their dinner to create modern art on your wall, you may want to take the food away.

Not only does it protect your kitchen and keep you from having to clean up an even bigger mess, but it also lets him know that such mannerisms cause food to go away.

When he's really done eating, just demonstrate a simple rule about not throwing food.

Take the food away quietly, clean it, hands, mouth, remove it from the table and give it some toys.

He soon gets the idea that food is for eating and that playtime is for toys.

Limit the mess

It takes time to develop the fine motor skills needed to eat properly with a knife and fork.

Don't assume that your child is deliberately messy while eating as it is difficult for a toddler to direct food to the mouth without spilling.

Suggestions include:

Toddlers and food waste

Toddlers often play with their food.

For example, your child can

This can be stressful for parents for three reasons:

  1. food costs money
  2. meals take time and effort to prepare
  3. and parents may be concerned that their child is not eating enough.

You may get angry with your child for having wasted food or worrying about whether they are getting enough to eat.

Toddlers are good at handling your fear. They are also good at recognizing their own hunger and fullness signals and, without illness, will never voluntarily starve themselves.

Suggestions include:

Toddlers and good table manners

Meals are also when kids learn about table manners.

Suggestions include:

Reward systems for toddlers

Simple rewards can help reinforce your child's behavior. Suggestions include:

Joost Nusselder, the founder of is a content marketer, father and loves trying out new toys. As a child, he came into contact with everything around games when his mother started the Tin Soldier in Ede. Since 2016, he and his team have been creating helpful blog articles to help loyal readers with fun play ideas.