This week, we address another question that was sent to us by a reader.
Q: “I have a 21 month old daughter and every time I put her in her high chair she throws the food she doesn't want on the floor. She eats for a little while and plays with her food and then just starts throwing it on the floor. At this point we have a dining set on order, but for the last 6 months my husband and I have been eating at our island/bar in the kitchen and she eats on a space saver high chair on a 3rd bar stool. We all eat at the same time and without fail every dinner is interrupted by her crying and throwing her food. I have tried telling her "no, no", swatting her hand and just taking her food away when she throws the first piece, but nothing seems to work. Am I being realistic by expecting her to behave appropriately at dinner?”
A: No, you are not being unrealistic. She is old enough to be trained to have good table manners. In fact, if she is not trained now in positive mealtime behaviors you will only have to work harder later to help her unlearn bad habits. For younger babies, I would recommend teaching her sign language for “all done” and “more please”. But since she is 21 months I will guess that she is verbal.
You will have to devote your full attention to all of baby’s mealtimes for a time, while you go through the training process. You can’t leave the room even for a second. To train a child to not drop food, give immediate attention to the first offense. First, correct the child verbally. In a calm voice say, “We don’t put our food on the floor.” Next, provide an attention getting squeeze to that hand while pointing out what that little hand just did. Finally, if your instructions are ignored, isolate her in the crib for 2-5 minutes. She will understand the difference between isolation and nap time. When the isolation period is finished, bring her back to the high chair and try again. Don’t show any frustration or exasperation, this is simply a teaching process, you are the teacher and the “dining room” is simply a classroom for student learning. If the child persists in the behavior, repeat the isolation consequence 2 to 3 times, and if it continues, mealtime is over. If you follow this process immediately and consistently you will speed up the learning process. There is no need to show anger or lose your temper during this process, keeping your cool is important. I try to remember that being in control of the situation and being in control of the child, depends on being in control of myself.
You may be concerned that she will starve. She will not. She has a very small tummy and needs a lot less calories than we do. She will eat when she gets hungry. And if she has a hearty appetite when she gets into her seat the next time, she will be more motivated to eat rather than play with her food. Don't let her eat while she is out of the high chair and don't let her walk around with milk or juice in a sippy cup between meals. This will fill her up with the wrong balance of calories and cause her to be too full to eat the balanced diet that she needs, and will sabotage the whole teaching process.
All other high chair violations, such as flipping the plate, playing with food, messy hands in hair, banging on the tray, standing in the high chair, spitting “raspberries”, screaming, etc. are handled in a similar way. Start with a verbal warning “No, don't touch your plate”, “No, keep your food in your mouth,” then continue with the steps explained above.
The key to success in this area, as in all areas of teaching and consequences, is being prompt, consistent and sacrificing what you would like to do - sit and enjoy your meal in peace - to engage in this teaching process. This takes time, effort and energy in the younger years, but it is an investment that will pay off over the long haul.