What to do:
Self-Talk. Say to yourself, "It's normal for my child to want to play with food if she's not hungry. I don't like the mess, but I can handle it."
Empathy. Tell yourself, "I can see why my child thinks making messes with food is fun-so many colors and shapes to play with. I can see how it would be fun to squish macaroni or throw peas!"
Teach. Tell yourself, "Even though it's fun to play with food, it's not good manners to do so. It's my job to teach my child to tell me when she's done eating, so she doesn't play with food just because she's bored."
Make Clean-Up a Team Effort. When your child plays with his food, calmly and kindly say, "I know that peas look like balls, but they are a food that stays on the plate or is put in our mouths. Let's clean up the peas that you threw." When your child is able to walk, she is able to help clean up.
Make Eating Time a Fun and Happy Time to be Together. Even if she cannot yet talk, you do the talking or repeat her babbling, which also keeps her attention focused on eating, not playing with food. For older children, compliment good manners by saying, "It's great that you are using your spoon so politely. It's so fun to eat together."
Ask Whether Your Child Is Finished When She Starts Playing with Her Food. Teach your child to tell you when she is finished eating. For the toddlers and new talkers, ask, "All done?" And for the older child, "May I please be excused?" ends his meal.
Lengthen the Time for Sitting at the Table as Your Child Matures. Keep the length of time that your child sits at the table reasonable for her age. If you want to keep sitting, but you know she is finished, provide an area near the table where you can see her playing. If possible, choose a special toy to be used just for this purpose. As she grows, she will be able to sit longer. The idea? Keep mealtimes as stress-free as possible.
Talk to Your Child at the Table. If you make conversation with your child, she will be less likely to spend time there looking for other ways to get your attention, such as playing with her food.
What not to do:
Don't Overreact. Though you may be disgusted at the mess and annoyed because you have to clean it up, focus on teaching your child to let you know when he's finished eating, instead of waiting for him to make a mess.
Don't Let Playing with Food Become a Way of Getting Attention. Ignore any food play that is not harming anyone else and that you feel comfortable accepting at the table. So, for example, ignore arranging peas into a smiley face, but don't ignore throwing food.