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How To Manage A Messy Toddler Dinner Time

flickr / Lars Plougmann

You’re determined to have dinner with your kid. That’s because you know it’s a good way to reduce the risk of them getting fat and developing a drug habit. But on the other hand, you have an increased risk for developing a drug habit and stress-eating yourself out of your pants. That’s because toddler meal time is basically a waking nightmare.

RELATED: The Eight Toddler Feeding Essentials Experienced Dads Think You Need

So what’s a well-intentioned and super smart dude to do with the dread of dinner time? Well, the good news is that you can attack it on a couple fronts. First, you can shift your perspective about why your kid is putting taters in their hair. Second, you can get strategic about mess mitigation. Get into it!

Your Toddler And The Dinner Disaster

The glee your kid has at watching your face turn purple as they jam actual jam up their nose can feel particularly mean-spirited. In fact, it can feel like they are intentionally being a righteous jerk. But the problem is that you’re placing an adult perspective on a developmental norm.

Sure, if you were at dinner and slowly poured a glass of wine onto the floor while staring coldly into your partner’s eyes, that would make you a huge d-bag. But that’s not your kid. Because what they’re doing is learning about the world. Granted, it’s in a super messy way. But then again, whatever you learned from your theoretical wine pouring incident would be pretty messy too TBH.

Here’s what your kid is figuring out at the dinner table:

Materials Science

Different foods have different textures. Some are super soft and can be reduced to nothing with a mighty fist-squeeze. Others are hard. Some things can be warm. Others can be cold. These kinds of things behave differently when manipulated.

Physics And Geometry

Do things dropped from the height of a high chair have enough time to reach terminal velocity before splat-down? Do the hard things and the soft things behave differently when their momentum is suddenly stopped by the Mexican tile? If thrown, do they create varying parabolas before reaching the wall?


Using a fork and spoon requires an interesting level of coordination for the entire arm. And how do you keep food from falling off the damn things? Also, picking up slippery spaghetti noodles is a totally different game than pinching a pea.

The Senses

What does this stuff feel like on various parts of the body? Because when something goes in the nose it feels different than in the ear. Also, all of the stuff smells way different in the nose than when it’s on the top of the head.


Depending on how all of this food is manipulated, it will cause one of several reactions from the parents. They will either laugh, cry, or get loud and shouty. This should be tested over and over again to see if results ever change.

Managing The Mess

So now that you have a better idea of all the amazing things your kid is learning by making you crazy. You can take a deep breath, stop taking it personally and start looking at ways to lessen the mess. Some thoughts:

  • Keep It Short: The longer the kid is at the table, the more damage they’ll do, so get that conversation in quickly.
  • Cut It Up: Stick-shaped food is easiest for your kid to grab in their teeny fist. So much better to shake at you in a fit of rage, and less messy.
  • Small Portions: Like a short dinner, small portions limit the amount your kid can huck, drop, smear and mash into the table.
  • Thicken: Try to serve foods that aren’t runny or otherwise sloppy. Stick with stuff that has a thicker consistency for less splatter.
  • Lock It Down: Purchase plates and bowls that have silicone bottoms that are less easy to slide, or get goods with actual suction cups on the bottom to keep them from being flung.
  • 2 Spoons: Give your kid more than one spoon. They’ll practice with one while you sneak in with the other.
  • No Shame In Plastic: If you need to open some garbage bags and lay them under your kid’s chair, that’s totally fine. Maybe avoid going full Dexter though.

With a shift in perspective and a little planning, you’ll be well on your way to making sure your kid gets dinner benefits. And at the same time, you’ll be able to lay off the sauce during dinner time and just enjoy the spectacle your kid enjoying theirs.