To give a bit context: We are quite relaxed with food and eating. Our daughter (3 years old) is free to decide many things about eating. Most of the time she may decide what to eat (as long as she does not get too excessive with chocolate spread and the like), we would never force her to eat up and we'd like to not endorse, but at least tolerate experimenting with food, for we believe that it's kind of important to experience the world around you with all senses.

However, there are some restrictions:

  • She will not get another of the same kind if she still has some
  • She will not get more when she has already requested about 2 or 3 different foods

Anyway, we'd like to avoid wasting food, too. It's not that much of a problem with not eating up, since we can eat it up, but a bit more with the experimenting part. Generally speaking we have the rule, that if she experiments with the food she should eat up, for she usually leaves the food in a condition that nobody of us would like to eat it. Anyway, we still do not want to force her to eat up, hence we're kind of stuck to tell her (determined, but still calm), that we are angry about it, but there are no real consequences.

Sometimes it works giving her a bit of her food to experiment with and the rest will remain "untouched", but she can be very quick pouring her whole glass of milk in the bowl, at least rendering the milk undrinkeable.

Are there better strategies to avoid food waste while not forbidding experimeting with the food? How could we explain the whole matter to her, better?

  • I'm not totally clear what you mean experimenting. I would think you mean smashing, touching, etc. By 3, my kids have had a couple of years of this before and are likely settling into eating mostly with less of that going on. When I am getting more smooshing than eating, I will excuse them from the table when home. To me that is a sign there is a lack of interest in eating, perhaps they are not very hungry, and I would prefer to allow them to play if play is what they want to do versus keep them at the table messing in food. When they are hungry, they mess around less.
    – threetimes
    Aug 24, 2017 at 6:13
  • What purpose are you serving by "not forbidding experimenting?" She's 3, she's not going to stumble across some new world changing recipe for grapes and Cheerios. What you are teaching her is that it's OK to waste food. You let her waste up to 2 or 3 foods before you finally say no? What you are teaching her is that it's OK to be a glutton. This could lead to serious health issues later in her life. I won't sugar coat it like threetimes did, this is irresponsible. I don't know when "Food Experimenting" became a virtue. Aug 24, 2017 at 11:19
  • No @Iwrestledabearonce, you misunderstood me. We won't let her waste 2 or 3 foods. When she starts playing with her food, the rule is that there won't be anything new and that she shall eat the mess up, since she tells us beforehand that she'd like it that way. The 2 or 3 foods rule holds only when they remain edible. Aug 24, 2017 at 18:02
  • 2
    And we are not sugarcoating her, we are trying to teach her making her own decisions. And guess what. She'll eat the fruit from the cake rather than the cake and she'll not binge all the sweets like we've seen at children of more restrictive parents. It's of course fine that you do not agree with how we are raising our daughter, but to me your tone sounds quite judging, what makes me feel uncomfortable. We are (hopefully) all trying to do our best and I'd like to see a constructive discussion here. Aug 24, 2017 at 18:08
  • You're right, I was a little judgemental. I have to tendency to be that way. I apologize for my tone. I just don't understand what you're trying to accomplish by willfully allowing her to waste. The rule isn't working I gather, else, why are you posting a question on how to reduce waste? You can reduce waste (and gain discipline) by observing more traditional eating practices. she'll have her whole life to mix peanut butter and.. whatever.. @PaulKertscher Aug 24, 2017 at 18:40

2 Answers 2


I don't personally encourage or permit doing things to your food once served. That said, I also am a huge advocate for getting kids involved in food making and that has lots of room for messy exploration of foods, ingredients, etc and learning about textures, measuring, etc.

To improve the variety my toddlers eat, I rely on staples I offer at many meals that are pretty non committal. We make fresh applesauce together pretty frequently and that we eat daily. Other than the work of peeling and coring, it's just cooking them down for half an hour and then pureeing them if you like, or leaving it as it if you prefer that. You add a few things generally, but not much (brown sugar if you like, lemon juice and apple juice, then seasoning if you like such as cinnamon, nutmeg, etc). We have also made butter which was fun, and we take butter as it is and blend with other things, like strawberries or garlic, and they like doing that too. Then there is general cooking as well, which I also have them help with when feasible.

Onto variety beyond applesauce. You can try things like hummus, pesto, fresh sliced veggies if she likes any like carrots or tomatoes or the like. My kids like dairy okay, so I might do a small dab of cottage cheese or a few small pieces of cheese, etc.

Basically what I do is make a plate of snack sized portions of items I know they are likely to be willing to eat. I keep the portions incredibly small at age 3, and I encourage them to "just try a bite". If they do in fact bite once or twice on every item, the plate is already balanced enough to suffice a good meal and there isn't much of any item wasted.

I also try to satisfy the need to explore what happens when I mix this and that in cooking or in things more craft related. And you can combine. My kids love to eat meringue. So we whip the egg whites and them swirl on the colors before I pipe it onto backing sheets and bake. We have experimented to varying successes with various ways to flavor it more and with shapes you can do with them (such as making cute little mushrooms).

And after I read that kid's growing food helps them be open to trying more vegetables, we started that too and I do think it helps. I don't think a kid who hates peas will suddenly love them. I do think a child who may have been rather ambivalent likes to feel like they did something meaningful, like grow a tomato that fed the family and will be more likely to eat some.

I do think you can cover both things, allowing them to experiment while discouraging food waste. And if they are at a very wasteful age, then I try to avoid meat or dairy being on the plate with plant products. In this way, I can compost the wasted vegetative bits and also use that to teach them about reducing what we do waste and how much of what is "left over" can then enrich our soil. I think other families rely on the dog. ;)


can you redirect the "experiments" from on-plate to mixing bowl?

I'm also not sure what you mean by experiment, but if she wants to smash, mix, play with or otherwise manhandle her food, this could be "helpful" when mixing up muffin mix or other batters instead of mixing milk and mashed peas or an otherwise unappetizing combination.

When she is older (~10yo?), experimentation would again be useful for learning how to cook and bake.

Edit: Had another thought - with a lot of things such as cookies or muffins, the recipes are very flexible. You could let her play with that and throw in handfuls of pre-approved (by you) "mix-ins" to mix up the flavour.

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