Field studies suggest that a cohesive floodplain is a necessary condition for meandering in contrast to braided rivers. However, it is only partly understood how the balance between floodplain construction by overbank deposition and removal by bank erosion and chutes leads to meandering. This is needed because only then does a dynamic equilibrium exist and channels maintain meandering with low width–depth ratios. Our objective is to understand how different styles of floodplain formation such as overbank deposition and lateral accretion cause narrower channels and prevent chute cutoffs that lead to meandering. In this study we present two experiments with a self-forming channel in identical conditions, but to one we added cohesive silt at the upstream boundary. The effect of cohesive silt on bank stability was tested in auxiliary bank erosion experiments and showed that an increase in silt reduced erosion rates by a factor of 2. The experiment without silt developed to a braided river by continuous and extensive shifting of multiple channels. In contrast, in the meandering river silt deposits increased bank stability of the cohesive floodplain and resulted in a reduction of chute cutoffs and increased sinuosity by continuous lateral migration of a single channel. Overbank flow led to deposition of the silt and two styles of cohesive floodplain were observed: first, overbank vertical-accretion of silt, e.g. levee, overbank sedimentation or splays; and second, lateral point bar accretion with silt on the scrolls and in the swales. The first style led to a reduction in bank erosion, while the second style reduced excavation of chutes. We conclude that sedimentation of fine cohesive material on the floodplain by discharge exceeding bankfull is a necessary condition for meandering. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.