Top 5 Reasons Why Kids Want to Get Messy With Food

By : | 3 Comments | On : October 15, 2013 | Category : Blog, Fussy Eaters, Solids, Tips & Tricks

Does your child poke new foods with a spoon or finger? Do they pat, squish and squeeze them with their hands or throw them over the side of the high chair tray?  Maybe they bring them to their nose or lips or even spit them out after their first taste, and maybe even after their second, third and fourth…? We’re guessing you answered yes.  And it’s because this is normal and all part of children learning how to eat.

For babies starting their journey, for toddlers trying new foods or for fussy and selective eaters, playing, touching, squishing and even spitting out food is part of the journey and all NORMAL behaviours.

Here are the top 5 reasons why kids want to get messy with food:

1. Eating is the most difficult sensory task children do. 

It means processing all the sensory information we receive from food … the colours we can see, the aromas we smell, the feel we touch and the flavour we can taste. For some babies this can be very overwhelming and can result in tears and “misbehavior” at mealtimes. If you sense that your child has a sensory processing disorder seeking professional advice from a trained professional will help to address and improve any fussy eating behaviours associated with it.

2. It’s hard to be neat when you are learning to eat.

Wearing your food is part of the process of learning to eat and photos of your children covered head to toe in food should be in every child’s baby photo album to document their starting solids journey.  If you have some when they are a toddler attempting to use a spoon and a fork that’s even great too.  (You can see a pic of George on our instagram page.)

3. It’s fun.

Playing with new textures and learning about new foods should be enjoyable for kids. It’s play with a purpose. There are multiple steps to eating that children need to be capable of doing before they consider actually eating a food. They need to be able to tolerate it being on their plate, interact with it, smell it, touch it and taste it before they chew and swallow it.  Expecting them to chew and eat it first time around can be too much for children causing both them and you to get stressed, anxious and cranky. SO, sometimes it’s OK for children to just to play with food.  Especially if it’s a new food. So be relaxed, embrace the mess and join in.

4. Babies don’t like to have their faces wiped. Especially when they’re eating.

Scraping around their mouth with a spoon or attempting to wipe their face with a cloth during meal times can be negative reinforcement, even feeling like punishment.  In turn, children may experience an aversion to their high chair, and even mealtimes, resulting in fussy eating behaviours.  Waiting until they have finished eating to wipe them clean is ideal and taking them out of the chair to be cleaned is even better.  This may not always be the case, of course it’s OK to clean them up during a meal if your child has food in their eye or are requesting to have their hands wiped.

5. Spitting* is part of the normal development process of learning to eat.

Nature and survival plays a strong role in learning to eat. Children need to feel safe in getting the food out before they can get it down.  Kids who can’t spit out food tend to gag and vomit before frequently.  Teaching children how to eat comes first, teaching mealtime manners comes later.  You can work on mealtime manners and behaviours when they are eating and enjoying familiar foods they know and accept.
*If your child is older, constantly throws food, spits it out food or finds it funny and to be a game then this may not be appropriate.  There may be another underlying issue causing the constant spitting. Always consider your own circumstances and use your own judgment when interpreting this information.

Here are some tips on how to be relaxed when introducing new and previously refused foods:

  • Offer a new food alongside a familiar food you know they will eat
  • Teach them about the new food: What is it? What does it look like? What is it similar to?  What does it smell and taste like?*Allow your child to interact and touch it – let them eat it straight away if they want but don’t rush or expect to much from them.
  • Imitate them and interact with the food too.  If they see you eat it, they are more likely to feel comfortable and accept the new food.
  • Help and assist your child if they aren’t sure how to eat it. E.g. show them how to pick it up or use a spoon/fork, chop it up for them, how to put in their mouths.
  • If they begin to get upset once they’ve seen it, touched it or smelt it leave it be and wait a day or so before you try again. It can take up to 10-20 times before a child will accept a new food.
  • Be relaxed and provide positive encouragement and reinforcement along the way.

Other positive ways we can we teach our children to eat:

  • Be a good role model
  • Create a mealtime ritual
  • Eat with your children
  • Provide postitive reinforcement and encouragement
  • Offer a wide variety of nutritious foods that includes a wide range of colours, smells, tastes and textures
  • Allow them to touch and explore foods with their hands
  • Cook with our kids
  • Garden with our kids.

The information provided in this post is based on our own experiences as parents and the theories behind the ‘SOS (Sensory Oral Motor) Approach To Feeding’.

Don’t forget to read our disclaimer.  If you have any specific questions or concerns regarding the nutritional adequacy of your child’s diet or their health and wellbeing please consult a medical practitioner or an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) for individualised advice.

If you suspect your child has a medical concern that is affecting their appetite or influencing food refusal we recommend you consult your medical practitioner for assessment and referral to an appropriate health care provider e.g. an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD), Speech pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Physiotherapist or Psychologist.

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  1. posted by Leanna Long on April 3, 2014

    These are excellent tips! Love how you mix in natural development of eating habits. It’s so important for parents to relinquish control to allow their children to enjoy eating. I always try and incorporate healthy eating into my family coaching practice. Check out my blog
    Thanks again!


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