It’s really hard to do … but I try … EMBRACE the MESS!Embrace Mess


The sensory benefits are amazing for your children.  It is the founding principle of  the Play with Food programs.  But rather than me harp on about it, what about we listen to these health professional / researcher advocates for messy eating??

Dr Kay Toomey (Developer of the SOS Approach to Feeding) lists her top 10 myths to eating with #5 : It is not appropriate to touch or play with your food.  She then explains that this is a myth because “Wearing your food is part of the normal developmental process of learning to eat it. You can learn a great deal about the foods, BEFORE they ever get into your mouth, by touching them and playing with them first. It is “play with a purpose” that teaches a child the “physics of the foods” before the foods ever get into their mouth. Being messy is an important part of learning to eat.”

 Jo Cormack (my colleague in YOUR FEEDING TEAM – our online support hub for parents of picky eaters run by 3 international feeding specialists) wrote this article on  “Mess and Your Picky Eater” which reminds us that if we make a big effort to avoid mess at mealtimes, our children will perceive food as threatening. Also, that every time we tell a child not to play with food we lose an opportunity for them to learn about that food and its texture.


Dr Helen Coulthard  (psychology reasearcher, UK) lead this study in the UK comparing the “messiness” of a child to their willingness to try new foods.  The children who were comfortable getting their hands dirty at the table were less likely have a condition known as food neophobia, a fear of tasting new things. The study was based on observations of 70 children and feedback from their parents.  Suggestions for helping children to have tactile experiences with food were given by Dr Coulthard and included getting creative with food.

How to embrace mess?

1) Think about your set-up.  What can help YOU be OK with the mess? I love using a bit of a routine with children including hand washing and providing children with an element to control in the set-up process.

2) Be mindful of well-intended but negative associations with the food experience from your child’s point of view. From an early age, it is important to help your child have positive interactions with food and its many textures.  Have you ever scraped a spoon along your child’s chin to get that extra dollop of food back in their mouth?  Take a second to think about how much of a negative reinforcement that is for eating ….  Yes, just as they successfully take a mouthful we make a big (and frustrating deal) out of the mess on their chin. Taking children to be washed up after play and after the meal is much more successful than fussing over them mid-way. Plus, you can just take the time to enjoy these moments.

3) Try these Play with Food activities:

  1. Sheep Food Art (FREE template)
  2. Edible Yoghurt Paint and Veg Play
  3. Gruffalo Based Food Play Lesson
  4. Make Butterfly shaped 3-Ingredient Flat Breads
  5. Ideas to encourage toddlers to play with pears (free printable)
  6. Encouraging a learning mind-set about food (free printable)
  7. Other ways to play with food outside of mealtimes

What do you do to help your child learn about food?  How do you stop stressing out about the mess? You may enjoy this guest post by art and kids lit blogger, Shannon from Oh Creative Day on how she handles the mess of food play.

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