Importance of Getting Messy at Mealtime

We’ve all been raised differently in regards to how we eat and how we explore food. There are unspoken messages about what is wasteful or not wasteful and if we should “play with our food” in every family. We also pressure ourselves as parents, wondering if we are “bad” or “good” if our children are clean all of the time. All of those concepts and more impact how comfortable we are with our children getting messy particularly at meal time.

As an occupational therapist I would encourage you to allow your child to explore food with all of their senses especially how it feels on their skin (hands, arms, face, mouth, head and even feet – I’ll explain the feet a bit later.) I will outline a few reasons why below, but of course, it should work for your family routines. Perhaps the evening meal or weekend meals can be explored more freely or snacks? You decide when it works best. Some reasons to encourage your little one to feed themselves (even when it’s messy) are:

  • Self feeding – encourages independence with self feeding – first with hands, then foods as dippers (celery stalk into pudding) and then with utensils.
  • Encourages fine motor development and learning to use tools.
  • Sensory exploration that is safe and can be explored in their mouths without concern.
  • Prevents tactile defensiveness. Tactile defensiveness occurs for a variety of reasons, one of these is due to a child not having a variety of sensory experiences. That lack of variation results in a child not being able to tolerate or enjoy new sensory input/play. If your child has difficulty with tactile defensiveness, there are many ideas to help, so please reach out.
  • Keeps eating and meal time experiences positive, fun and engaging.
  • Improves body awareness of all the places food touches.
  • Wonderful activity to promote language and communication. Words such as “squeeze, poke, lick” come into play. Understanding your child’s expression of likes, dislikes and requests for more or to be “all done.”
  • Stop when you can and sit with your child during meals. Showing interest in what your child is doing develops a strong social-emotional connection during meal times.
  • Encourages self help skills in wiping their hands and face after they’re finished.

Where do I start?

  • Knowing if your child is able to safely explore purees and other textures must be the first priority. That information can be confirmed with medical specialists that your family works with. The following ideas can be tried after safety is confirmed.
  • It is ESSENTIAL that you follow your child’s lead. If your child does not want to touch or explore a food, honor that and do not pressure them to touch it. You can model exploring. You can use a toy to touch the food (e.g. drive the car through the pudding.) There are many strategies that you can use to expand on your child’s exploration. Please reach out if you notice your child being hesitant to explore by withdrawing or gagging. Further assessment can provide you with specific ideas on how to help.
  • As soon as your child is able to sit up in a highchair or on your lap place pureed foods in front of them to encourage them to explore with their hands while you help feed them with a spoon.
  • As they grow older and are able to manage finger foods, allow them to feed themself safe finger foods.
  • Consider dippers or think of the spoon as a tool to dip into food, pudding, yogurt, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, etc. This encourages hand to mouth coordination.
  • Avoid making faces that are negative even if you are struggling as a caregiver with the mess. Try to smile and encourage exploration.
  • Make statements, such as “Wow! You have pudding on your nose.” and “I love how you are feeding yourself.”
  • Limit hand and face washing until you are finished. If your child is struggling to wait, go ahead and wipe them off, but try to limit the number of times that you do so.

Oh, about the feet… For children who have tactile defensiveness as well as many children with vision impairment, research has shown that children often feel more comfortable exploring textures with their feet, before their hands or putting them in their mouths. You can try this approach for fun too. For example, draw on legs, feet, etc. with a popsicle before playing in the pool. Placing a bin of whipped cream next to your child’s feet and encourage sticking them in. (Always ask permission before placing their feet into the container.)

Let the fun begin! (Take pictures of your messy eater. They’ll be priceless for years to come.)