Why You Want Your Child to Play With Their Food

Chow on 05.05.11
Contributor bio

Image Credit: Mike Kemp/Tetra Images/Corbis

Most parents are quite familiar with the scenario depicted in this picture. Our precious babies tend to get more food on themselves and the floor than in their mouths. This food play often continues into childhood, and that - contrary to what your grandmother may have told you - is a wonderful thing.  Of course, we don't want our teenagers to have a full on food fight at the table, but encouraging food play is all just part of the normal process of accepting new foods. (As Katie so aptly illustrated in her recent post, kids are gastronomic explorers.)

I used to cringe every time my daughter would dump her oatmeal out and then smear it all over the table. It still sometimes grosses me out. But I now realize that she is learning about her foods through play and I have just come to expect many post-meal clean-ups.

As discussed in my post on 6 fail proof techniques to get your baby or toddler to eat new foods, playing with food is just a part of food acceptance. Your baby or toddler will often play with what's on their plate in order to grasp the feel, smell, texture, and eventually the taste of unfamiliar foods. Because our lives are busy and we are pressed for time, it is easy to try to rush our kids through dinner in order to allow for homework and bedtimes.  But our kids do not always adhere to our schedules and they need time to pace themselves and explore what they see around them. So next time your baby is done eating, and starts creating an abstract spaghetti masterpiece, let them go at it. (Maybe have a splat mat ready to protect that new rug!) 

Of course, it is also important to teach our kids good table manners, but there is a time and place for this.  I have learned how to pick my battles at the family table. My daughter recently discovered "see food" (showing us an open mouthful of food). Helpfully, my husband cracked up with laughter the first time she did it. I had to scold him and remind him that this behavior, although hilarious now at 19 months old, will not go over well when she is a teenager.  I decided to nip this food play in the bud. I do, however, allow her to eat with her fingers, mix foods, and generally play with the food on her plate.

Food Play Ideas

Here are a few ways to encourage your children to use food in their playtime activities.

1. Create art with dried beans, lentils, and pastas. They come in a variety of colors and are fun to glue onto paper.

2.  Make fun faces on food.  Use a variety of fruits and veggies to make silly faces on waffles, pizza, or toast.

3. Let the kids help in the kitchen. Give them the opportunity to help stir, chop, and create meals for the whole family.  Here are some ideas for involving your kids in the kitchen.

4. Let your kids be the guide. If your toddler wants to dip her crackers in orange juice or add pineapple to her chicken noodle soup go ahead and let her. She is just exploring new tastes and what might sound horrible to an adult is culinary bliss to a new eater.

5. Play learning games with food.  There are fun ways of introducing new foods while learning at the same time. Practice colors, memory games, or counting with a variety of fruits or veggies.  

Fun at mealtimes is a secret to successful food acceptance. It tends to lessen the stress of parents and opens kids to a whole new world of healthy eating. So sit back and let the spaghetti fly.

Top Stories on Eating With Kids

10 Guidelines to Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater
Eating Family Dinners Out Can Be a Nutritional Minefield
When It Comes to Feeding Fussy Eaters, Be a Collaborator, Not a Dictator