Say Yes to Food Play: Why Messy Children Make Better Learners

When your baby makes the big switch to solid foods, it can be tough getting used to the inevitable messiness of it all. Do you ever catch yourself looking at your baby’s food tray and its surroundings and see nothing but a huge mess? It won’t help with the cleaning up process, but knowing that this messiness is both perfectly normal and healthy can at least give you some peace of mind. Switching to solid foods requires your baby to learn new things, and exploring their new reality includes playing with their food.

1. Learning from Food

Your baby will likely want to touch his or her food: squish it, mash it, poke it, throw it—maybe every once in a while they’ll even eat it!  They do this because they learn about new properties they weren’t aware of before, such as shape, texture and temperature through touch.

Studies have shown that kids who play with their food have an easier time learning what it is, or naming it. They also learn to recognize foods regardless of where and how they appear, such as in a bowl or—hopefully less frequently—on the floor.

2. That's great! But my house is still a mess

A little mess is inevitable, and these habits usually linger until the age of 3. However, there are a few things you can do to tone down feeding time’s collateral damage without harming the learning process.

  • Place a plastic mat under the high chair
    Easy to clean, a plastic mat will save you a lot of time when it comes to cleaning up the mess that’s been made. All you have to do is wipe it down after meals and it’s ready to be used again.
  • Less food at a time
    It’s not necessary to give your child all their food at the same time. Present meals in smaller amounts, with just enough fruit or veggies to play with and no more meat than would fit in their hand. Keep the servings small (so the mess stays that way, too!)
  • Don’t fret over manners (yet)
    Your child will have time to learn manners, and most babies and toddlers do better with that when they’re able to understand and follow rules more closely. Even though babies can usually handle a spoon by the time they reach 18 months, it’s not a biggie if they can’t - or don’t want to.
  • Use a plastic bib with sleeves
    This may seem like it’s a little much, but it will definitely save you endless amounts of washing up and cleaning up. During the warmer months, let your baby enjoy picnics outside clothes-free!
  • Call it a day
    Know when your child is done with their meal time. If the mess is spreading more than it needs to (their hair, the floor, or you) they’re likely already bored. Moving on to the next activity is fine, so end the meal before the food splatter goes too far.