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Why playing with food is beneficial for babies

 Five surprising perks of messy mealtimes.

Does your baby wiping yogurt in their hair or smearing beans over their high chair give you palpitations?

Here are five reasons to leave the wipes, and let them play.

1.      Different tastes and textures

Babies and toddlers need to taste a food 8-10 times, according to the latest research, before they get used to it. When they are playing with food they are releasing the smell of the food, and getting it near they faces, and smelling is the same as tasting, when it comes to new foods.

It is particularly important when they are weaning. As they have only had liquids before, textures can be problematic, but if they touch food then their body is prepared for it. Squishing food with their hands helps to mush the food down too.


2.      Less likely to be a fussy eater

If you see a dietician about your fussy eater, one of the first things they will do with your child is encourage them to play with food. I love Magnificent Munchers, a therapy service for families with fussy eaters, run by dietician Jacqueline Parkinson. In her classes, one of the first activities is to make a snowman out of mashed potato, with carrots and peas for the arms and face.

Fussy eaters are often anxious about food, especially the texture, so playing with their food helps them to relax and get comfortable with the feel of it. They are more likely to try new foods, as there is less pressure on them.


3.      Children learn through play

Pretty much everything children learn is through play. Handling food, moving it about, squidging it, all these actions are exploring the food, and exploring liquids and solids. As adults we take for granted that we know what food tastes and feels like. We expect our children to just do it, but actually if we are presented with a new food, even as adults, we will examine it, touch it, smell it, before tasting it. We need to let our children do the same.


Babies and children are little scientists. They try things out and see what happens. Then they try it again to see if it repeats or if there is a different result. If you watch a child repeatedly dropping food from their high chair to see what happens, you can almost see the neurons in their brain firing away..


4.      Helps early handwriting skills

Playing with food helps build their fine motor skills, the dexterity with their hands. They learn to control their finger movements, and their hand-eye coordination. Watch them next time they are playing with food, and look at all the intricate movements of each finger, as they learn and experiment with moving the food about.


When your child goes to any childcare or pre-school, one of the central activities will be ‘mark marking’. This is a pre-requisite skill for handwriting and reading. First the child learns to make a mark, then to control these marks to make circles and lines, then they learn that these circles and lines can have meaning. That is the beginning of writing, and reading. When your baby is pushing their finger through the yogurt or tomato sauce on their highchair they are mark making.

Giving them cutlery from an early age helps develop skills linked to using a tool, and, as well as helping them become independent at eating earlier, will also help them when they start using a pencil or crayon.



5.      Makes mealtimes more relaxed

When we are stressed we can’t eat. Our tummy tenses up. One of the leading causes of fussy eating is stress at mealtimes. So if you are stressed by the mess, they will pick up on that. Leaving them to naturally play and explore the food, even if it gets messy, will help them to eat and to feel more confident trying new foods.


Wiping your babies face while there are eating can particularly be stressful. Imagine you are at a restaurant, eating something yummy, with the juice is running down your chin, when suddenly a waiter wipes a cold flannel over your mouth. It would give you a shock. If they continued to do it, you would push the food away and stop eating.


Tips for supporting your baby to play with food

  • Talk to your baby about the food and the textures. ‘Does that carrot feel squishy?’ ‘That’s tomato. It’s very juicy.’

  • Obviously supervise them, and offer suitable food that is not a choking hazard.·       

  • Let them explore in their own time.

  • Check in with yourself, and let go of any tension or stress: breathe, drop your shoulders, loosen your jaw.

  • Step in and clear up when they start to lose interest.


So, basically, playing with food helps babies to try new foods, enjoy mealtimes, and develop skills. I recommend letting your babies and toddlers get their fingers stuck in their food, right from the early days of starting solids. There is plenty of time for table manners as they get older.


You might even like to add some food based messy play to your day, or find a local messy play event, like those provided by Mucky Ducks, where everything is suitable and safe.


‘Don’t play with your food’ is one of the sayings most of us have grown up with. It is one of the unwritten rules that we internalise, but it is time to let it go. Allowing your baby to play with food helps them to foster a healthy relationship with eating that can benefit them for years to come.

I'm Cathy, Chilled Mama, and I help parents to relax and find their own path through parenting. If you would like to chat with me about anything, from pregnancy to grandparenting, please get in touch.



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