“Don’t play with your food” ranks high on the list of outdated rules that refuse to die. And I’m not quite sure what the reason is. Often, the explanation is that playing with food is “wasteful” and messy.
I won’t deny that allowing children to investigate their food may lead to a bit of extra clean up. But childhood is unavoidably messy! And so is mealtime. Recall that eating is a learned skill and it’s easy to understand why learning to eat neatly and politely takes a ton of time and practice. So, a few (ok, way more than a few) messes can and should be expected along the way.
Beyond recognizing that eating skills take time to master, the mess may become easier to stomach when we understand how playing with food (i.e., sensory play) contributes to taste development (i.e., getting our children to love a broad range of foods). In other words, there’s “method to the messiness”.
Regarding Food Waste
No one likes food waste. Monitoring and reducing the amount of food you throw out should absolutely be on everyone’s priority list. But often times food rules created in the spirit of “we don’t waste food” don’t really add up to addressing food waste.
Consider this: Is food really being wasted if it’s serving a purpose? If children are learning about and becoming comfortable with a food by playing with it, then the food is being used to nourish them. And if you’re concerned about teaching them to be mindful about food waste (a commendable goal), how better than by demonstrating your own efforts? Serving leftovers and repurposing ingredients in your fridge are some of many great ways to reduce food waste!
Experiencing Food with All the Senses
Eating with attention to all five senses, a central aspect of mindful eating, is something we should all strive for. Mindful eating teaches children to slow down, take notice of, and appreciate various aspects of their food. When children play with their food, they are focused on exploring it through their senses – or engaging in sensory play.
Sensory play (or “messy play”) has been linked to a host of benefits for cognitive development in children, including the promotion of language development. Essentially, when children explore physical properties of the world, their senses are stimulated. This stimulation helps to build connections or neural pathways in the brain, which in turn develops their cognitive skills. So, in other words, getting messy helps children learn!
What Kids Learn by playing with food
Psychologist Jean Piaget described children as “little scientists” who develop an understanding of the world by actively engaging with it. He also proposed that children organize information they gain from their experiences into schemas, or models for understanding complex concepts (like food or eating). So, what are children learning when they engage in food play?
When young children are allowed to explore food, they are learning that it’s ok to be curious about new foods. That no one will pressure them to taste them before they’re comfortable. Beyond exploring its physical properties, they are deciding whether their engagement with a food will be a positive one. In other words, they are building schemas about which foods they do and do not like.
Don’t Cry Over Spilt Soup
Table manners are important. But not quite as important as fostering a positive relationship with food. Sensory play is a building block in the journey that is your child’s taste development. It won’t last forever! So, if you’re worried about food waste, the mess, or both just remember that your child is just doing their science homework and embrace the messiness that is childhood. You won’t regret it.
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.