Why letting your kids play with their food is the best thing you can do

We probably all remember the adage "don't play with your food" being snapped across the dinner table, forlornly stopping us making hot chip towers and flicking baked beans at siblings.

But an expert in parenting picky-eaters says getting hands deep in their dinner plate is actually one of the best things they can do.

Simone Emery is a children's nutritionist based in Melbourne; one of few specialists who specifically focus on playing with food, having run Play With Food since 2013.

She is on a mission to work with parents and children to overcome fussy eating habits and encourage a positive relationship with food.

"As a child plays, they are actively learning about their world and how things work. Play helps children form ideas about the part they play in their world. So, playing with food is important for children to learn," Emery tells Newshub.

"First foods are important in developing this. Baby and toddler snack foods that enable play like Little Bellies, and not restricting food to mealtimes are ideal in the early stages of development."

Emery says when playing with food, children learn:

  • What a food looks like
  • What a food smells like
  • What a food feels like
  • How to motor plan (i.e. pick up, move, push, slide, spin) a food to do what they want it to do
  • How foods can interact together (i.e. mixing, dipping, layering, scooping)
  • To form ideas about eating the foods
  • Language skills (i.e. sensory words we use like "crunch" and "cold")

"When children are given more opportunities to touch and play with foods without pressure to eat them, they are actively learning these eating skills," says Emery.

"Playing with food boosts a child's confidence with the food, improves their motor skills and improves their attitude towards food.

"You learn so much about foods BEFORE they ever get into your mouth; by touching them and playing with them first. Hence, being messy is an important part of learning to eat."

Emery says it's easy for parents to be roadblocks with thoughts like "But what about the mess?"

She says it's key to have some pre-emptive ways of handling clean-up:

  • Consider set-up: food play doesn't have to be at the meal table or during meals. The shower floor, bath, outdoor area and/or laundry are all options that may suit your family depending on the play task. Finding a messy mat for the lounge room floor may also be a good idea. During set-up plan for pack away.
  • During the activity, focus on using sensory-based words and help your child feel comfortable with the task.
  • Examples of food play include, squishing soft pumpkin cubes in their hands through to building a "bridge" with clever little fingers, Little Bellies' baby puffs and steamed sweet potato chunks.
  • The process doesn't need to be complicated. Coming up with ideas simply needs to consider some stage-appropriate foods and some action words like threading, building, knocking down, mixing, scooping, painting, drawing around, rolling, squishing or sorting. Options for food play are endless.
  • For clean-up, make sure this is done in a way that shows them food is fun and not threatening. If we make a big deal about mess, this can make children think food is not fun. It's always a good idea to make clean-up distinctly different to the play time. This can be done by moving to another area to clean up, like over to the sink, over to a water play table or into the bathroom.

"With a fun and pressure-free approach, children can have a strong boost in their feeding skills and food confidence," Emery says.