By Raising Children Network
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Happy toddler with a messy face from eating chocolate
Messy eating is normal when children are learning to feed themselves. It’s natural for them to start by using their hands and fingers and then move on to cutlery, cups and plates. Over time, their muscles and coordination improve, and mealtimes will be less messy.

Why messy eating is normal

It takes a lot of time, practice and muscle coordination for children to learn to guide spoons to their mouths without making a mess.

Children go through developmental stages as they learn to feed themselves. First they learn to eat solids and then take food from a spoon. They start feeding themselves with their hands and then move on to feeding themselves with spoons, forks and cups. 

That’s a lot to learn, so you can expect a few spills along the way!

Messy eating and playing with food

Children love to experiment and play with their food, even after they’ve developed the motor skills they need to eat without mess.

In fact, playing with food is one of the ways children develop their fine motor skills.

Exploring the shape, colour and texture of food also helps children learn about their world. For example, here are just some of the amazing things your child might learn by playing with food:

  • Dropping things makes them fall down.
  • Throwing things makes them fly through the air.
  • Putting yoghurt in your ear feels weird.
  • Peas are round and squishy.
  • Sticking a sandwich in a drink makes Mum upset!
If you can understand why your child is playing with food and have a laugh about it, it might make accidents and mess easier to put up with.

What you can do about messy eating

Most children this age will squish food in their hands, throw food and bowls onto the floor, deliberately dribble with their mouths full, or refuse to eat. Here are some ideas to help you cut down on mealtime mess – and make it less stressful.

Cut food into strips or fingers, and let your child use her hands rather than a spoon or fork. In the early days of learning to eat, your child will find this way of eating easier to manage.

If your child is old enough, you could try getting him involved in setting the table. If your child has helped to set up the meal, he might be less inclined to mess it up.

Sitting together and sharing mealtimes with your child lets you lead by example and show your child how to eat and behave at the table. This can take time for your child to learn.

Offer your child the same food that you’re cooking for yourself, but cut up into smaller pieces, mashed, or served in small portions. If the whole lot ends up on the floor, there’ll be less to clean up.

You’ll find messes easier to clean up if you put some plastic or newspaper under the highchair. You can also leave bath time or a change of clothes for after meals.
  • Last updated or reviewed 25-08-2014