Why messy eating happens in childhood
Children go through developmental stages as they learn to feed themselves. First they learn to eat solids by taking food from a spoon or picking up food with their hands. Then they move on to feeding themselves with spoons, forks and cups.
It takes a lot of time, practice and muscle coordination for children to learn to get food into their mouths without making a mess, so you can expect a few spills along the way!
Messy eating and playing with food
Children develop and learn through play, including play with food.
For example, playing with food is one of the ways children develop their fine motor skills. Young children love to experiment and play with their food even after they’ve developed the motor skills they need to eat without mess.
Playing with food, especially unfamiliar food, helps children learn about food too. Through play, they get familiar with these foods. This might mean they’re more likely to try and taste these new foods.
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.
- Squishing peas changes the way they look and feel.
- Sticking a sandwich in a drink makes parents 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 young children squish food in their hands, throw food and bowls onto the floor, deliberately dribble with their mouths full, or refuse to eat.
Here are ideas to help you cut down on mealtime mess, so you and your child can enjoy mealtimes more.
- Cut food into strips or fingers, and let your child use their 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.
- Involve your child in setting the table, if they’re old enough. If your child has helped to set up the meal, they might be less inclined to mess it up.
- Sit together and share mealtimes as a family. This lets you lead by example and show your child how to eat and behave at the table. But remember that it can take time for your child to learn these skills.
- Stay calm and patient with messy behaviour. If your child throws or mushes food, they’re often doing it to see how you react. If you stay calm, it’ll be less exciting for your child, and they’ll be less likely to keep doing it.
You’ll find messes easier to clean up if you put a plastic mat or old towels under your child’s highchair or chair as they eat. You can also try using a feeding smock or bib to keep clothes clean, and leaving bath time or a change of clothes until after meals.
If your child’s messy eating continues into the preschool years, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP, your child and family health nurse or a dietitian about your child’s development.