Fort Worth, Texas,
12:12 PM

Put away the spoon. Why you want a messy eater.

The science and benefits of a messy eater

I am that mom.

The obsessively clean freak with a dozen napkins at meals and the dust pan and broom standing by! I see the crumbs falling to the floor, the grape jelly graze the side of the chair, and the sticky fingers raking through the hair as my daughter enjoys her meal.

As a feeding therapist, I know as her skill in feeding develops so will the awareness of her fingers, hands, face and mouth. 

I MUST wait until she is finished before I attack with my arsenal of cleaning supplies. Sitting with her, eating with her, and having fun with her while she explores her dinner are the best things I can do as a parent.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Will my walls always be covered in food splatters?” or “Why does she continue to refuse foods I know she should be eating to have a well-rounded and varied diet?” “Does everyone’s baby require a bath after each and every meal?” “Is it normal for more food to be in her hair than in her mouth?”

Take comfort, mama. You are not alone in your exasperation when it comes to feeding your child while trying to maintain some semblance of tidiness in your kitchen.

Did you know that a baby’s mouth and hand have the highest number of sensory receptors per square inch than any other part of the human body?

That means the mouth and hands are the most sensitive parts of the body when it comes to what the brain can take in and learn.

So what does this all mean for your dinner table? Put away the fine china and good linens and get ready to embrace the mess. Researchers in the UK "found that playing with food may actually help kids overcome a fear of new flavors and eat a more varied diet, a small study suggests."

Children need the chance to explore new foods and textures with all five senses. In a perfect sensory world, your little one should have the opportunity to touch, smell, and taste new foods unabashedly. So, set the paper towels aside and join in the fun!

Your child will “learn” both good and bad habits depending on the mealtime experiences they are afforded.

For instance, if your child is given peanuts and experience an allergic reaction, he will most likely begin to refuse peanuts!

Alternatively, if broccoli and green beans are offered during a family meal in a way that is fun and supportive, you might find your little guy eating them with gusto! But, don’t be disheartened if he turns his nose up at beets the first time you present them.

Research has shown children may instinctively refuse new foods to survive simply because they are new. In addition, it can take up to 15 presentations before a food is deemed worthy in your child’s eyes. However, with good exposure, no illness or bad consequences, and repetition, children will learn many foods are safe to eat!

What can you do to help your child become a magnificently messy and healthy eater?

  1. Make meal times a routine at the table, in their chairs, with NO distractions.
  2. Allow your child to explore the foods that you’ve given him with the opportunity to say, “I don’t like this” without consequences.
  3. Don’t set your sights on the spoon: allow him to eat with his hands!
  4. Let him PLAY! Think finger painting with yogurt or building a tater tot tower.
  5. Relax while he digs in and gets his hands dirty. He is learning about the different properties of the foods we eat when he touches, smells, tastes, and looks at the foods that are on his plate.
  6. Keep offering the foods you desire him to eat. Remember, experts have found it may take your child 15 times of trying a food to decide how they really feel about it.
  7. Lead by example! Tuck into the meal with your child. It is important for our littles to see us eating the same things we are asking them to eat.
  8. Try to have as much fun at the table as possible while still enforcing the rules of “manners”. Talk about your day, talk about your food, smile, laugh, and make faces in your cheese. 

Your child may not have developed the oral motor or sensory skills to support a healthy, well-rounded, adult-like diet. Be on the lookout for the following feeding “red flags”:

  • Drowsiness or sleepiness at every feeding.
  • Poor oral tolerance (spits food out, shuddering, gagging, vomiting)
  • Able to chew but prefers liquids
  • Frequent gagging
  • Coughing and/or choking

If one or more of these signs describes your child, consider talking with your pediatrician about your concerns and a possible feeding evaluation.

Satter, E. (1987). How To Get Your Kid To Eat…But Not Too Much. Boulder, CO: Bull Publishing Company

About the author

Melanie Van Noy is a speech pathologist at Cook Children's.Speech/language pathologists focus on oral motor, speech, language and communication skills to enhance development, restore function and to prevent disability from pediatric conditions, illness or injury.

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