#13: Why Kids Need to Play with Food

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Were you ever told as a kid to stop playing with your food? Well today I’m talking about why I really WANT your kids to play with food and how it helps them try new foods.

This is Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, the Mama Knows Nutrition podcast hosted by me, Kacie Barnes, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and mom friend. I am always in your corner and fully believe that you are doing your absolute best as a mom and I am so proud of you for that. I love that you’re here learning with me today. Let’s dive in. 

Oh and don’t forget to call me if you have a question for a future episode, 469-552-5527 and that info is on the website too at https://mamaknowsnutrition.com/podcast/ 

Listener Question from Vanessa:

I understand that playing with food can be good for sensory and also combat picky eating. What about playing with food that they eat regularly and even their safe foods? I understand the purpose of playing with new foods/textures, what about common & safe foods to them?

What’s the deal with playing with food?

Food is the MOST sensory experience that your child goes through! Think about the ways that it involves much more than taste and smell. We use our touch to experience the texture, temperature and size. Our sight to see what it looks like, what color, what shape. And we even hear food, too! Crunching, sizzling, etc.

When they play with food, they fully experience all of the sensory aspects of food and that is a huge learning experience for babies and toddlers.

Why is food play encouraged?

Food play is sensory play. Sensory play impacts the physical development of your little one’s brain! Your baby was born with a brain packed full of neurons. Learning about the world through their different senses helps to develop pathways between these neurons. The more of one type of experience your little one has, the stronger that pathway becomes. Strengthening those pathways leads to your child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks as they continue to grow.

It helps them learn to like new foods. And it’s a progression!

I don’t expect my 12 month old to walk just because they’ve seen me walk and I have told them I enjoy walking. I also don’t expect a one year old to eat new foods without experiencing that food firsthand. I can’t expect them to be ready before they’ve explored the food and learned about it.

When it comes to picky eating, it’s like the pressure melts away when they are only playing and not expected to eat. They get an opportunity to experience the food and learn about it’s feel, it’s smell, texture, temperature, size, etc. And kids are more likely to eat a food when it’s familiar to them, so playing with the food helps increase their comfort.

What about playing with food they already eat regularly?

I personally don’t have a problem with this because I want mealtime to be relaxed, fun, enjoyable, low stress, low pressure. Play is an important way for young kids to relax and calm themselves, to feel like they have some control over what’s going on. 

I KNOW it’s frustrating when you want them to eat and they won’t. And you see them over there just playing with their food, and now you can’t even save the leftovers because they’ve mangled it all up. But this might not be a battle you really want to fight. So instead I would recommend giving them a small portion, so they don’t have a ton to start with to ruin and throw away.

How to deal with food play if it gets under your skin

Ask yourself this question in a calm moment away from mealtime. Ask, “WHY is this bothering me so much? Do I hate the waste? Do I hate that mealtimes are difficult? Does it drive me crazy that he won’t just eat the foods I make and he always has to eat something different?” 

It will help if you figure out the root of it because chances are, you can address whatever it is, that is the reason the play is bothering you.

When is it NOT appropriate to play with food

Once they’ve passed the early toddler stage, you can start to teach them about manners and their importance when you’re away from home or have guests over. And playing with food is one of those things that is usually not okay at a restaurant or with company, especially once they hit school age.

Ways to work on table manners with toddlers

  • Tell them what they CAN do and what your expectations are. Try not to overwhelm them with too many rules and instructions at one time. 
    • For example, demonstrate how to put a napkin in their lap. 
    • Teach them a polite, “no thank you.”
    • Have them practice ordering for themselves at a restaurant.
    • You may choose to allow a small toy or activity at the table and I HIGHLY encourage having something like that to keep them occupied because young children have a limited ability to sit still and hang out, the way we can as adults.
    • If you notice they’re done eating and are wanting to play with their food, ask them, “I noticed you’re starting to play with your food, are you finished eating?” 
      • If they say yes they are done, remove their plate and give them a toy or activity.
      • If they say no they’re not done, gently remind them to use their fork or spoon for their food. Ask them if they need help cutting or getting condiments or anything else.
  • Role playing is great, so you can do a pretend restaurant meal or “party” meal at home, to work on manners

They’re not going to be perfect but you want to see the potential there and recognize their efforts. 

When my 3 year old draws a few lines and proudly tells me she wrote an E for her name, I’m not going to say “no that isn’t right.” I’m going to say “That’s great! You made an E!” Knowing that this isn’t how she’s going to draw an E forever. Same is true with manners. Focus on their efforts and not the outcome. 

They are NOT going to be perfectly behaved but no one’s kids are so don’t set the bar too high because you’ll just be frustrated.

How to encourage food play for a hesitant child

You may have a toddler who is very hesitant to get involved with food even when they’re not expected to eat. You may have a child who does NOT like getting their hands dirty.

So what can you do? Here are several tips to get a tentative or nervous child involved in food play.

  • Offer utensils
  • Give them that opportunity to not use their hands while they’re still getting exposure to the food
    • Can also put something inside of a large ziploc so they can see what happens (like whipped cream with a few drops of food coloring), or a marinade to shake up
  • Always have a towel handy and demonstrate wiping; or a bowl of water to dip
    • Some kids just need the explicit instructions to show them how to remove the uncomfortable feeling of stuff on their hands.
    • You may even start with an activity to brush a food with the back of their hand, less sensitive than the palm, and then immediately wipe it or wash it to start building up their tolerance.
  • Have them rinse foods or wash them in a bowl of water so washing their hands is part of the activity.
  • Let them watch you first while you “sportscast” 
    • “I’m peeling this cucumber! It’s a little rough and bumpy on the outside and feels dry. When I peel it, it’s smooth and slippery!”
  • Give a specific SMALL task. Dump these beans out of the can into the colander. Rinse them off. Then let them go off and play.

Food play activities for picky eaters

In my picky eater course I give you specific activities to do for different foods including veggies and proteins. You’ll take those hard to like foods and learn how to progress from them just looking at it to being able to touch it, bring it to their mouth, and taste it. 

Parents really have liked having these roadmaps to take them from the hopelessness of “JUST TRY IT” and nothing happening, or just leaving it on their plate and them never touching it. 

For a limited time only I’m offering JUST those food play progression guides if you’re not ready to commit to a full picky eater improvement program, but do want those guides on how to move forward with new foods beyond just looking or playing. 

The foods included are:

  • Green Beans/Asparagus 
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Chicken
  • Lettuce/Spinach/Kale
  • Avocado
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet Potato
  • Bell Pepper
  • Egg

Help overcoming sensory barriers to food play

If you notice that your little one is very sensitive to different sensory experiences then it would be worth seeking an evaluation with a pediatric OT because they can really help with that. Like maybe they SCREAM if water gets splashed on their face, or absolutely will not touch something that would make their hands messy. If they consistently have big reactions, you can definitely get help.

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