Skip to main content

Is it OK to let your kid play with their food?

Leave a toddler alone with a bowl of spaghetti, and you can guarantee you’ll return to a mess. Many parents are hesitant to let their kids play with food — not only because of the mess, but also because they want that spaghetti to end up in their stomachs, not the floor.

However, some research suggests that your kids playing with food can be a good thing.

Related Videos

It could prevent picky eaters

After months of breast milk and soft, homemade baby food combos, your baby probably has no idea what to do with real food. Kids who feel too restricted with their diet (or how they interact with food) may end up becoming picky eaters as they grow.

Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

Letting your toddlers throw chicken nuggets around isn’t a cure for picky eating but is part of helping kids develop a healthy relationship with their food. If they’re having fun while they eat, they’re more likely to enjoy the food itself.

It helps them learn different foods

Many parents think of food play as “goofing off,” but it might be time to adjust your perspective. Playing with food is normal for toddlers, and it’s actually part of the learning process. A small study from 2013 found that toddlers who messed around with food were able to learn words associated with those foods at a faster rate.

At such a young age, one of the only ways your baby can learn is with the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Poking their meal might seem unnecessary to us, but for toddlers, they’re just trying to figure out what you’ve put in front of them.

Playing with food can develop independent feeding habits

The path from your baby’s plate to their mouth is rarely a straight (or clean) route. While feeding your toddler yourself may keep things tidy, doing it for too long can prevent your baby from developing independent feeding habits.

At 6 or 7 months, your baby is beginning to develop the “pincer grasp,” which allows them to pick up finger foods. Before then, food play might be one way that your child begins eating independently.

Once they’ve mastered the “pincer grasp,” you can still feed them, but you shouldn’t be too surprised if your toddler begins reaching for the spoon themselves. Of course, practice makes perfect — the first couple of months of finger foods are likely to be messy.

It lets you enjoy your own mealtime

Most of the benefits surrounding food play are for your toddler, but this one’s for you. While your baby is happily making a mess, the downtime gives you a few moments to enjoy your own mealtime.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Watching you model healthy behavior helps your toddler learn, too. Over time, they’ll begin to realize that the food belongs in their mouth, not on their clothing.

When you should put a stop to food play

While a toddler who plays with their food shouldn’t be an immediate concern, there might be a point when it becomes out of control, or it’s no longer normal.

If there’s too much wasted food

A couple of noodles on the floor isn’t a big deal, but if your toddler wastes their entire plate at mealtime, that can get out of control. With food play, you want to make sure your toddler is getting something in their stomach — but keep in mind that your little one is also pretty good at figuring out when they’re full.

If they eat half their plate and play with the rest, you shouldn’t immediately assume that they’re starving or not getting enough nutrition. Your toddler may just be full and ready to go back to playtime. Keep an eye on portion sizes and growth charts if you’re worried about their nutrition.

If the mess is too much

Even if they’re still getting enough food down, food play can become an issue if you constantly have to wipe up floors or clean off walls after a meal. Aside from making your toddler wear a bib to help their clothes stay clean, you can also try putting a plastic sheet underneath the high chair to prevent the mess from extending to carpet or hardwood floors.

If they fling their plate everywhere, try using non-breakable or plastic plates.

For babies and toddlers, playing with their food is often a natural part of the learning process, and they’re not being messy on purpose. However, if the mess or waste becomes too much, you might need to look for ways to stop excess food play.

It’s also natural to assume a 6-month-old baby might fling a little food, but once your child has reached 3 or 4 years old, you shouldn’t see too much food play.

Editors' Recommendations

New Year’s resolutions for kids: The reading resolutions your child needs
Here's why reading should be the only New Year's resolution for kids
Five kids reading books on a park bench

Another new year is almost here and with it comes another chance to make a new change. But what about the children? Should parents help come up with New Year's resolutions for kids? Absolutely, and reading is the ticket!

No matter what age your child is, there should be only one resolution on every kid's list, and here's why it should be the love of reading. With the help of expert Stephanie Marquis, product manager at, an affiliate of, we've put together the perfect reading resolution, by age, for your family to stick to this year.

Read more
5 New Year’s resolution ideas for kids that promote healthy habits
Want to keep your New Year's resolutions? Make them together as a family
A person making a list of New Year's resolutions

New Year's resolutions have quite a long track record. The practice of setting goals when welcoming in a new year date all the way back to the ancient Babylonians. Back then, New Year's Day was celebrated in March, not January. The ancient Romans also had a habit of starting a new year with resolutions, as did early Christians. Today, New Year's resolutions aren't necessarily based on religion. Instead, New Year's resolutions are more personal and often involve losing weight, getting the finances in order, and decluttering or organizing the house.

Of course, while lots of people make resolutions at the start of a new year, these goals often fall by the wayside by Valentine's Day. According to the American Psychological Association, the secret to keeping New Year's resolutions is to limit your resolutions to small goals instead of large ones, like losing weight.

Read more
Ring in the new year with kids – and these tips to make it fun for all
Have an exciting New Year's Eve with kids using these tips
Happy New Year sign with confetti

When you have children, celebrating New Year’s Eve requires a bit more planning. Perhaps more planning than it makes it worth it to leave the house. To help, we’ve thought of some ideas to make your kids feel involved whether you plan on going out, inviting friends over, or just enjoying quality family-only time at home. Crafting New Year’s Eve traditions with your kids is something to look forward to every year.

Even if you do decide to leave the house for your party plans, incorporate some of the following activities for your little ones before you go. Your kids will get to share a special moment with you, and that will mean more to them than waiting up until midnight, which they might not make it to, anyway. So, before the kiddos fall asleep, start one of these traditions on New Year's Eve with the kids.

Read more