Should you let your toddler play with their food?

So, your toddler plays with food and you don’t know if they should? The answer is a definite yes — for the most part. As with everything about parenting, there are no clear-cut rules about food play. While you may think it’s bad manners or that it encourages your toddler to misbehave, playing with food has many benefits to your little one. As long as you keep it within reason, it’s OK to embrace the mess. Here are some reasons why you should let your child experiment and a few tips on how to set boundaries.

It helps exercise fine motor skills

toddler messily eating a chocolate ice cream cone
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Finger foods are a wonderful way to help your toddler develop their fine motor skills. These fun meals have countless benefits for your little one’s oral motor progress and even help develop speech. These are some great finger foods that your toddler will enjoy:

  • Avocado
  • Crackers
  • Cheese sticks
  • Meatballs
  • Boiled eggs
  • Diced fruit

It boosts independence

Children learn by play and food is no exception to this rule. When you let your child experiment with their food, you’re actually teaching them to feed themselves. This encourages your toddler’s independence and boosts their self-esteem.

Whether they use their fingers to pick up peas or a spoon to eat yogurt, watching your child try to eat on their own is an adorable experience. Resist the urge to rush or clean them up. Instead, sit back and motivate them to keep trying. Let them know how proud you are because this is a big milestone that deserves celebration.

It’s a sensorial experience

little girl smiling and eating a watermelon slice
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Meals are a delicious experience that awakens all the senses. Just like you, your child delights in the aromas, colors, textures, crunch, and tastes of their food. Let the wonder take over your toddler as they explore the food around them. As part of the exploration, they’ll eventually put the food in their mouth.

Rather than inhibiting their sense of adventure, get your camera ready for the moment where the flavors explode in your child’s mouth. The look in their eyes will be priceless.

It encourages them to try new foods

When your child pulls apart, smells, or inspects their food it’s not because they’re being picky. In fact, it’s the opposite. By playing with their meals, young kids get to know new foods and are more likely to try them. The more varied your meals, the more they’ll get their hands dirty to explore them. Take this experimentation as a sign that you’re doing a good job as a parent. And before you know it, your child will be eating a whole rainbow of fresh foods.

It gives you a break

Are you tired of having to feed your child first and then eating cold meals? Hungry parents are as cranky as hungry babies. Luckily, now that your toddler is starting to eat on their own you can enjoy warm meals again!

Use this opportunity to model good eating habits and enjoy family meals. This is the beginning of a new stage in your child’s life. It’s also a chance for you to bond with your little one and introduce them to new flavors.

How to avoid too much mess

baby in highchair with cake on face at birthday party
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Of course, there’s such a thing as too much of a mess. It’s a fine line between letting your child experiment with food and encouraging bad table manners. Here are some ways to keep it polite, age-appropriate, and fun for all:

  • Don’t let mealtime turn into playtime. If your child starts tossing their food, remove the plate and let them play with toys. When they’re hungry again, offer the same meal.
  • Only feed your child when they’re hungry. Otherwise, they’ll end up playing and won’t eat anything.
  • Keep portions small so there’s less food to smush.
  • When you have company, serve your toddler foods that create less of a mess.
  • Place a towel, blanket, or mat around your child’s highchair. Most of the mess will land there and cleanup will be much easier.
  • Remind your child to say “please” and “thank you” as a way to start teaching table manners.

Next time your toddler gets as much food in their hands as their mouths, take a deep breath and let them play. This learning experience is more valuable and fun than you remember. As long as you’re supervising and making sure that they stay within limits, playing with their meals is a milestone. It helps your child develop new skills and a love for healthy foods.

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