Why playing with food is essential for fussy eaters
Allowing our child to play with food can seem counter to a culture that teaches us manners at the table. It can also conjure up nightmares thinking of mess.
However, playing with food is an important part of learning to eat. Babies smoosh food on their trays, wipe it in their hair and rub it into their faces for very good reason.
They are discovering what it feels, smells, sounds, and tastes like.
In fact, as adults we do the same thing in a more controlled way when faced with a new food. We may poke it with our fork, we may have a little sniff or touch it to our tongue.
All of these are the more mature version of what babies and toddlers do!
Some children though seem to skip this phase and don’t want to put their fingers in the puree or squash food into their trays.
Perhaps, even at a very young age they are not comfortable around certain foods. Or perhaps there are textural challenges that make the thought of close interaction uncomfortable.
Feeding experts agree that tactile experiences with food is very important. Even if your child is older and they have missed this stage, it is helpful for more competent eating to revisit – in an age-appropriate way.
Or, if you have a child that is uncomfortable around foods, then using them in play, which can be modified to suit age and stage is really important.
A good way to think about this for parents is: if we have a child that is uncomfortable even picking a food up, realistically will they be willing to eat it?
However, if that food becomes less and less bothersome in the hands, it becomes more likely to be eaten.
If we always have this in mind, it enables us to seek out opportunities for our child to interact with foods. The more often this happens, the more of a comfort level we can help them build and the more likely foods will eventually be eaten.
How to help a fussy eater play with food
Depending on your child’s age and level of comfort around food this may look different for everyone.
However, I’ll provide a list of suggestions, many which can be adapted for either the very young or those who are older.
1. Developmental activity – playing with food is a great way to encourage young children to become more comfortable around foods. It is also great for developing fine motor skills and all sorts of other positive abilities.
2. Enabling interaction – interaction eventually leads to eating. The more often a child can have hands on contact, the more comfortable they become with the food and the more likely to eat it.
Interaction can be done both:
i) Away from the table – gardening, shopping, prepping food, cooking, play.
ii) At the table.
Making time for food play can, over time make a big difference for a child who is not super comfortable around food.
Food play ideas
All play is designed to build confidence so anything that is really uncomfortable is counter- productive. It is finding ways for a child to have interactions that meet them where they currently are and then gently enabling them to make progress.
Recognising progress – although this may be a long process, recognizing change is an important part of being able to continue. Noticing the subtle signs of progress is essential. Is your child a little happier around a smell, a texture, or a specific food? If so, this is progress -possibly large, depending on their starting comfort level.
All of these are showing us that the play is effective.
Food play ideas away from the table:
1. Sorting or categorizing foods. Separating foods into colours, shapes, textures or other categories.
2. Building towers. Many foods can be stacked or if they can’t it is still fun to see how many (or few) can balance on top of each other.
3. Food art. This doesn’t have to be complicated or perfect, just creating pictures or patterns.
4. Pasta/rice/bean bins. Using dried foods to play in. It’s a great way to desensitize hands (and therefore the mouth) if textures are a challenge. Toys can be hidden in the dried foods, or we can use measuring cups and spoons, for example.
5. Cooked food bins. Cooked pasta or rice can also be used to play in, fill trucks, make mini-sandcastles etc.
6. Sauces/purees. Can be used for painting or pictures.
7. Mash. Is perfect for sculpting!
8. Jewelry. Everything from circles of capsicum to pasta shapes on a string can create necklaces, rings, or bracelets.
9. Exploring. Touching, squishing, mashing or any sort of manipulation of foods is good.
10. Games. Using food as part of games, like noughts and crosses/Tic Tac Toe.
Food play in the kitchen:
1. Washing foods. Enormous fun for many ages. A squirty bottle and a washing up bowl. In the summer it can be outside.
2. Chopping/ripping/grating. All can be a lot of fun for most age groups.
3. Blending/grinding/bashing. These are fun to do but also often provide new opportunities for experiencing smells and textures.
4. Crumbing. Dipping meats or vegetables into crumbs can be a good activity even for older children.
5. Dipping. Dipping fruit or nuts in chocolate sauce, bread into cheese sauce, noodles into soy or even meat into ketchup. These all provide multi-level experiences.
6. Making popsicles.
7. Fruit ‘pops’. Dipping fruit into sauce or yoghurt and then sprinkles, nuts or choc pieces, for example.
8. Dough. Either pounding bread dough or using pastry or biscuit dough to create shapes or new foods.
9. Baking. Any cooking is positive and increases interaction.
10. Herbs and spices. Smelling them, crushing, grinding, or chopping them. Many are nutrient dense too so adding tiny amounts to foods is a positive.
Food play ideas at the table:
1. Imaginative play. For younger children turning food into planes, trains or dancers can be a great way to encourage interaction.
2. Testing. For less food anxious children, playing fun games where we guess what something is from its smell, for example, or how many bites it will take dad to eat a giant piece of bread.
3. Describing. Encouraging interaction via taking notice. What colour is the xyz, for example. For younger children that may be red or green, for older children scarlet or olive.
Two key things to remember:
a) The goal of food play is to enable interaction and from that more of a comfort level with food. If the ‘hidden agenda’ is a push to eat new foods, it can make interactions uncomfortable and become counter-productive.
b) Play is about fun. Approaching it in this vein is critical. Humour around activities can make a big difference as can ensuring it’s not stressful for a parent. For example, if mess is anxiety inducing, making sure there are measures in place so it’s manageable, like a drop cloth or wipeable table covering.
Playing with food is a great way to increase the number of foods eaten. It really does help children to eat them. It is often though, not a short-term strategy, but something we consistently add into our routines to gently build comfort levels.
It is as important for older children as it is for younger ones.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/