Playing With Food: Why and How We Need to Teach Our Children to Play with Food

As most of us know, our children can get very messy when they eat!  Did you know this is actually the best way for them to learn about and try new foods?  

Picture yourself at a new restaurant.  You order something off the menu that someone else recommended but when it comes to the table it is different from anything you’ve ever eaten before. What do you do?  Do you dive right in and take a huge bite?  Probably not.  You likely interact with the food first.  Maybe you simply look at the food, observe all the different colors on the plate.  You may even cut the food open and/or push it around the plate to observe its different properties (e.g., squishy, dry, wet, crunchy, etc.).  Next, you may smell the food.  Is it a good smell or is it making you want to push the plate away?  Finally, you may take a little bite off to taste it before eating an entire fork/spoon full.  

Does this sound familiar to you?  The point is, we all interact with our foods, especially new foods, before actually eating them!  So why is it that we expect our children to eat foods right away before interacting with them? Keep reading below to find out why “messy play” during mealtime is imperative for your child’s feeding development. 

What is messy play?

Messy play is playing with any item through the sense of touch.  We use our sense of touch in order to make sense of the world around us.  It helps us to know what textures things are, if they are hot or cold, if they are sticky, if they are sharp, etc.  Some examples of messy play include playing with kinetic sand, shaving cream, hand paints, and/or beads.  

Messy play during mealtime may look like touching the foods without utensils, putting sauce on your cheeks to see how it feels, and smelling foods but accidentally getting some on your nose.  Our children use messy play during mealtime in order to learn about foods and their different properties.  

The importance of messy play during mealtimes

Messy play during mealtime is an important tool for a child’s overall development as it engages all of our senses.  For more information regarding sensory systems, please see the previous blog post, Feeding our Senses: What is a Sensory Diet?

When infants eat, their sensory systems are used to their specific milk and/or formula.  It is a similar sensory experience every time they feed due to the similar temperature, taste, smell, and color.  As children begin to eat a variety of foods they begin to realize not all foods have the exact same properties (e.g., taste, smell, temperature, texture, etc.) and thus, they begin engaging their various sensory systems.  Every feeding experience differs each time they eat a new food.  Messy play allows children to interact with these foods in ways that make the child feel comfortable.  This typically leads to tasting and eventually, eating new foods.  Learning how to interact with new foods happens at each stage of feeding development: purees, meltables, soft solids, hard solids, and mixed textures.  Once children are able to learn about the different properties of foods, they may start to develop likes and dislikes for certain properties (e.g., spicy vs. sweet, crunchy vs. soft, etc.).  

Repeated exposure to a specific food and its properties desensitizes children to the newness and allows them to put their effort into tasting and likely, eating this food after exploring it.  Research shows that it takes up to 20 times of eating a certain food in order to determine if one actually likes or dislikes it.  This is because every exposure to the food may be slightly different (e.g., it may not be the exact same temperature, it was cooked a little longer, it has slightly less salt, etc.).  Therefore, we must continue exposing our children to these foods and letting them interact with the food without the pressure of eating it after the first few presentations.  

These experiences are necessary not only to teach children about the properties of different foods but also, provide them with the tools of how to taste and interact with new foods once they are older.  

How can I incorporate messy play at home?

  • Have your child help cook or bake with you
    • Wash veggies, stir the batter, “measure” ingredients with cups
  • Model messy play for them at the table
    • Touch your mashed potatoes with your finger
    • Smell the gravy like a dog and get a little on your nose
    • Wiggle the spaghetti like an octopus
    • Break apart your carrot with your hands to listen to the crunch it makes
    • Lick the chicken and talk about how it tastes
    • Make a “choo choo train” with your peas in a line
    • Make your oatmeal into a circle/cookie shape
    • Play hide and seek with your meatball under the bread
    • Make your broccoli “tree” sway in the wind as you blow on it
    • Mash your beans in between your fingers
    • Stick noodles on each of your fingers
    • Stack your banana slices to make a tower and knock it down
  • Wait to clean your child off until after the meal is over
    • If your child still has residue on their lips after taking a bite, leave it there! This helps the child to gain awareness of the food and they can also practice licking and/or wiping it off themselves.
    • Sometimes kids have adverse reactions to their faces being wiped, they might turn away or protest. In this case, we want to wait to wipe their faces until the end.  This can encourage a positive and relaxing mealtime experience.  
      • You can try putting a washcloth or paper towel next to your child on the table/highchair so that they can use it if they want to and on their own time!

You don’t have to make every single mealtime a time for messy play.  Try to dedicate one meal a day for messy play with your child.  Many times, parents find it easiest to have it as the first meal or last meal of the day so that they can just put their child right into the bath afterwards.  Yes, this will get messy, that’s the point! Let this be another chance to bond with your child, it can be a very socially driven experience for you both!  Have fun and remember, you’re giving them tools that they will use in the future! 

Questions or concerns? 

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s responses to messy play and/or picky eating, please contact us at or 773-332-9439.


Andrea Jachino, MS, CCC-SLP 

Speech-Language Pathologist




Bowen, C. (2019, June 17) Surprise: Your Kid Needs To Try A Food 20 Times Before You Can Give Up. Romper


Chociej, C. (2019, April 23) Feeding our Senses: What is a Sensory Diet?. PlayWorks Therapy, Inc. Blog 


Toomey & Associates, Inc. (2022, July 21) When Children Won’t Eat: Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders – Assessment and Treatment Using the SOS Approach to Feeding, [Conference Session]. SOS Approach, Independence, OH 


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