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What to do when your child plays with his food!

Although it may be VERY frustrating when your darling baby squishes his carrots through his fingers and onto the floor AGAIN, this is a normal and necessary part of his development. He’s not playing with his lunch; he’s just curious and exploring. Here’s why you should encourage the mess!

One-year-olds love a mess – it’s as simple as that. You’d have noticed how much your little one tends to leave his high chair in disarray during mealtimes. Whether it’s immersing his hands into his food bowl at every opportunity, or simply sticking his little fingers into the butter dish, then smearing it all over his face, he is thoroughly enjoying himself. This enthusiasm is neither disobedience nor naughty behaviour. It’s part of the learning process.

Messy eating brings your baby many benefits, including:


Hand control

Ah, the excitement of squashing soft food in his hands and feeling liquid run through his fingers…

These encourage him to use his fingers in ways that he normally doesn’t in his daily routine. This helps develop his hand control.


Driven by his natural curiosity, your infant is determined to explore whenever he can – and the prospect of sticking his hand firmly into, say, his morning cereal, is too interesting for him to resist. He wants to discover what happens when he does this.


Your baby learns through all of his senses, not just sight and hearing, but also through touch. Each substance and every liquid creates a special tactile sensation. Messy eating is another way to learn through his senses.


Pouring his drink over the table surface, squashing his finger food in the palms of his hands, or throwing bits of his vegetables all over the place, is thoroughly entertaining as far as he is concerned. That’s much more fun than eating neatly.


How to Cope:

Although you may be very annoyed to find your little one playing with the mashed potatoes, resist the temptation to react in anger. Remember that he isn’t deliberately causing mischief; he’s motivated by curiosity and the desire to explore.

Of course, you have to encourage him to eat neatly, but it’s best to keep your temper. Calmly set limits instead. By all means let him explore his food a little because he finds it interesting. But when you think he has gone far enough, be prepared to remove his hands gently and firmly from his soup bowl and say “no”.

Although he’ll probably try to do the same again a second later, persist with this strategy. He’ll get the message eventually.

Give Baby a mixture of soft foods that need to be taken with a spoon, and finger food that he can pick up with bare hands. That way, he can play with his lunch sometimes, and eat properly at other times.

Create opportunities for him to make a mess when he isn’t eating. For instance, you can mix flour and water, put newspapers all around, dress him in a sleeved apron, and then let him get stuck in! Or you can put some child-safe paints on a paper plate and encourage him to smear his hands in it.

He’ll gradually learn that he can make a mess during some play activities, but not at mealtimes.


Expert source: Dr. Richard C. Woolfson

For more help decoding your child’s behavior, read on!

Young Parents, June 2015 

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