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Messy Food Play for Fussy Eaters!

Have you a fussy eater at home? Are you lost for ideas on how to help introduce more food into their diets? Why not try messy food play?

We use food as a sensory play base regularly. We have tried cocoa powder edible mud, crushed up  cereal as sand, painting with yoghurt and crushed up berries to name a few! Now I am by no means saying my kids will eat or try every food. My little boy in particular is very sensitive and will gag on certain textures of food, but what is important is that my two kids are very open now to trying and tasting new foods and the range of food they now eat is more varied and nutritious. Put simply…messy food play encourages your child to explore different smells, textures, temperatures and consistencies of food in a playful way!

Messy play has so many benefits for children when it comes to fussy eating. It removes all of the pressure of eating and makes food fun! It not only develops their sense of touch through their hands but encourages them to explore with their mouths aswell. Your child has lots of sensory receptors on their hands, so when touching and messing with food it sends messages to the brain to allow the child to know what that food feels like and makes that texture familiar to the child. The more exposure we give children to these textures through exploring with their hands the more likely they are to tolerate it in their mouths as similarly the mouth has sensory receptors which will let the child know if this food and texture is familiar or not. Once your child begins weaning is a good time to start messy food play! Some vegetable or fruit puree on their highchair tray is a great place to start…let them explore, mess and taste! This will minimise food fear from a young age. 

Some children are very tactile defensive and do not like different textures on their hands. It is important to respect these sensitivities and start slowly. Introduce dry textures first, so foods like- porridge oats, crushed up cereal, breadcrumbs before moving on to damp textures and then wet gloopy textures. Take things slowly and don’t get disheartened if your child appears disinterested at first-follow your child’s lead,  leave the activity out for a few hours and easily accessible to the child so that they can come back to it at their own pace. Add in a few of their favourite small toys to encourage interest! Join in with your child, let them see you feel different food bases, smell them and taste them…children respond well to modelling!  For those particularly sensitive to touch add in some scoops, wooden spoons, spatulas, tweezers, pipettes so that they can explore using these first without having to put their hands in fully! They will inevitably get some of the food on their hands which will allow them to build up a tolerance to the texture slowly. Always have a basin of water nearby and a towel so your child can easily clean their hands if they want to. Remember to give lots of encouragement and praise…and most importantly…have FUN!

5 Messy Food Play ideas to try: 

1.      Dry Foods like pasta and rice: Really easy simply pour into a dish or a bowl. Hide some of your child’s favourite small toys inside and play seek and find!

2.       Rainbow spaghetti: cook your spaghetti as normal. When cooked and drained add in a few drops of food colouring and mix! Pop onto a tray or in a sensory bin and allow your child to explore with their hands. Why not add in a scoop or some tongs and have your little one colour sort to extend the activity.

3.       Edible Taste safe mud: Make taste safe mud by mixing 4 cups of plain flower with 2 cups of cocoa powder, 2 table spoons of vegetable oil or olive oil and 2 cups of water. (Note: flour should be baked at a high temp for 10mins before mixing to kill any bacteria present). Add some farm animals and play away!

4.       Fruit in water: Again a very easy one to set up…slice up some lemons, oranges and limes and place in a water tray- add scoops and some toys, encourage your child to feel, smell and taste if they feel ready. Strawberries and Berries well too.

5.       Jelly: this is a very messy and sticky texture so be sure to explore the other textures first! Lots of fun to explore when your child is ready…let them pick the flavour and play toy rescue. Pop in some small toys and have your little one rescue them from the sticky jelly! 

Does play like this make you worry about food waste? We get it....we have thought alot about that too at home. However....the ultimate goal with this type of play is to have less food refusal when we offer our children meals at home therefore overall much less food waste! Dry pasta and rice keeps for ages too....we are still using it in our play set ups after 1 year! And these options are cheap and accessible when it comes to creating sensory experiences for our children.

It is worth noting that if your child is very fussy when it comes to eating, has lots of sensory difficulties around food and has a restricted diet as a result  it may be beneficial to seek the support of an occupational therapist to look at their full sensory profile and provide individual and targeted advice.

Will you give this a go? We would love to know how you get on. Tag us in your pictures on social media or send us a message. For more tips and advice around fussy eating follow along on our Instagram page where you will see our series with Dr Kirsty @nutrition4kidsni

For scoops and tweezers to add to your messy play click on the link below!

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