From the get-go we tend to teach our tots that food is for eating, not playing with.
But Mum’s Grapevine expert, nutritionist Mandy Dos Santos says there are plenty of reasons to let kids play with their food. She believes it’s the key to ensuring they have a healthy relationship with food from the start.
Mandy’s outlined three main reasons why a baby’s solids journey should include the sensory delights of food play.
The solids journey for babies and young children is mostly a joyous occasion. It is also a stage in life which is full of new experiences, namely sensory. As adults, we forget how intense new foods can be. That the taste, colour, texture, smell, smoothness or roughness are all new and can be incredibly overwhelming to young children.
Coupled with the fact that the entirety of a child’s day is often new and a learning experience, the stimulation can often be quite intense and debilitating. We give our children the time to learn and develop their reading, potty training, sleeping and walking. Eating should be the same. A child should have the opportunity to play, look, smell, touch, rub, lick and even listen to their food.
1. To help them learn
Engaging in each of their senses gives the little one time to learn, reflect and understand the food and whether that is a positive, negative, scary, frightening or exciting experience to them. This ‘playing’, also means they are able to trial the food and yet there is still no pressure to even taste or eat the food.
2. To help them try new things
It is commonly thought that it takes 8 to 10 exposures of a particular food, given at regular intervals, such as a weekly before a child might actually eat the food. The slowness of this process can be exhausting to parents and the recurring refusal and rejection frustrating. If we as parents can remind ourselves of the importance of playing with food, on the importance in time for the child to feel comfortable with the food, the outcome will be far more beneficial to all.
It will not only build our confidence as parents, but the confidence of the child and their understanding that they have the time to learn and decide whether they feel relaxed with the food.
3. To help them take things slow
Often in modern life we hurry an eating occasion, we are afraid or annoyed by the additional mess, we just want the child to eat so we can tick that requirement off the daily list. This pace leaves the child little time to experience and play with their food. For younger children, we often control the eating occasion with spoons or squeezy pouches. Wiping away the remnants of each meal.
By us as parents slowing down, we give our children the opportunity to slow down too. To smell, touch, listen, look and hopefully taste their food. To squish it in their little hands and to push it across the table. To spoon it onto their plates and divide it with their fork. Time to experience the sensory explosion that food can be.
Food is a wonderful sensory delight when you learn to navigate and trust it, but it takes time and little ones need it the most.
Starting solids? Take a look at our expert guide on baby led weaning.
Mandy dos Santos is a nutritionist, food scientist, author and mumma to three monkeys. Her kitchen is always messy with mini cooking experiments popping from every crevice. She adores everything about food and is passionate about nurturing the love of food in children and their families. You can find her at Little People Nutrition.