Playing in Food Without the Mess

By Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

My blog article How Kids Depend on Their 8 Senses to Eat explored why kids need to get hands-on experience via cooking and sensory play with new foods. When kids experience food with all of their senses, they are more likely to learn to enjoy eating those foods. Occupational therapists (OTs) and speech language pathologists (SLPs) who treat pediatric feeding difficulties encourage parents to let kids get messy and explore food with all their senses! But does it really have to be messy play, all the time?

As a pediatric SLP who focuses on helping children who have feeding disorders become healthy, happy eaters, I use messy food play in feeding therapy on a regular basis and encourage parents to do so as often as possible. But, I’m also a mom and a realist.

Let’s be practical. There are just some days when you’d like to encourage your child to be adventurous with food, exploring new tastes and textures, without having to hose them down afterward. Here are three fun activities that encourage exploration with all of the senses but with minimal mess.

1. To help kids learn to eat meats:

Parents love the convenience of thin slices of sandwich meats that come prepackaged from the supermarket. However, cautious eaters often have trouble touching ham or turkey sliced in convenient packaging because it contains excess water and often feels a bit wet or even oily.  The finely-sliced pieces of meat aren’t easy to manipulate in the mouth. And for kids with sensory processing challenges, the flimsy pieces may tickle sensitive tongues, causing gagging.

Try this instead — ask the butcher behind the deli counter to slice a 1-inch slab, and then cut that into 1-inch by 1-inch cubes for kids over the age of 3. (For younger children, cut into pea-sized cubes at home.) The bigger slice won’t have the excess water, and the edges of the cubes will help your child feel the piece in his mouth, giving him more control for chewing and swallowing.

If he’s not ready to take a taste yet, play is the answer. Show kids how to build structures with the cubes of meat and toothpicks or wooden skewers. He or she will be engrossed in the fun of creating skyscrapers, T-Rex cages and lion’s dens. Your child will be experiencing the sight, touch and aroma of deli meats, providing early clues for the next sensation – taste. Rinse the pieces when he’s done playing and freeze for later use in hearty soups.

2. To help kids learn to eat thick purees, like mashed potatoes:

Hummus and other thick purees are often challenging foods for kids with overreactive tactile systems (overreactive sense of touch) to tolerate in their mouths. One therapeutic approach is to encourage kids to play in purees by running small cars or plastic animals through the hummus “mud” or creating pretend fiery volcanos out of orange sweet potato mash. It’s fun, it’s creative and it’s messy!

As helpful as it is to regulate a child’s sensory system by exposing her to all sorts of messy play, there are days when it’s just not an option. Kids can still explore heavier purees with fun tools in the kitchen. Melon ballers make terrific scoops for creating small mounds of mashed sweet potatoes on a plate — or better yet, let kids put one “plop” of potatoes from a bowl in each section of a mini-muffin tray for sampling.

When done mashing the potatoes and before washing out the bowl, hand your child a basting brush. Kids can “paint” the inside of the bowl with the leftover buttery mash and if they are feeling brave, use their fingers to draw letters and pictures in the mashed potato “canvas.” The bowl keeps the mess contained without having to wash extra dishes, and all your child has to do is rinse her hands when she’s done.

3. To help kids learn to eat vegetables, like green beans, carrots and snow peas:

Most children over the age of 3 have the motor skills to eat raw vegetables safely, but they can’t always tolerate the feel of carrot shards or the strings of snow peas in their mouth. To help them get to know the vegetables via tactile or manipulative play, use the veggies as game pieces. Try  interactive games together like tic-tac-toe or “connect the dots.” Slice carrots into coins for kids to use as Os, and show them how to crisscross snow peas for Xs. If they take a bite out of the game piece in the process, that’s a win-win! When the game’s over, just rinse and refrigerate to play again the next day or use in a recipe later in the week.

Cooking together is the best way to remind kids of all the sensory properties of new foods, especially vegetables. The time in the kitchen together will not only help raise an adventurous eater, but it will also create lasting memories of the joy of making family meals together.

Yes, embrace the mess — when time and circumstances allow. Not a messy day today? Try some of the above tips to still help your child make friends with new foods while fostering creativity, language and other cognitive skills. Mess or no mess, always go from fun to yum!

Image credit: Eric Harvey Brown for Adventures in Veggieland


About the Author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids. She is the co-author of the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (2015) and Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (2016). The tips in her latest book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes (2018) are based on the latest research and Melanie’s 20 years of success as a pediatric feeding therapist. Melanie’s advice has been shared in a variety of television and print media, including The New York Times, CNN.com, Huffington Post and Parents Magazine. Visit her at www.MelaniePotock.com for more articles, professional tips, and helpful videos to raise your adventurous eater!

References and Sources

  1. Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables―with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes
  2. Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating

DISCLAIMER

The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.