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Mealtime Mess vs. Manners

Mealtime is a great opportunity to converse about your day and spend time with family. It is also the perfect opportunity for learning and engaging your senses, although I’m sure many of you know mealtime can also come with a mess! Many parents cringe at the idea of offering potentially messy food to their little ones because of the cleanup it involves. But… mess is best! Allowing your child to explore (and make a mess with) their food actually has a lot of benefits.

Talk Time Speech Language Therapy Blog Post | Picture of child smiling and sitting in high chair and eating spaghetti with bowl on head | Mealtime Mess vs. Manners | Contact for more information on the benefits of messy eating and sensory play

Messy eating aids in the development of fine motor and gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are anything that requires whole body movements, and requires the core to help stabilize. When eating, it’s important for the child to sit upright. Sitting upright is optimal for feeding; it helps with breathing, chewing, swallowing, and helps the child move from assisted to unassisted eating as their skills improve. Fine motor skills include anything that requires use of those tiny muscles in our hands. When eating, this includes eating with utensils and coordinating the transfer of food from utensil to mouth, which also encourages the development of hand-eye coordination. These fine motor skills impact a child’s performance in many life-related and school age skills including dressing, coloring, handwriting, shoe tying, and cutting. Plus, eating may start out messy, but it’s temporary! As your child continues to develop their fine and gross motor skills, they will become a less messy eater over time.

Messy eating is also a form of sensory play. Smearing foods on their tray or table, licking fingers, and squeezing foods provides sensory input. This type of exploratory play helps children learn about various textures, temperatures, and consistencies, while offering a positive mealtime experience.

Talk Time Speech Language Therapy Blog Post | Picture of child sitting in highchair and feeding self with spoon | Mealtime Mess vs. Manners | Contact for more information on the benefits of messy eating and sensory play

Now you’re probably wondering… what about the aftermath?! We’ve got you covered! While mess is best, we also understand that you don’t have all the time in the world to clean up after. Here are some parent hacks for how to make clean up easier without limiting your child’s experience:

  • Baby wipes!! Keep baby wipes handy for quick clean up of hands, face, and feeding area. But here’s the catch: Wait until meal time is over and after you move your child away from the area they are eating. Our goal is to help desensitize your child by introducing them to a variety of textures. Frequently wiping your child’s hands and face while they’re eating or immediately wiping a child’s hands and face after they eat can lead to your child associating being messy with feelings of discomfort. Making sure you wipe up after your child is away from their mealtime spot will help prevent this. We want to maintain a relaxed, positive attitude during meal times. Of course, safety is an exception. If the mess is interfering with vision or breathing, then absolutely clear away the mess, and then carry on with the meal!

  • Finger foods are a great option for less mess. Peas, berries, crackers, and pancakes are a few examples of easy finger foods that aren’t as messy as foods like yogurt.

  • Thicker foods are easier to manage than thin foods. For example, if you think about using a spoon, it’s easier to successfully scoop, transfer, and control a food like yogurt rather than a thinner food like soup broth. Once your child becomes more skilled with utensils, you can move on to smoother and thinner textured foods. Some great foods to start with include yogurt, pudding, applesauce, and oatmeal.

  • Disposable placemats on the table or splash mats under a chair can help catch the mess and make cleanup quicker and easier!

  • Use easy to clean bibs! There are so many to choose from, but many are easy to wipe clean and some have a lip on the bottom to catch food will help make clean up easier! Here are two of my favorite bibs: OXO Rollup Bib & Bumkins Waterproof Bibs and Smocks

Remember to embrace the mess and introduce new foods in a fun and meaningful way! Messy eating is a normal phase of kids development, and an important one. The extra cleanup now will all be worth it when your child is a happy, healthy, and independent eater! Keep in mind that although we are learning to embrace the mess it is still totally ok to have rules. Making a mess does not mean that throwing food is acceptable. It’s important to make a designated space for meal time and food exploration; this can help children learn boundaries for when and where making a mess is acceptable. If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s feeding development, we are happy to help you! Contact us today with questions, concerns, or to schedule an evaluation.

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