My family always liked to quote a line from the film The Addams Family. Mrs Addams knows there’s something wrong with her daughter, Wednesday, when Wednesday sits quietly at the table. ‘Wednesday,’ she says, ‘play with your food.

Somehow we’ve developed the opposite mindset. We think that there must be something wrong with our children if they insist on playing with the food we’ve prepared so lovingly for them. But is that really how they see it?

What it looks like: Baby spends a significant portion of mealtime ‘playing’ with her food. She spreads it on the table, drops it to the floor, smears it in her hair, and tries feeding it to others. At points during this process she might even put food in her mouth, but there’s no promising it’ll stay there for long!

Mistaken for: Being silly with her food or simply not being hungry.

What baby is learning: A day is one big sensory experience for baby. From licking the wall to squeezing a banana to watching the cars go by. As adults, we are so used to being surrounded by such a rich sensory environment that we forget how new and exciting it is to baby. And few things are more exciting than being presented with a plateful of items rich in smell, taste, texture, sound, and appearance. By exploring her food (i.e. spreading it on the table, dropping it to the floor, smearing it in her hair, and watching others eat it) baby is learning pretty much everything she can about this food: how it tastes, smells, sounds and feels, how it responds to gravity, what adults do with it…the list is endless.

How to support: Allow her to play with her food. It sounds simple enough but it takes a bit of an adjustment for any adult.

What does it take to create successful food explorations?

  • Time – be prepared for meals to last longer. It may take her a good 20 minutes of exploration before she even begins to eat.
  • Trust – sit back and trust that baby knows what to do with her food and how much of it to eat. As long as you regularly provide her with a variety of healthy foods, trust that she’ll eat what she needs. Feel free to narrate what she is doing and model conventional eating but try to avoid telling her what she’s supposed to do with her food.
  • Knowing when to set limits – Do intervene if she is hurting people (including herself) or property. Do intervene if her exploration is causing significant inconvenience to others (including yourself). There are certainly going to be times when free exploration is inappropriate and it is up to you to decide when that is. But make sure you explain your altered expectations to baby.
  • Preparation – Large bibs. Wipe-clean mat on the floor. Highchair with a large tray or plenty of table space. Cloths nearby. Not wearing her Sunday best.
  • Patience – She may not eat as much as you’d like her to. She may not eat anything. It may take you longer to clean up than it took her to make the mess. A fair amount of food may end up in the bin (or, if you’re as undiscriminating as me, on your own plate).

But what is gained?

  • Time to observe baby – This is a great time to sit back and watch baby. Which foods does she eat first? Which foods does she avoid? Which hand does she prefer? What kinds of motions does she make with her hands? What is she most focused on? How could you provide similar experiences in her play?
  • Time to enjoy your own meal – Baby’s complete focus on her sensory experience gives you time to connect with your spouse, other children, guests, or simply to savour your own meal.
  • Acceptance of new foods – Baby may need some time to get to know new foods before she is ready to put them in her mouth. There’s no rule on how long this will take but you may find that she warms up to foods she previously refused.
  • Rich sensory play – Baby gets a top notch sensory experience without a fancy sensory basket.
  • Nourishment -Thankfully, food that has been thoroughly squished, smeared, poked and prodded still provides the same nutrients as food that hasn’t. Although the nourishing properties of her food will remain a mystery to baby for some time, she’ll still get all the benefits it has to offer.

It may take a while before you’re fully comfortable with food play. Ease into it – there’s no rush. The idea is for everyone to be able to relax and enjoy their meal in a developmentally appropriate way.

If you’re looking for other sensory experiences hidden within your daily routine check out this post on sensory play in nature by My Nearest and Dearest.