Children go through developmental stages as they learn to feed themselves. First they learn to eat solids by taking food from a spoon or picking up food with their hands. Then they move on to feeding themselves with spoons, forks and cups.
It takes a lot of time, practice and muscle coordination for children to learn to get food into their mouths without making a mess, so you can expect a few spills along the way!
Young children love to experiment and play with their food, even after they’ve developed the motor skills they need to eat without mess.
In fact, playing with food is one of the ways children develop their fine motor skills. And playing with unfamiliar foods can help children become more open to tasting these new foods.
Exploring the shape, colour and texture of food also helps children learn about their world.
Most young children squish food in their hands, throw food and bowls onto the floor, deliberately dribble with their mouths full, or refuse to eat.
Here are some ideas to help you cut down on mealtime mess – and make it less stressful:
Cut food into strips or fingers, and let your child use his hands rather than a spoon or fork. In the early days of learning to eat, your child will find this way of eating easier to manage.
Praise your child’s efforts when she eats something without making a big mess. It’s best to tell your child exactly what she did well – for example, ‘Emily, I love the way you put that banana straight into your mouth’.
Involve your child in setting the table, if he’s old enough. If your child has helped to set up the meal, he might be less inclined to mess it up.
Sit together and share mealtimes as a family. This lets you lead by example and show your child how to eat and behave at the table. But remember that it can take time for your child to learn these skills.
Stay calm and patient with your child’s mess. This will help you and your child to enjoy mealtimes more.
You’ll find messes easier to clean up if you put some plastic or newspaper around your child as she eats. You can also try using a feeding smock or bib to keep clothes clean, and leaving bath time or a change of clothes until after meals.