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The Benefits of Messy Food Play

Updated: May 28

As parents, we often cringe at the sight of our little ones diving headfirst into their food (literally!) with reckless abandon, spreading mashed potatoes across the table, or gleefully squishing their peas between their fingers. We strive for cleanliness and order in our homes - which makes sense! But before you reach for another pack of Water Wipes, consider this: embracing the messiness of food play can actually be beneficial for your child's development!

Messy food play is more than just a fun activity—it's a valuable learning experience that can stimulate your child's senses, promote fine motor skills, encourage healthy eating habits, and foster creativity and imagination.

1. Sensory Exploration:

One of the most significant benefits of messy food play is its ability to engage all of your child's senses. From the squishiness of raspberries to the crunchiness of crackers, each food offers a unique sensory experience that can help your children develop their sensory processing skills. By allowing a child to touch, smell, taste, and even listen to different foods, messy food play encourages sensory exploration and can contribute to your child's overall sensory development.

2. Fine Motor Skill Development:

Messy food play provides an excellent opportunity for your child to practice and refine their fine motor skills. Whether they're using a spoon to scoop up yogurt, picking up small pieces of fruit with their fingers, or spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread, these activities help strengthen the muscles in their hands and fingers, improve hand-eye coordination, and enhance dexterity. These skills are crucial for tasks like writing, drawing, and tying shoelaces later in life.

3. Healthy Eating Habits:

Engaging in messy food play can also help promote a healthy relationship with food. By allowing children to interact with a variety of foods in a playful and non-threatening environment, you can help reduce anxiety around new foods and encourage a positive attitude towards eating. Children who are actively involved in the preparation and exploration of food are more likely to be open to trying new flavors and textures, often leading to a more varied and nutritious diet in the long run.

4. Creativity and Imagination:

Messy food play turns a high-chair tray into a blank canvas for your child's creativity and imagination. From building elaborate food sculptures to creating colorful patterns with pureed fruits and vegetables, the possibilities are endless. Encouraging your child to experiment with food in a playful way can make mealtimes more enjoyable for the whole family.

5. Emotional and Cognitive Development:

In addition to its physical benefits, messy food play can also have positive effects on your child's emotional and cognitive development. It allows them to assert their independence, make choices, and gain a sense of control over their environment. Additionally, overcoming the fear of getting messy and exploring new foods fosters resilience and a willingness to try other new experiences, both inside and outside the kitchen, which are valuable life skills.

Tips for Embracing Messy Food Play:

  1. Create a designated messy food play area with easy-to-clean surfaces, such as a plastic tablecloth or "splat mat" under the high chair.

  2. Offer a variety of foods with different textures, colors, and tastes to stimulate your child's senses and encourage exploration.

  3. Encourage your child to use their hands and experiment with different ways of interacting with food, such as squishing, squeezing, and molding.

  4. Join in the fun! Engage with your child during messy food play, ask open-ended questions, and let your imagination run wild together.

If you're interested in learning more about feeding therapy at the Boston Ability Center, call 781-239-0100 or email

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