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Children and Messy Eating

iStock_messy_eater_1_1.jpgIt goes with the territory that meals with many toddlers and young children are messy. Young children love to experiment with their food as its one of the ways they learn about the world. 


Dropping food, throwing food, squishing food, dribbling food, pouring your drink out is all learning…not to mention the reaction from Mum and Dad when you make a mess! It can be an incredibly frustrating time for parents particularly if the antics with food continue after your child has developed the physical motor skills they need in order to eat without mess. 


Tips to Help Manage Messy Eaters 


Expect there to be mess and be prepared

It takes practice to develop the fine motor skills required to eat without making a mess so acknowledge that it will take time for toddlers and young children to master the skill of eating. There will be times when your child is NOT deliberately being messy …and times when they are! Either way, by accepting that mess is inevitable…. you'll find it much less stressful and much easier to manage.


Yum Yum Tip


  • Plan for mess by putting a easy clean floor mat under the table/highchair and by using a funky placemat. These products wipe down with ease making clean up much more fun.
  • Present the foods in easy-to-eat ways (finger food), and give your child the option of eating with their hands…it will increase the success rate of actually getting it in their mouth.
  • Try using our suction baby bowls for toddlers, made of non-breakable material and with suction bases can help prevent food being tipped off easily.


Set expectations

Evidence suggests that children can generally grasp what constitutes good table manners by the time they are about 5 years old….unfortunately however this doesn’t necessary mean they will behave how you would like them to, all the time. Establishing and consistently reinforcing acceptable behaviour in relation to food and mealtimes is important right from the word go. Good table manners will allow you to go out to eat as a family and help to take the stress out of mealtimes – it takes time and effort but its well worth it in the long run.


Every parent and family will have slightly different expectations when it comes to what is acceptable. Below are our views and some tips to help -


Sit down to eat

Toddlers and young children are curious and energetic, which makes it difficult for them to sit down while eating. Eating on the run has many downsides – its antisocial, even messier, as a parent you have no idea how much and what your child is consuming and most concerning…there are safety issues (choking).


Try the following to encourage your child to sit while eating:

  • You need to be consistent and persevere. You may sometimes feel like a broken record but you must keep reinforcing the house rules to get the desired behaviour.
  • Remember actions speak louder than words – you can’t expect your children to sit while eating if they see you consistently eating on the run.
  • Tables and chairs specially made for the little ones. Appropriately sized furniture will mean it’s comfortable for your child to sit and to invite you to sit with them. It will give your children a sense of ownership and involvement.
  • Eat as a family…sit at the same table and include the young members of your family in the mealtime discussions. Try the Kaboost portable chair booster – that way your child will genuinely be part of the action.
  • Limit distractions (such as TV) and show your child the most fun is at the table…so they will be motivated to stay there to eat.
  • Get creative – think of fun meals that stimulate your child’s imagination and which children can prepare themselves. 
  • Presentation can also make a difference – think about using a plate that appeals to your little one....this will keep them interested and keep them sitting. For more ideas see the fun food guide.


Try to avoid meals turning into a battle! If your child knows sitting at the table (or not sitting) provokes a reaction from you…it may be a motivator to gain attention. Ensure your child knows that their meal is over when they leave the table….and quietly and calmly remove it if they leave the table. For more information see How to Avoid Mealtime Battles.


Reinforce desired behaviour

It is important your child understands what good behaviour is so compliment them and let them know. Role modeling is very powerful and simple rewards can also help to reinforce good table manners and behaviours. Stickers or a trip to the zoo are some great motivators.


Try not to inadvertently reinforce the poor behaviour - if your child does play up (throws food or leaves the table) calmly say something like ‘food is for eating’ or ‘are you finished’ or ‘please sit down while your eating’. Make sure your child is aware of the consequences of poor behaviour and these are consistently applied (for instance food is removed once a child leaves the table).


It may be helpful to be aware of the stages of child development, so that you understand the messy behaviour and don’t have unrealistic expectations of your child.


Food wastage

Food antics that are typical for toddlers and young children such as messy and fussy eating, result in a huge amount of food been wasted. This is concerning for parents as food costs a lot (financially, environmentally and in terms of time) and wasted food means your child is not eating it!!


Below are some of our ideas to help reduce anxiety around wasted food:

  • Spend less time preparing or cooking for your toddler or young children. Cook something fast and easy, or something they can help you with. The other really good option is to offer your young children the same meal as the rest of the family – it may need to be cut into smaller pieces or mashed…or served before all the herbs and spices are added.
  • Serve small portions – remember young children’s stomachs are smaller and you can always offer more of something if it is all eaten.
  • Think of meals that your child can prepare themselves – an antipasto style meal for the whole family will give your children options and independence to create their own meal.


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