Did you realise that we use all of our senses when we eat?
Taste is such a small part of it. Take for example, eating an apple. We use our eyes to choose the apple that appeals to us from the fruit bowl. We hold it in our hand and feel the smooth texture of the skin. As we take a bite, we hear the crunching sound it makes, feel its crispness against our teeth, and taste the sweet juice of the fruit, the smell of which also reaches our nose. We’re also sensing its temperature, and it may even make us think of eating apples as a child.
Of course after years of eating, we don’t actively register all of these sensory inputs, particularly if we mindlessly eat. You know, eating at our desk or in front of the TV.
For children, however, everything is new to them and they are much more in tune with all of their senses. They are only just starting to learn about their little worlds, and are constantly bombarded with new experiences and sensory information. Can you imagine how even the simple act of eating can get terribly overwhelming for them at times?
Think about meal times with your child. We’re offering them foods with different and most likely completely new flavours, textures, smells, and temperatures. Then, perhaps we’re using the spoon to wipe around their mouths between mouthfuls, or we don’t allow them to put their hands in the bowl when they reach for it, or we look anxious when food spills onto their clothes and the floor. We might then look frustrated when they refuse to eat what we’re feeding them.
We really need to see it all from their little eyes.
It’s an incredible amount of information for them to take in. If we add any kind of stress or fuss to an already overwhelming experience, we’re not helping them to make it a positive one. They will probably go into fight or flight mode, and flat out refuse to eat. The more sensations they get exposed to and become comfortable with, the more open they will be to trying new foods.
So, what can we do to help make eating a fun and calm experience for our children?
- Embrace the mess. Stay calm throughout the meal and allow them to play with their food. I know it goes against what we were told as kids, but playing is a child’s way of being little scientists. They need to experiment and explore in their own time, so there’s no need to rush it. You can swear as you scrub the nooks and crannies of the highchair once they’re busy doing something else. Only wipe their face and hands when they’ve finished. Telling them you’re about to do so helps, too. Most kids don’t like getting their faces wiped but it’s because they often don’t get any warning, and it’s again another sensation for them to deal with. A soft, damp washcloth is all you need rather than wipes that may sting a sensitive face.
- Acknowledge that children are going to resist new foods because you now know that it’s a multi-sensory experience for them. There’s so much going on for them. The sensation of it in their mouths, then of it going down their throats, and the way it makes their little tummies feel as it fills. Take it slow, if they refuse a food, that’s fine – it can take up to 20 exposures to a new food before they even take a bite.
- Keep exposing them to a variety of food, though. Just because they love pasta or toast, don’t think you have to only offer that because they’re guaranteed to eat it. Keep offering them a rainbow of food every day, and make sure you’re eating it with them so that you’re modelling a positive attitude towards meal times.
- Does your little one get upset when their hands are dirty? Reassure them that it’s ok to get messy, and try to refrain from cleaning them the minute they get something on their hands. When you go out, encourage your child to get dirty. It’s not only good for building their immunity but it’s a great way to expose them to new sensations. Take their shoes off and let them feel the grass or sand between their toes. Let them pick up leaves and stones. If you have a baby that puts everything in their mouths, don’t worry, this is how they explore their world. Have fun (but keep choking hazards away) with your little explorer, even if it grosses you out a bit.Image source: Little Foodie Guide
What else can we do at home to get them comfortable with new sensations?
Sensory and messy play is an important and fun activity you can do with your child at any age. I’ve put together a little list of things you can do with your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler. They’re really simple activities and you can find all of the necessary ingredients in your kitchen. Playing with food might be viewed as unethical and wasteful when there are starving children, as well as families who struggle to pay for food. Don’t worry, I want to ease your conscience – I agree with that, so these activities I’ve included here use leftovers, expired dry goods, and are cheaper (and not to mention, more convenient) than buying art supplies. The best part about using food for play is that it’s biodegradable, can be composted, and in some cases reused many times.
I’ve been very lucky to have the help of two fabulous people whose Instagram accounts are filled with amazing inspirational sensory and messy play ideas. They have provided most of the images here. Molly from @thekids_place is a mum of three gorgeous little ones, and she showcases some extraordinary activities and play ideas for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and beyond. Sarah from @sarah_melbourne is a super nanny who provides her little charges with outstanding activities every day and she captures these moments in beautiful, colourful images. Please go and check out both of their lovely accounts, give them a follow, and get some regular inspiration in your feed. It’s definitely where I get a lot of my ideas!
Let’s get started with some sensory and messy play
Homemade finger paint
Molly from The Kids Place says, “Simply use two Tbsp of flour and stir in about two Tbsp of water (to desired consistency) to each cup. Then, mix in a few drops of food coloring, and add a touch of olive oil to each for added shine. These paints couldn’t be easier, and your little ones will love helping make them beforehand!”
Use plain white or colored rice (using food dye) in a large storage bin or tray, and add utensils, toys, containers, whatever you can find.
Just fill a tub with flour, and add toys or other fun pouring and measuring cups. I used flour that had expired but was perfectly fine for playing with. We keep it in a container and use it again and again.
Molly from The Kids Place says, “This ‘dirt’ is just flour mixed with cocoa powder + olive oil. This is just a basic cloud dough recipe, with cocoa powder to give it a dirt-like appearance. Pour the dirt into a large storage bin and place an old tablecloth or sheet underneath to contain the mess. If you’ve never made cloud dough before, it can be formed and shaped by your little ones, and then will crumble apart when dropped back into the bin. Your littles will love the silky texture”
How gorgeous are these flour-covered little legs!
Molly from The Kids Place says, “Gelatin Sensory Play • A bit of plain gelatin powder and water (plus a couple optional drops of watercolor or food coloring) makes for some ooey gooey fun – this natural, homemade “hair gel” alternative was so much fun to use as an ocean for our sea creatures”
Playing with seeds and dried beans
Use seeds, dried beans, and pasta to play in (for children who are past putting everything in their mouths, but please supervise). They could make collages or mosaics as seen here, or simply fill a big tub with them to run their little hands through with the addition of containers, cups, funnels etc.
You could freeze items in water for the bigger kids to excavate, or simply fill a tub with water and ice cubes, and let them play in it. You could even add a few drops of food colouring for fun.
Water play is fun in any weather, just make sure you have plenty of towels handy. You could add a little soap and let them wash their toys…or even the dishes.
You can find countless lovely recipes online for play dough, but make sure you head to Molly’s Instagram account for beautiful sounding recipes, including pumpkin pie dough, and cinnamon dough.
Goop is just flour, water, and little food colouring. Kids love to get their fingers into it!
Fruit and vegetable play
This one is a no-brainer. Next time you go grocery shopping, spread a tablecloth across the floor and lay all out all of the fruit and veggies for your little ones to touch, explore, lick, and possibly nibble on.
What other ideas do you have for letting your kids get messy? Please comment below. If you’d love more ideas like this, please sign up to receive them via email. I promise it’s a spam-free zone! Kara x