Expert Opinion

How to manage messy mealtimes

Entering the world of solids tends to elicit a range of emotions in parents. The excitement of purees and finger foods, the heart-warming sense of nurturing your baby with something you’ve cooked yourself, the anxiety of choking, and of course, stress about the mess. How can one little baby cause so much mess? I think I’m still finding avocado in kitchen crevices and my daughter is nine years old.
When babies and toddlers self-feed, they naturally make a mess. Partly because they lack the coordination to neatly get food into their mouths, but also because they’re curious. In fact, exploring new sensory experiences with their hands helps them learn more about the world around them. So, when your little one is smearing banana across the high chair tray or sprinkling bolognese sauce on the table, they’re actually learning about the food (and their world) through the sensory experience this messy mealtime affords. By squeezing, smearing, sprinkling, and splatting different foods, your child is tolerating the feel, smell, sound, taste, and visual appearance of the food. If you want a child who can try new foods and eat a range of family meals, they need to be able to tolerate the sensory experience of foods – the taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell.

But how do we balance providing the opportunity for our child to immerse themselves in the sensory experience of mealtimes with the mess that this naturally creates? As a registered and trained feeding therapist and psychologist, here are my top tips:

  • Cognitively reframe. Rather than thinking “oh what a mess, this is going to take forever to clean up”, try “wow he’s really enjoying interacting with the pasta, this will make it easier for him to try new things in the future”. The situation won’t change (there will still be mess), but when you shift your attitude about it, you’ll naturally feel more positive.
  •  If you can’t tolerate mess for all mealtimes, pick one or two per day that you can manage messiness for. Babies and children tend to eat up to five times a day, providing a lot of opportunities for them to interact with food. Maybe one or two of those meals could be ‘messy’ meals.
  •  Think about varying the location of messy meals, could you move the highchair outside?
  • Try putting a mat underneath the highchair to collect some of the spills.
  • Create some boundaries around mealtimes in terms of what is and is not acceptable in your home. Is throwing the food okay? Is dropping food off the chair allowed? This will likely be different in all households, so there’s no hard and fast rule. Decide what the rules are in your household and try to be consistent with them.
  • Most importantly, because kids pick up on our emotions so easily, try to curb any anxiety you might be experiencing about the mess at mealtimes. Shifting your thinking about it and knowing that you’ve put some of the above strategies in place can certainly help you feel less anxious. However, it is important to seek professional help if you’re concerned about your management of mealtimes.

While the mess is a pain in the short term, the long-term gain of knowing you’ve provided opportunities to minimise feeding difficulties in the future is priceless. You might even find that mealtimes afford you the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with your baby or toddler – and that ‘connection time’ can outweigh the messy pain that follows!

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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