Allowing children to be messy at mealtimes can send a shiver through even the most relaxed mums and dads. However, time and time again, research shows that allowing children to explore their food using all of their senses is likely to encourage children to be less fussy and more open to trying new foods as they grow up. Paying too much attention to table manners at an early age, with constant nagging at the table is also felt to be counter-productive, often encouraging children to feel less enthusiastic and excited about mealtimes. Having a fairly relaxed approach to mealtimes and giving little ones opportunities to interact with their food has always been important here at Messy-Me.
I certainly allowed Florence (baby no. 3 and the inspiration for Messy Me) more opportunities to explore her food – more for practical reasons than anything else. It was easier to strap her into her high chair, plonk a plate of food on the tray and let her get on with it, whilst I ran around after the other two. I was always in the room, keeping an eye on her to check she wasn’t choking, but she was certainly allowed more free rein with her food and is now, by far, my most adventurous eater. However, when I came to clearing up afterwards, there were many times when I seriously regretted leaving her alone with her food…
Lucy Thomas, founder of Mange Tout, a company providing classes which encourage children to experiment with fruit and vegetables in a fun environment, believes in the importance of allowing children to explore the sensory side of food – not just how it tastes. I went to a few of her classes with Gabby (very fussy no. 2). In the classes we sang songs about vegetables and really played with the food – using it as lipstick, squashing it between our fingers, snapping bits in half. It was done in a very fun and relaxed way, so the children felt under no pressure to do anything they didn’t want to do. The children loved it and pretty much always surprised their parents with their attitude and interaction with the fruit and vegetables.
It all sounds great in principle, but in reality how many of us have the time or energy to let our children play with their food at all mealtimes, creating a mountain of mess for a busy mum or dad to clear up afterwards?! Very few…
Here are a few tips to help let your children get messy with food, without losing your sanity:
- Plan certain mealtimes as being the ones when you are happy to let things go a little. I often chose tea time – not long until bath and bed time and if they got seriously messy, we could just go straight up for an early bath
- Make sure you’re feeling quite chilled out and relaxed – if you’re stressed at the start, watching them making a complete mess of themselves and the kitchen is not going to help your stress levels.
- Protect your kitchen. If you’re worried about your table or floor, invest in a good quality tablecloth or floor mat to help manage the mess. Our range of splashmats and oilcloth by the metre is hard wearing, looks lovely and most importantly, wipes clean quickly and easily.
- Make sure your little one isn’t wearing a favourite outfit. As the weather improves, they could even be stripped to their nappy for messy mealtimes. Our tunic bibs provide a good way of covering up clothes whilst allowing children freedom to move around.
- Join in! Your little one is likely to love watching you having fun too, and somehow the mess doesn’t seem so bad if you’re having fun together (maybe??!)
- As the weather gets warmer, letting them eat outside works well – either in the garden or picnics in the park (with a good supply of wet wipes!). Our splashmats work really well as picnic mats – they are compact when folded up so can fit easily under a buggy and are really easy to wipe clean after use.
- Get a dog! When my 2 year old niece came round over half term, our dog Oscar sat patiently beside her high chair throughout lunch, quietly hoovering up the discarded bits which frequently came his way. One happy dog, one happy aunt!!
The other thing to remember is that messy mealtimes are just a phase, like so many other parts of childhood. As your child learns more control, the mess becomes less frequent and table manners can be introduced in a relaxed way. Taking a deep breath and allowing a bit of mess – at times when it works for you – will hopefully lead to happy, relaxed, well-mannered children who enjoy mealtimes and are willing to try a variety of different foods. Good luck!