Growing up, most of us heard it at the dinner table: "Stop playing with your food!"
Maybe it was when you were tossing a grape up to catch it your mouth or while your brother was pretending he was a walrus with two pretzel sticks tucked into his upper lip. Either way, dinner rules were not unfamiliar.
I'm not here to tell you that mealtimes should be a free-for-all. It is widely-understood that structure and routine is helpful for children--and table manners are important! However, it is suggested to make time for food play, especially for picky eaters. The same way play is used to learn about academic concepts, food play contributes to learning about foods.
What is food play?
Just what it sounds like! Food play includes a variety of activities that involve exploring food without any pressure to eat it. In other words, we want to make food fun, instead of mealtimes leading to a power struggle or temper tantrum. Examples may include food crafts or art, sensory exploration (such as touching, licking, smelling, etc.), food games (such using food items as board game pieces), or messy play with food ingredients (such as making play-doh using pantry items).
Why is food play important?
Food play allows for exploration and interaction with foods that children may not normally eat. By seeing, touching, and smelling new or non-preferred foods, kids are become gradually more comfortable with them. After all, if you can't stand the smell of a food or you never even see a food, how will you ever be able to eat it?
More importantly, food play encourages this comfort building by taking the pressure out of eating. It provides fun opportunities to build positive experiences with food, whereas eating food may be stressful or upsetting for a variety of reasons. Children may respond negatively to eating due to sensory overresponsivity, gastrointestinal issues, oral motor challenges, previous oral or medical trauma, anxiety, or a whole host of other barriers. In turn, the child's stress likely contributes to parental or caregiver stress as it becomes difficult to adequately feed the child and make sure he or she stays healthy. All of this accumulating stress takes the fun out of food. By building playfulness into a routine, food can become fun once again.
When is food play appropriate?
In order to avoid confusion, it is best to schedule time for food play, apart from mealtimes. Using a visual or verbal schedule, let your child know when and how much time is allotted for food play. It may be for just 5 minutes prior to mealtime or it may be an activity completely separate from a meal. The importance of designating food play time vs. eating time helps maintain table rules when food play is not so appropriate, such as in restaurants or during large family gatherings.
How can food play be a part of your family's routine?
If this article resonates with you, reach out to our team of specialized feeding therapists. Feeding therapy provides families of picky, anxious, or hesitant eaters with hands-on coaching, a wide variety of activity ideas, and routine management to incorporate food play into your day.
A few food play ideas: