Messy mealtimes: Why they are important and how to cope!

kids messy face

Did you know that eating is one of the few activities in life that requires every one of our senses?  Eating requires smell, touch, taste, balance, sight, hearing and body awareness (coordination).  Eating a new food can be very overwhelming for both children and adults alike. Allowing your mealtimes to get a little messy can greatly help with this.

Messy mealtimes: Why they are important and how to cope!

Have you hosted overseas guests that you have thrust Vegemite at a la Tom Hanks in quarantine?  What steps did your guests do before gobbling down it down?  

This is the most common journey that we all take to trying a new food.  We usually:

  • look at the food
  • smell the food
  • touch the food with your finger tip 
  • a small taste with the tip of our tongue
  • with more exposures we might have more a of taste or a bigger bite (Tom Hanks went the thick spread with no butter!)

girl cracking egg

When your child (yes, at any age) is being introduced to new/different food this sensory food exploration is critical before expecting them to eat spoonfuls of your cooking. It is known to increase their acceptance of food. This is why messy eating is so important.  

There are even more researched benefits of messy eating.  Messy mealtimes can help children to develop:

  1. Independence/self-feeding skills;
  2. Promotes the development fine motor skills (e.g. finger skills such pinching) and
  3. Language development.  Research has linked messy eating in toddlers to better language development.  In the study, toddlers who were the messiest were better able to correctly name and identify foods.  

We know the clean up from messy eating can be exhausting.  Here are some tips to make it easier:

1 – Use a drop mat

Under the high chair place down material, tarp, table cloth to catch all the drips.  Something that you can shake outside and hose down is the easiest.

2 – Use coverall bib, scooped bib or no clothes at all

kid no clothes on eating

There are so many different bibs on the market and it’s about finding one that’s right for you.  If the weather is warm enough, taking your child’s clothes off is easy.  Scooped bibs are great for catching the food before it ends up on the floor or your baby’s legs and long sleeved bibs saves the food getting your baby’s clothes no matter how many times your roll up their sleeves.

3 – Use washcloths

Have a few washcloths on hand at the end of the meal.  Wiping during the meal can be really irritating for children so please leave it to the end.  If your child becomes upset while being wiped clean be sure to remove them from the highchair prior to wiping them at the end of the meal.  This way they don’t form a negative association with meals and wiping.   Washcloths are better than wipes for your baby’s skin and they are more environmentally friendly.

4 – Ensure a relaxed environment. Have a resting happy face and use positive language

Children pick up on your vibe.  Try to keep disgusted looks off your face even if you can’t stand the smell and mush of that banana everywhere.  Keep your language positive.  For example, rather than telling off ‘don’t throw your food’ say ‘we keep food on the table’.  

5 – Eat together

Playful ways to help picky eaters

Children learn by copying.  If they see how you are interacting with your food they are likely to do the same.  Babies will love seeing you squash or swirl food.  Older children will love to make trains, put pieces of food ‘to sleep’ like a baby or build a ‘cake’ out of leftovers and blow out the ‘candles’.


You don’t have to do messy mealtimes at every meal.  If you need to run out the door with a clean child, save the messy meal to another time.  This will be less stressful for you and your child!  If you realllly can’t handle any mess, start small or enlist another family member to help.  

Most importantly- have fun!  A happy mealtime is a successful mealtime!

learn to eat

Written by Rachel Smith- Learn to Eat. Love to Eat.

Learn to Eat. Love to Eat. provides real life, professional advice to help you and your child enjoy mealtimes.  We run a range of workshops about starting solids and fussy toddler eating now online.  To find out more go to  

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @learntoeat.lovetoeat for tips, articles and family meal ideas.

Be sure to check out our family friendly recipes that your little peeps will enjoy getting messy with!

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