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Playing with food: It’s more than just a mess.

Posted by on Jul 9, 2012 in Blog Posts | 1 comment

This creation was made from left-over pan fried mashed potatoes and a soy bean (edamame). My daughter M hasn’t “played” with her food in ages, so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. We were all lingering and chatting over dinner.  At 6, she seemed a little old for this kind of playing with food…  (I know how lucky we are that we can throw away food that isn’t eaten. See posts on food waste…) I snapped a pic because it got me thinking about playing with food.

It’s okay, no, it’s even developmentally appropriate to play with food. Think back to the older infant learning to feed herself: she mushes, squishes, paints, licks, and squeezes food through her fingers. She is learning about food—how it feels, looks, smells, reacts to her manipulations, how it might react when she puts it in her mouth.

Many adopted children did not have the opportunity to explore or taste a variety of textures over the years, or have a chance to play with and explore food. (Not infrequently, I am also seeing older infants who are not allowed to play with food because of the mess and clean-up. This is another drawback of the squeezie pouches. They may be nice and mess-free for the parents, but do they allow for the same exploration of food?)

Playing with food is about so much more than making a mess. It allows for sensory stimulation, getting used to food, and is a big part of learning to like new foods.  The following two stories also show how play is a sign of healing in the relationship children have with food.  (Both of these girls and their stories appear in my upcoming book Love Me, Feed Me):

—At almost two years old, Adina had spent the first several months of her life in an orphanage where feeding is almost guaranteed to be suboptimal. Adina  arrived in the U.S and her parents were advised to limit her portions to control her weight, with the predictable consequence of a severe food obsession.

As her mother transitioned the family to the Trust Model, Adina began to trust that she would be get enough food so her anxiety decreased, and she spontaneously began to play with her food! Instead of gobbling rapidly, she would chew her toast into a fish shape and make it “swim” around her plate. She pretended to feed her doll. She held food, squished it, explored it. This was progress! Adina’s increased ease and comfort at the table allowed her the freedom to explore and enjoy her food, not just shovel it in. Her frantic anxiety related to her history of malnutrition and then restriction was lessening dramatically.

—Another mother of a four year-old adopted from China was frustrated that her daughter wanted to play with her food.
“I won’t let my biological children play with their food. Is this OK?” For this selective eater who was having trouble gaining weight, playing with her food was more than okay, it was a sign that she was becoming curious and comfortable around food. Once the battles at the table, the crying, vomiting and anxiety calmed down, she started to play with her food. She hadn’t had the chance before, and there had been such pressure on her eating that she hadn’t wanted to play with her food. To her, food had meant stress. Not anymore!  So, while her siblings weren’t allowed to play with their food in the same way, it helped to remind Mom that her biological children had their chance to play with and explore food—they were just much younger. Her biological kids could also join in a little, as Mom felt was appropriate. Chances are, they wouldn’t really want to.

In both these cases, the play with food was a positive thing. The play showed that the girls felt more secure, and allowed them to explore food.  Maybe after they squish it a few times, they might smell it, or lick a finger, and soon, they will be eating a greater variety of foods.

Trust your instincts. If they are getting out of control with play, if they cross the line to say, smearing it on the wall, or the dog to make you angry or to be destructive, you will know the difference.

  • Play is part of learning to like new foods.
  • It doesn’t have to be forced or structured. For both of these families, the play happened spontaneously when the girls felt safe and supported around food. (Families tell me of trying to get a child to paint with a Popsicle or finger-paint with pudding which just started more fights…)
  • Pressuring a child to play with food to speed the process along may backfire.
  • Older children who did not have the opportunity to play should have that chance.
  • Expect a mess! It’s part of the deal.
  • Have a wet washcloth nearby if your child doesn’t like messy fingers. Teach her to wipe her hands herself.

So, I don’t want there to be sculpting sessions every time the mashed potatoes come out, and rarely does it get to this degree, because M was lucky enough to play with her food as an older infant and toddler. Mostly now, the fun for her is being part of the family meal, telling stories and enjoying good food and good company.

What are your experiences with food and play? Did your adopted or foster child learn to play with food? Did one of your biological children revel in the mess, while the other preferred to stay clean?

 

 

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One Comment

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  1. Twistie

    Heck, I still play with my food sometimes! Not all the time, of course, or in a wasteful or destructive way. I am, after all, a (semi) responsible adult. But every now and again the goldfish crackers will ‘swim’ into my mouth. I’m a firm believer in the concept that food should be fun whenever possible.

    Also I applaud M’s artistic efforts. The edamame is particularly inspired. And you’re right. As long is it’s not destructive or designed to avoid food, it’s not a bad thing for a six year old to make the occasional mashed potato sculpture while talking with her parents. Much as I love mashed potatoes, there are still times when I consider them more suited to exploring my artistic side than to sating my hunger at a particular meal.