Why You Should Let Your Picky Eater Make a Great Big Mess


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Parents of picky eaters know how challenging it can be to get finicky little ones to try new foods or even just consume three decent meals per day. For many kids, aversions to textures and even colors can be enough to send those plates careening from the table to the floor in seconds flat. But what if we told you that embracing the mess can actually help you convince your little one that new, strange foods can be fun -- and delicious?!

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We spoke with Dyan Hes, MD, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City and a director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, about the fascinating connection between messy play and getting kids to feel comfortable sampling new foods. 

"We really want kids to get in there with their hands," the pediatric nutrition and obesity specialist told CafeMom. "We find that a lot of kids who have eating issues and feeding issues are very afraid to get messy. They're very afraid of different colors and textures and don't want their hands in something that's slimy or sticky."

So, as parents, what can we do to help children get more comfortable? For starters, watch your language -- and behavior. 

"It's really important that you don't give your child mixed cues," the pediatrician noted. "Don't confuse them by saying, 'Oh, eat your spinach!' But then you don't want them to get dirty."

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Dr. Hes said children are very attuned to perceiving parental anxiety around dirt. For example, if you say, "Eat that, but don't get any crumbs on the floor!" and then make a face, the child internalizes all of that. 

"We really want to make feeding and messy playtime very relaxing and non-stressful. If you put your hand in it [food] and put your hand in your mouth, that's fine. If it drops on the floor, that's fine," she advised, and joked that you can always grab the vacuum or the broom after mealtime.

Good first foods to let children "play" with include mashed bananas and avocados, while applesauce can serve as a delicious form of finger paint.

More from CafeMom: 15 Lies Parents Tell to Convince Kids to Eat Food

Allowing children to experience those tactile sensations can be the first step in getting them comfortable and interested in new foods. Dr. Hes explains that many preschools offer sensory tables where kids can play with dried, uncooked rice and beans. Water tables also offer a chance to explore different sensory experiences. 

"I really think that using both hands and getting in there is great and helps develop fine motor skills and it even leads into learning how to hold scissors, grasp a pencil, or hold a spoon," she said.

More from CafeMom: 11 Easy Breakfasts Your Kids Can Make So You Don't Have To 

Again, parents can serve as good role models for kids by keeping their food aversions and anxieties to themselves, Dr. Hes suggested. In her practice, she advises some parents to make a plate of scrambled eggs and allow children to play with the food. But if the parent says something like "Oh, I hate eggs," you can't wonder why the child will only eat three things. 

If you have a very resistant eater, start small, the doctor said, and little by little your fussy non-foodie may come around. Start by giving the child a spoon or straw to play with the food and then put a bit on his or her hands and allow him or her to see that there's no terrible outcome involved with getting messy. 

"It's okay if they don't want to get really messy but you don't want to feed into that aversion," Dr. Hes said, "because that's when kids get really restrictive food patterns or they don't like this because it's squishy or it's wet."

If you're a parent who hates mess, the doctor suggested putting down a garbage bag on the floor to catch those potential spills. And, remember, clothing can go in the washer and dryer later, after your child has sampled and enjoyed some new flavors. 

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