The One Time It's OK to Let Picky Eaters Play With Their Food

let kids be messy with their food
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The stress that comes with having a child who is a picky eater can be emotionally draining. What starts out as mild annoyance quickly turns into genuine worry as you begin to fear that your child is becoming both underweight and undernourished. With countless tips out there dedicated to helping parents deal with their picky eaters, some experts now say that the best approach actually requires a lot less effort. 

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NICE -- the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the United Kingdom -- is a leading source of pertinent information for general practitioners and other health service workers. In one of their most recent guideline updates, they have advised parents of picky eaters and underweight children to ease up on the "no playing at mealtime" rules and allow children the freedom to be "messy" with their food.

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While it may be annoying for grownups who have to deal with -- and clean up after -- their playfully messy kids, according to experts with the organization, letting kids play around with their food can actually aid in promoting regular, healthy eating habits. 

"Having a child with faltering growth can be distressing for parents and carers," said Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social care at NICE. "However, simple things such as encouraging relaxed and enjoyable feeding and mealtimes, eating together as a family or even allowing young children to be 'messy' with their food can help encourage them to eat."

Implementing other strategies, like serving creatively shaped food and encouraging little "eating competitions" among your kids can, of course, still be a fantastic way to help ease your child out of their picky eating habits. But NICE says that actively eating together as a family and creating an enjoyable, no-pressure environment helps just as much. 

While some children are prone to eating disorders like ARFID -- avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder -- pediatricians stress that picky eating in children is, most often, just a normal phase that they naturally grow out of as time passes.

"Picky eating is very common," consulting pediatrician, Dr. Lee Hudson told Huffington Post UK. "The important thing for parents is not to panic, as most children who are picky will either be going through a phase, and will still have enough food to grow and develop properly."

More from CafeMom: How My Daughter's 'Picky Eating' Was Finally Diagnosed As an Eating Disorder

We know how exhausting it can be to deal with kids who are picky eaters; we also know how difficult it is to see the physical effects of their bad habits manifest in troubling ways. No one is suggesting that a little parental guidance isn't necessary for helping your kids grow out of those habits. But giving your kids more freedom at the dinner table may make things a lot easier for the both of you. 

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