Whenever I talk to parents about kids playing with their food, I’m always reminded of the dinner scene from the movie, The Christmas Story. The little brother Randy has created a towering masterpiece out of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, much to the dismay and criticism of his parents. “Starving people would be happy to have that!” “Stop playing with your food!” While I don’t encourage kids to create a city out of their mashed potatoes, a little mealtime play is actually a good thing and can encourage picky eaters to try new foods.

Young children learn by using all of their senses. Their sense of touch, sight, and smell can be valuable learning tools to experience a new food before a child will feel comfortable enough to use his or her sense of taste. Instead of discouraging it, try to encourage food play in a helpful and structured way. This can be a great way to make foods less scary to picky eaters.

  1. Ask your kids to pick up their food and look at it really closely. What does it look like? Does the color resemble anything else they’ve seen? What do they see? Let them be creative! This is the first step to helping your picky eaters accept new food. 
  2. Ask your kids, what does it feel like in your hand? Is it soft? Is it hard? What shape does it resemble?
  3. Ask your kids to smell their food. What does it smell like?
  4. After this sensory play, encourage your kids to see what it feels like in their mouth. What does it feel like? What does it taste like?

The more interactions that children have with food, the more likely they will be to try it. This is especially true for kids who tend to resist new foods more than others. Next time you see your kids “playing” with their food, remind yourself that they are learning with their senses and try to give them a little more creative freedom. In the long run, you’ll empower your picky eaters to want to try new things on their own.

Mary Wissmann

Mary Wissmann is our weight management and family nutrition guru. As a Registered Dietitian for over 11 years, she has worked with individual clients, conducted research, taught community nutrition and health programs, and led many community health initiatives. She spent 7 years as a university faculty member, which provided her with extensive experience reading and interpreting the latest nutrition and health research. If you are interested in working with Mary, please visit our contact page.