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Early years expert shares why letting babies and toddlers play with their food is a good idea

A nursery operations manager gives top tips on how making mealtimes fun can help little ones develop important skills.

Imagine the scene...your baby is screaming with all their might, you're exhausted after a restless night and now there's macaroni cheese all over the carpet.

But don’t despair, even if they’d rather throw food around than eat it. Instead, try letting them play with their food. Yes, really.

Kids learn through play, so if you let them explore the textures of food – with no pressure to eat it – they’ll view it much more positively.

Lisa Nichols, Operations Manager at Monkey Puzzle Day Nurseries, wants to let parents know that food-based sensory play is actually something to encourage.

A study of preschoolers in the UK found that playing with real fruits and vegetables made them more likely to try them.

Believe it or not, mealtimes can be more fun and less daily battle. They can help your little ones become familiar with foods, trying new dishes and gaining a basic understanding of healthy eating.

How to make mealtimes fun for your kids

With over 15 years as nursery manager under her belt, Lisa has helped thousands of kids take their first mealtime steps. Here she shares her top tips.

Getting messy is a good thing!

Being tactile with food helps your child to build fine motor skills and adapt their senses to new feelings, colours and smells – and you don’t need to worry if they put food in their mouth!

Try to resist the urge to wipe their chin or hands until after exploration time is over – give them the opportunity to learn. Table manners are important, but can come after your little one has opened up to the world of food.

Let them serve themselves

Encouraging toddlers and preschoolers to serve themselves at mealtimes helps them to enjoy some independence.

Why not create a serving station/buffet-style set-up at home? You can let the kids handle the food without the pressure or expectation to eat it all, gently familiarising them with different dishes and encouraging them to discover their own favourite flavours.

Try to make mealtimes sociable

If you sit and eat at the same time as your kids, you’ll find them naturally curious about your food. Ideally, they’ll eat the same nutritious meals as you, but even if they don’t, they’ll become familiar with the foods you eat – and table manners. Just by sitting at the table until you’ve finished, you’ll show them that they shouldn’t wander off mid-meal.

Of course, there’s no way parents can always dedicate time to leisurely family meals. Sometimes it’s a case of feeding them quickly before they get too hangry or before you head out for the day.

But when you can, making mealtimes fun (and relaxed) will improve your kids’ relationship with food – whether they’re eating it or throwing it about.