What to Know About Food Play

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 18, 2023
5 min read

Everyone uses their senses to understand the world around them. This is especially true for children who, after birth, rely solely on their senses for knowledge about the world and everything in it. However, some children struggle with using their senses, whether it’s due to hypersensitivity, an exaggerated response to stimuli, or hyposensitivity, a decreased sensitivity to sensory input. This is especially true for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other such neurological issues. 

When the senses are affected, the condition is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD). Sensory activities like food play can help these children develop better sensory processing skills.

Food play and other sensory activities help children learn through hands-on approaches. They’re used as a form of therapy for children with sensory processing disorders. They also help any child develop language and motor skills by engaging their senses.  

Sensory play can be used as an umbrella term to encompass different types of activities, of which food play is just one. Many parents may think that playing with food is bad behavior, but it can help children develop their senses in many ways.

Rather than scolding your child for playing with their food, it may be a good idea to encourage them to do so in a controlled environment. It can help them develop and improve their senses of touch, smell, and taste.

Food play is a type of sensory play activity that can help your child learn about different food textures, smells, and tastes. It helps children with sensory disorders or picky eating habits explore various food options and more easily engage in healthy eating habits. 

Food sensory play activities don’t have to include squishing or smashing food — they can also include activities such as preparing and eating food. Whether it’s through food prep, play, or simply trying new food types, children can gain beneficial experience that allows them to become familiar with new foods.

You and your child can engage in many food play activities when exploring different foods. Some options include tasting, squishing, and smearing various food items to learn about their texture and taste.

Food play activities are more useful for young children, such as infants and toddlers, who have yet to develop fine motor skills. They are more inclined to use their hands and fingers to eat, which allows them to experience new sensations as they explore foods. When infants and toddlers are introduced to a new food, they usually start to play with it. You may see your infant or toddler squish their food, push it around, lick it, smell it, and taste it. 

As infants and toddlers grow into preschoolers, playing with food is often discouraged for social and cultural reasons. However, preschoolers often get the same benefits from playing with their food as their younger counterparts. Preschoolers who engage in food play also still enjoy food’s sensory properties. Whether you allow your child to play with their food or to help prepare a meal, simply engaging with different foods helps familiarize them with them and opens them up to trying new ones. 

You can guide your child to explore their senses through food in many ways. For example, you can use hard cereal and a plastic bin or container to make a kind of sandbox for your child. This could be especially fun in the wintertime when it’s too cold to play in the sandbox at the local park. Pour the cereal into the container and allow them to play. For even more fun, include a few of their favorite snacks inside and encourage them to find them.

Another activity that your child can do is draw with foods such as whipped cream, applesauce, or pudding. This is the perfect activity for your little one to experiment with both sensory and fine motor skills.

Older children shouldn’t be left out. Preschoolers are at the age when identifying and understanding sensory concepts becomes easier. They can distinguish between cooked and raw foods as well as different textures, smells, and tastes. However, due to the social and cultural expectations of proper mealtime etiquette, many parents wonder how they can promote healthy eating habits while balancing these expectations.

There are many ways that you can encourage your child to practice sensory learning techniques with food while keeping messes down. You can focus these food play techniques on each of the five senses: 

Sight. If age-appropriate, allow your child to help prepare and cook meals. If they’re too young to engage in preparing and cooking food, allow them to at least watch. As they help or watch, ask them to describe the foods they see. Encourage them to explain the foods’ colors, shapes, and sizes before and after they’re prepared or cooked. Ask them if the food looks different, and if so, how? 

Smell. Ask your child to smell the foods given to them. Encourage them to describe what the food smells like and explain if it smells similar to anything else they’ve sniffed before.

Sound. As your child is helping with or watching the food preparation process, ask them to describe the sounds they hear. Does the food crunch or squish? Additionally, you can ask them to describe the sounds they hear as they eat. Foods like carrot sticks, celery, or potato chips make crunchy noises when chewed, while other foods such as applesauce or yogurt make wet and squishy noises when eaten.

Taste. As your child licks or eats their food, ask them to describe the taste. Encourage them to go beyond whether something tastes good or bad. If your child is old enough to distinguish between sweet and sour tastes, ask them about these different tastes. You can also ask them to compare foods: does applesauce taste like apples? Does grapefruit taste like grapes?

Texture. Encourage your child to experiment with textures. Allow them to touch the food and alter it by mixing it or breaking it apart. Ask them to explain how the food feels in their hands. Some foods are hard, some are soft, and some are in between. Some have slimy textures while others don’t. Allow them to experiment with all sorts of food types and textures.

A fun activity you can engage in with your child once they have developed language skills is a blind taste test. Cover your child’s eyes and provide them with different foods to touch, smell, and taste. Ask them to explain what they’re experiencing and then encourage them to guess what the food is. 

No matter the activity you choose, it’s important that it’s never forced and keeps food fun. Forcing your child to do something they don’t want to do or to eat something they don’t like may discourage them. As a result, they may not want to participate in future activities. Forcing them may even cause future eating and feeding difficulties. Be patient with your child and let them take the lead.