I have a two year old. This means that a lot of my time is spent picking food up from every visible surface (and some less visible ones... it's amazing what the underside of a booster-seat can harbour). Sometimes this is frustrating, sometimes it's plain disgusting. It is, however, essential. Here are three reasons why messy mealtimes are so important:
1.If you are feeling stressed and worried about mess, your child will pick up these feelings
So much of picky eating is about emotions. I have written elsewhere about how children are little emotional sponges, subconsicously sensing all the feelings around them, even if they cannot always understand or interpret them. If you are anxious about your child making a mess, she will feel anxious too. This will without doubt negatively affect her eating.
2. If you make a big effort to avoid messy mealtimes, your child will learn that food can be threatening
Many fussy eaters are especially sensitive to textures and other sensory experiences. If you are constantly on hand with a wet-wipe, they will learn that they are right to be cautious - that certain textures are to be avoided and are maybe even scary.
3. Every time you tell a baby or toddler not to play with her food , every time you tell her not to make a mess or clean her up mid-meal, you have lost an opportunity to help her learn to tolerate different textures
Children explore and experience the world in such a physical way - perhaps your child hasn't seen a certain food before. She might pick it up, smear it around a bit, smell it... this is all positive. Every interaction a child has with an unfamiliar food gets them one step closer to accepting it.
So how should we react to the inevitable mess at mealtimes?
Well, if your child is picky, make an extra effort to let them get their hands dirty, so to speak. If they are playing with their food and not eating it, after a little while you can safely assume that they are not hungry, and calmly take it away. Give them plenty of opportunities for messy play away from the table - let them play with cornflour and a little water (super gloopy), let them play with jelly. Do a little baking together and let the chaos commence.
I hate food waste but these types of experience are so valuable to children who are cautious about texture. Start with something really non-threatening and fun, like allowing them to jump in puddles and get really muddy. Perhaps you could experiment with dry 'mess', like flour or rice then build up to the really mucky stuff. You know your child best and you'll know how to pace it.
Finally ask yourself (honestly) - is it you or your child who doesn't like mess? If your child is picky and fastidious and you give her a clear message that getting messy is absolutely fine, she's very likely to start to feel that way herself after a time. Many toddlers go through a sensitive phase and, as with so much of parenting - they key is weathering the storm in a laid back way and waiting for it to pass.