10 ways to explore food through play

play with food

As a teacher working in the early childhood and primary school settings, I understand that play is a vital component in children’s learning and development. Play and investigation enables children to make meaning of the world around them and helps children to understand how society works. Play provides children with opportunities to engage in higher order thinking skills such as questioning, experimentation and problem solving. If play is such an important part of our children’s development, why is it that society tells us it’s not o.k. to play with food? While it can be time-consuming having to clean up, allowing your children to play with their food has so many benefits:

  • Brain and vocabulary development: A study into toddlers’ eating habits published in Developmental Science found that kids who played (poked, prodded, swirled, mashed) their food were faster to learn words associated with food textures than kids who didn’t play.

  • Exposure equals willingness to try new foods: This study found that preschoolers who play with their food are more likely to try new things and eat a more varied diet. 

I have collated some of my favorite ideas on how to explore food through play. Please note that not all of these are for the dinner table, and are simply a play activity designed to expose children to the different smells, textures, sounds and visual characteristics of food.

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10 ways to explore food through play:

  1. Make different animals using potatoes and apples as stamps. This site will give you an idea of how to do this. Try getting creative and think of other animals you can make- dogs, giraffes, spiders, octopus… this list is endless.

  2. Use broccoli as a paintbrush. You can see exactly how to do this here. You could also mix it up and use carrots, asparagus, or corn to get different effects.

  3. Freeze different items in ice cubes (pom poms, toy bugs/ animals, grapes or berries) and allow your kids to build with them, or let their imaginations go wild!

  4. Make scented play dough. I normally use strawberry or peppermint essence. Not only does it smell amazing but it makes the play dough so soft and smooth.

  5. Sensory spice painting. I LOVE this idea of adding spices to white paint to change the color and smell. It’s such a great way to expose kids to different smells without the pressure of having food around!

  6. Frozen veggie play- fill a tub with your chosen frozen veggies (or fruit), add some toys (such as animals, bugs, cars etc) and see what sort of role playing they end up doing.

  7. Make jewelry using dried penne pasta. Simply thread the pasta onto a piece of string and tie at the end to make necklaces or bracelets. You can even decorate your jewelry by painting it.

  8. Make a construction site by putting baked beans, tinned spaghetti, or custard in a tub with some toy diggers.

  9. Dye spaghetti, rice or chickpeas. In all my years teaching i rarely found a child who didn’t LOVE this! Dying food can be a little daunting at first, but these sites here and here provide a step-by-step guide with illustrations, showing you how to do it. This is quite a messy activity, so I normally do this outside and place a plastic tarp that can be easily washed, or newspaper that can simple be thrown away, underneath.

  10. Make a batch of jelly with different toys hidden inside, then allow your kids to find them as they squish their way through the jelly.

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Hi, I’m Aspen, a university qualified teacher and nutritionist. As one of seven kids, a mum and ten years teaching experience, I understand just how challenging mealtimes can be. That’s why I’m so passionate about giving families a range of strategies to reduce fussy eating and make mealtimes an enjoyable family experience. I also work with schools doing incursions, parent information sessions and canteen menu assessment.