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Your Messy Eater’s Survival Guide

Babies and toddlers are super messy eaters. Find out how to make mealtime less of a disaster with these messy eating hacks and tips from real moms who know.

7 min read

Real talk: Toddler eating habits can be downright gross. Food in your hair; food in baby’s hair; food crammed into the teeny crevices of the highchair; food on the carpet in the next room. The thing is, mealtime is supposed to be sloppy. Messy eating shows that kids are learning all about tastes and textures — and gravity. Your job? Keep on serving your messy eater a variety of healthy foods, but save your sanity with these parent-tested messy-eater solutions.

Rescue Your Floor

Sure, you want to swoop in and do damage control as soon as your toddler starts playing the ol’ toss-and-splat game, but wait until dinner is over to start picking food up off the floor. Otherwise, your messy eater will think you’re both playing. Also, take a cue from Rachel Meltzer Warren, a mom of two in Jersey City, New Jersey, who places her 18-month-old’s high chair on a roomy, easy-clean mat. Instead of those special baby mats, which can be too small to capture the toddler mess, she prefers larger, vinyl area rugs. “It keeps little food pieces like rice from getting wedged between the wood planks in the floor. Plus, it’s easy to wipe clean,” she says.

Use Utensils Made for Tiny Hands

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Handing your kiddo utensils at mealtime doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster. While adult forks and spoons are far too big and heavy for toddlers to successfully maneuver into their mouths, toddler-size ones are perfect. “We’ve tried a bunch and the OXO toddler utensils are my favorite,” says Sara Wells, a mom of two in San Francisco. “They’re lightweight and the handles are short and curved, making it easier for my 18-month-old to feed himself.” Bonus: The soft-grip stainless steel Fork & Spoon Set sports a teeny flat spot on the handle, preventing accidental rolling-onto-the-floor action.

Serve Smaller Portions

It’s simple, really: Placing a few pieces of penne on a highchair table will yield less mess than a full bowl of pasta. Starting a meal with small amounts of food serves two purposes, says Amy Palanjian, a mom of two in Pella, Iowa, and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast.(Opens in a new window) “It can be less overwhelming for kids, especially if they’re wary of certain foods, and it gives messy eaters less food to play with once they’re full.” Remember: It's easier to serve a second helping than it is to clean a food-splattered floor.

Pack Your MVP Tool for Meals Out

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Once your baby hits the solids-eating stage, going to restaurants is a whole different ballgame. You want to keep your little one’s food-tasting journey on track, “but sometimes when you’re at a restaurant or on the go, you don’t feel like dealing with the associated mess,” says Palanjian. For those times, consider a silicone feeder. You simply place fresh or frozen food into the no-mess pouch and let your little one enjoy it while you take a breather and attempt a relaxing dinner out. Not only do you nix a mess on the restaurant floor, the feeder is super-easy to clean once you’re home.

Keep Ick in the Pocket

As new parents quickly discover, most bibs move around — so your little one’s clothes could still end up getting doused in the delicious apple custard you just made, or whatever food he’s learning how to eat. The silicone pocket bib is designed to stay put and catch food as it’s tumbling down from your kid’s mouth or hands. When she was choosing bibs, Michelle Ferrara, a mom of one in Philadelphia, took the advice of experienced moms in her circle who knew all about toddler eating habits: “The silicone pocket bibs certainly seem to keep his clothing much cleaner than a traditional cloth bib. And the bibs themselves are easy to clean,” she says. “My favorite thing, however, is when he drops food into the bib pocket and then retrieves it and eats it!” You can wipe the Roll-Up Bib with soapy water, or just toss it into the washing machine when needed.

Embrace Stick-On Bowls and Plates

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Before she discovered bowls and plates that attach to the high chair tray, Amy McNulty, a mom of one in Woodside, New York, spent way too much time cleaning the floor after every meal. “While there’s still always something to pick up, suction bowls keep the mess way more contained,” she says, since they don’t slide around and are harder to tip over. Plus, the curved side-wall design of the Stick & Stay Suction Plate helps toddlers scoop their food more neatly — and successfully — than flatter plates. Bonus clean-up points: These are dishwasher safe, too.

Avoid Snack Attacks

Crackers and cereal seem like great no-mess, kid-friendly snacks to take on the go, but toddlers will be toddlers. To sidestep a Hansel and Gretel-worthy trail of snacks, Liz Schnabolk, a mom of one in Pelham, New York, uses a lidded snack trap. “I love these when we're at someone else's house,” she says. “My two-year-old can walk around with it and I don't have to worry that he’s making a giant mess.” Schnabolk’s go-to: The Flippy Snack Cup, which has a twist-on, easy-access opening that tot-sized hands can reach into, but that’s too tricky for littles to open up all the way.

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