15 Sensory Play Ideas with Food
Sensory play with food can be a fun and low-pressure way for kids to explore and learn about new foods. We’ll provide our expert tips on how to do sensory play with food, reasons why we love it, and 15 of our favorite sensory play ideas with food. For ages 6+ months and older.
Medically reviewed and co-written by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).
Sensory Play with Food
Play with food? You might be thinking, “I just want my kid to eat their food, not play with it!” But building in opportunities for sensory play with foods actually serves a very valuable purpose. Sensory food play can help reduce food neophobia – basically the fear of new foods.
Sensory play with foods helps kids become more familiar with the way different foods look, smell and feel. It gives your child an opportunity to interact with new foods in a safe, low-pressure way. There are no expectations about having to taste or eat it. This can help them feel more comfortable around that food when it’s served at meals.
Getting comfortable with seeing, smelling, and touching a variety of food textures can also help kids in other areas. For example, it can make it easier for your child to accept help with wiping off their hands, putting on sunscreen, trimming fingernails or hair washing.
Reasons Why We Love Sensory Play with Food
- Helps support a fun and positive experience around new foods
- Multi-sensory experiences
- Improves fine motor skills for self-feeding
- Provides opportunities for creative and imaginative play
- Builds vocabulary to help describe foods (ie. crunchy, soft, squishy, cold, warm, wet, etc.)
- Creates a special time to engage with parents
- Endless opportunities for learning – you can identify colors, count, sort, mix or measure
- Screen-free playtime!
- Many sensory food play activities are very inexpensive
Frequently Asked Questions
Sensory food play helps kids explore new foods in a safe, low-pressure way. It helps make new foods more familiar; therefore, kids feel more comfortable around that food when they see it at meals.
Exploring foods in a fun way, using their senses (seeing, smelling, touching…and maybe tasting) can help with desensitizing a child to new foods. The more familiar a child is with a food, the greater the chances are that they will later try it.
Although the goal of sensory play with food is not actually eating the food, we recommend waiting to start food play until your little one is around 6-9 months. At this age, your little one should be sitting on their own, or at least with little support from you. This will make engaging in food play easier. By this time, your little one will also have started solids, so you’ll have some idea about what they might do when they attempt to put any food in their mouth.
And the good news is – it’s never too late to start sensory food play! Toddlers, preschoolers, elementary kids and beyond all seem to enjoy it in one form or another.
The mess factor is often a (very real) concern when doing sensory food play. However, there are many ways you can limit messes. Try taking your activity outside to the lawn or a picnic table. Put a blanket or sheet under the floor to help keep it clean – this also helps give your child some physical reminders of the “boundaries” of sensory play. Or use a secondary container to help limit messes – for example, you can put a smaller bowl inside a larger plastic tub, or set a container inside a kiddie pool.
Tips for Sensory Play with Food
- Never force your child to do food play. Allow your child to set the pace for how they want to interact. Food play should be a positive, low-pressure activity to enjoy.
- Allow your child to wipe their hands in between playing if they need to. Keep a wet washcloth or small bowl of water nearby, depending on what type of play you are doing.
- Use a “tool” to touch foods if they are uncertain. Maybe touching wet noodles with their fingers is overwhelming but using a pair of tongs to pick them up is doable.
- Space out sensory play so that it doesn’t happen directly before or after meals, especially for younger toddlers. It might be best to complete sensory food play away from the table completely, perhaps on the floor or outside.
- Don’t worry about a fancy or elaborate play scheme. Your child will be just as interested in the simplest of things and even more interested when you play too.
- Similarly, start with small amounts of food. You really don’t need much to start playing with. This helps with concerns related to food waste, and helps minimize the amount of mess to clean up. Use containers with lids, so that you can rinse, store and re-use food.
- Depending on your child or the foods presented, you may have to work your way up to playing with real food, especially wet, cooked foods. You can start with non-food sensory play activities, such as pretend food or dried foods, like beans, rice, or lentils.
- Remember the goal is exposure to foods – not consumption. Share your child’s enjoyment of looking, smelling, and touching new foods in a fun way. Don’t get stuck on having them taste it, even if it’s something that’s cooked and can be eaten at the time.
Items for Food Play
Sensory food play can look many different ways. What you’ll need will depend on your child’s developmental age and what types of food play you want to offer. These are some basics to get you started:
- Large and small bins with lids – look for bins that are nice and wide, easily stackable and latch well.
- Old blankets or sheets to help contain messes and make for an easy clean-up.
- Tongs, tweezers, ladles, big spoons, little spoons, measuring spoons – whatever you have on hand in your kitchen.
- Spray bottles or squeeze bottles – these are great for slowly adding a little bit of water (or maybe food coloring!) to your activity
- Washcloths or towels.
- Empty spice jars or small food containers for sprinkling, scooping and pouring.
- Any fun novelty items – think holiday or craft items like easter eggs, cookie cutters, leftover Christmas sprinkles, paint brushes, or sponges.
Sensory Play Ideas with Food
- Drive cars and diggers through dried noodles, rice, lentils, chickpeas, beans, oats, or corn meal. Take turns hiding a “treasure” (like a marshmallow or piece of cereal) in the bin and dig it out.
- Draw pictures, shapes or write letters in “fingerpaint” purees like yogurt, applesauce, pudding or mashed potatoes.
- Help toy dinosaurs dig for “green plants” (snap peas, broccoli, asparagus) in “dirt” (brown sugar).
- Make stamp art. Use the ends of different vegetables and fruits like celery, bell peppers, potatoes, or apples for different shapes. Dip them in pudding, yogurt or make your own edible finger paint from sweetened condensed milk and food coloring.
- Build a tower! Use different shapes of fruits, vegetables, crackers, cheese cubes, whatever you have on hand. See how tall you can build it and talk about what combinations of foods work best for your tower.
- Play rescue squad and have your child save a toy figurine from an ocean of cooked noodles with blue and green food coloring. Make it more challenging by adding additional water to the bin or bowl.
- Use cubes or wedges of watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew and other fruits to stick together with toothpicks and make “fruit people.”
- Paint “plate portraits” or landscapes. Get creative with whatever types of purees, fruits, veggies, or grains you have on hand that needs to be used up. Take pictures when you’re finished to show off your creations to grandparents or cousins.
- Play tic tac toe. Use a few uncooked spaghetti noodles for the lines. Take turns using different small pieces of food for playing pieces or get more detailed and use food to make the ‘x’s and o’s.
- Use kid-safe or playdoh scissors to cut soft, cooked veggies or pasta to make food for toy animals.
- Create “silly sundaes” – take a waffle cone and make your own pretend ice cream creation by filling it up with different foods that you typically wouldn’t use. Give your concoction a signature name!
- Make your own edible playdoh. Use cookie cutters or roll and squish it into “playdoh people” and give them edible googly eyes.
- Play Guess that Sound (or Smell!). Put a few different foods in different cups or containers with lids. Close your eyes and see if you can guess what they are just by their sound or smell.
- Make a jello sensory bin. (This one takes a little planning, as the jello needs time to set). Pour your jello mixture into a bin or baking dish and drop in small toys, shapes or letters. Once it sets, you get to dig in and get squishy!
- Stir up some alphabet soup. Pour water in large bin and add different types of foods that start with letters of the alphabet (you could also add actual letters too). Use tongs or a ladle to scoop them out and put in a bowl.