I get several messages a week asking how I deal with the mess of letting Ellington self-feed, especially yogurt and applesauce. Let me tell you - it isn't easy for me.
I am a "neat freak" in every sense of the phrase. Just ask my husband. I loathe clutter, organize with gusto, and have been filling my Christmas and birthday lists with cleaning tools for decades. I remember once as a teenager, my friends thought my room was "too clean" so I staged some "teenage clutter" that lasted all of 10 minutes before I put everything back in its rightful spot - an experiment my friends and I still laugh about to this day. So when we decided to let Ellington self-feed, the resulting mess was a concern of mine.
We aren't in a position to get a dog (though we would love to one day!) and giving Ellington 3 baths a day is also a bit unrealistic. Through a lot of trial and error, we have found a method and some tricks that work for us to make cleaning him up as simple as possible:
1. Remember, the mess has a purpose.
And that purpose is learning. So much of life is about perception, and this has proved no different for me. I learned so much from the Feeding Littles baby and toddler feeding courses, and one of the key takeaways for me was that Ellington is learning from the mess.
He isn't trying to get yogurt all over the wall to annoy me; he is learning how something the texture and consistency of yogurt interacts with the physical world, or how to use a spoon, or how his movements affect things. I also learned that even subtle cues from me, such as telling him not to make a mess or cleaning up before he is done eating, can make things worse. If I teach him not to be messy, he may refuse to eat messy foods or eat with his hands. A toddler is already a picky eater, and I don't want to make it worse!
2. Set everything up for easy cleaning.
Note: All of our favorite feeding supplies are linked (affiliate link) in this Amazon list.
We had the Skip Hop Tuo highchair at first. It was pretty, but had too many crevices for food and cleaning it was annoying. So we switched it out for the plain Ikea one. We may still get yet another highchair (with a foot rest and better able to pull up to the table), but the idea is to pick a high chair that has the least amount of crevices and gaps as you can.
We then place a gathre mat under the high chair. It is cleaned once a day, after dinner.
We use Bumkins full-sleeve smocks on him for meal time, and plates that suction onto the tray (though he can now get them off, but at least it takes a bit of work for him first).
To clean up, we have an old Tupperware container that we fill with warm water and a dash of hand soap if necessary, and a stack of old face cloths collected from family or made from old bath towels. After his meal, we clear the tray, and place the bowl of water on the tray. Rinsing Ellington's hands gently in the water, and then wiping up his face.
Note: I do not clean up while he is still eating. Again, this is so I don't send a message to him that being clean is best, but also because would you appreciate it if someone was constantly cleaning up after you while you were eating? Think about how you feel when people start cleaning up the table while you're still eating. Or when the restaurant staff constantly asks if you're finished when there is still food on your plate. Enjoy your meal with your little one, and save the cleaning up for the end! (P.S. I do pick up food from a clean mat to give back to him.)
We try to integrate the clean up into meal time as much as possible. Meaning its for learning too! We often let Ellington linger with the water, maybe putting his spoons or food from his tray into the water. Currently, he is obsessed with putting the towel in the water and helping me squeeze out the excess water. He knows we clean up after mealtime - so much so that he actually points to the water container now when he is done eating!
I clean the tray in the sink. Our sink is small so cleaning the tray is super annoying. In fact, a large deep basin sink is high on our list for the kitchen remodel. If he wasn't too messy, I just wipe the tray down with Branch Basics before his next meal.
3. Give yourself a break.
Ellington loves yogurt and applesauce and whipped sweet potatoes, but I know when I am spread too thin and need to give him something cleaner to eat for my own sanity. We also save "cleaner" meals for when we eat out. Our go-to less-messy meals are scrambled eggs, sourdough toast, pancakes and Hilary's root vegetable burgers. So far, Ellington does not eat quesadillas, sandwiches, chicken nuggets, etc. (not for my lacking of trying!), but I am hoping our options for cleaner meals expands soon! If I know we are heading to a meal out such as brunch, I plan a different breakfast for him and save scrambled eggs and toast for the meal out (easy for us to order too!).
And in full disclosure, our experience with the mess that comes with feeding a baby/toddler has actually been the catalyst for our upcoming kitchen remodel. We wanted to update our kitchen pre-baby, but we have since learned that our kitchen really does not work well for us (especially since we are planning for more children) and we want to make this house work better in the long run!