It’s totally acceptable— celebrated, even—for toddlers to be messy. My Facebook feed is full of babies manhandling their Cheerios with glee, or grinning with pure, toothless abandon as they smash a banana into their gums.
It seems only natural that little ones should investigate their supper tactilely—squeeze it, roll it around, throw it—in order to better understand what they’re eating. For babies, playing with food is a fundamental part of learning.
And there’s even science to back it up: A 2013 study from the University of Iowa found that toddlers who revel in making a mess with their (non-solid) food by “interacting with it” are better able to identify the snacks at a later time. Understanding, here, hinges on untidiness. But by the time kids reach kindergarten, and those damned social norms begin to kick in, this kind of hands-on eating behavior is expected to come to a screeching halt. Soon, proper dining etiquette and table manners are what separate the lauded young whippersnapper from the ill-behaved, and dinner becomes one of the primo battlegrounds for conforming to the more adult societal standards. The thought of a first grader—or worse, adult—with a ring of Chef Boyardee around his mouth isn’t quite as cute.
Being a messy eater isn’t something people usually like to advertise, but after years of denial, I’m now willing to admit I fall into that camp. I often find myself morphing into a culinary Lady MacBeth after a meal, quietly muttering “Out, out, damn spot!” to the memory of lunch that’s embedded itself in my shirt. When it comes to bread, I am a crumb monster. I’ve been known to gnaw a pork chop bone or two. Pristine, I am not.
But this magnetization towards mess ultimately has some larger social implications. A face smudged with chocolate chip cookie residue doesn’t quite scream responsibility. Save for the occasional barbecue session or eating-straight-from-the-tub-of-ice-cream breakup, culinary disarray has no real place in polite society.
Too often, we assume that people who skew toward messiness have a disregard for the food they’re eating: They’re wolfing it down, with a certain degree of gluttonous haste. And in some Homer Simpson-like cases, I’d say that’s right.
More often than not, though, many of the people going deep with their meals are simply attempting to gain some next-level enjoyment from their food. The messy are the unapologetic fanboys and girls, and they’re not afraid to show it.
Of course, this isn’t a very widely held opinion, and—for better or worse—the evolution of what’s “acceptable” when it comes to messy eating has a pretty clear, undeviating evolution from birth to adulthood. The queen bee of all things manners, Emily Post, writes firmly (and a little terrifyingly) about the topic in the original edition of Etiquette (c. 1922), in which she compares young children to, yes, puppies.
“Training a child is exactly like training a puppy; a little heedless inattention and it is out of hand immediately,” Ms. Post instructs in a chapter entitled The Kindergarten of Etiquette. She goes on:
“Most children will behave badly at a table if left to their own devices. Even though they may commit no serious offenses…all children love to crumb bread, flop this way and that in their chairs, knock spoons and forks together, dawdle over their food, feed animals, or become restless and noisy.”
If kids don’t do well at the dinner table after a few reprimands? Post recommends sending them back to the “nursery.”
It’s no wonder, then, that mealtime messiness often becomes a form of rebellion during this stage of childhood: Pure culinary chaos is one of the most time-honored ways that kids dream of sticking it to adults. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the elementary school-wide worship for that apex of all things smeared and unholy: the food fight. Who among us didn’t once dream of rising up on a cafeteria table—chicken nugget in hand—and launching it into the air?
This also makes the food fight a popular plot point over and over again in children’s films (think: Heavyweights, The Little Rascals). In the 1991 classic, Hook, Robin Williams plays a middle-aged Peter Pan who is only able to remember his childlike ways after a massive food fight with his fellow Lost Boys in Neverland. Whether consciously or not, Williams drives home the fact that being messy is a way to actively reject growing up.
Despite being naturally messy as a kid, I was also a major people pleaser, and believed that becoming remarkably well-mannered was my gateway to maturity. I geeked out over the nuances of utensil placement and social graces, attending etiquette classes and pouring over old-school tomes that explained the “dos” and don’ts” of dining life. If I couldn’t be naturally good at neatness, I was going to school myself into it.
And it worked pretty well for a long time.
But over the past few years, giving into my more, uh, “organic” state has grown more appealing. Yes, I want to learn about my food by smelling it, seeing it, and (of course) tasting it, but down deep? I also kind of want to be a kid again. Even though it often flies in the face of everything Miss Manners taught me, there’s something to be said for understanding an unfamiliar ingredient by getting a little tactile.
While I’m not advocating for being unhygienic by any means— I’m not going to stick my hand into a bowl of soup for the sake of “research”—I firmly believe the rigidness of neatness often leaves us not fully appreciating all the nuance of what’s on our plates. There has to be a pretty good reason why so many comfort foods (barbecue, pizza, literally all sandwiches) necessitate a little hands-on action. These are the three and four napkin foods, the ones we don’t care if they drip down our chins or get stuck in our teeth because we are so in the zone.
But with fancier fare, we’re often too scared to interrupt the fork-to-mouth flow to really immerse ourselves; too concerned about what the people around us think to eat with true zeal. We want to be, above all else, accepted, and this frequently means restraining ourselves from questioning—or celebrating—what’s on our plate.
Manners are, of course, deeply important. But so is cutting ourselves some slack to continue learning about—and purely enjoying—our food. That vibrant red lasagna stain on your shirt? Think of it as an act of passion, not slovenliness. Never squeezed the flesh of a blackberry? Pick some up at the farmer’s market and give them a honk. Who cares if your fingers get stained?
Keeping a little glimmer of that wide-eyed, high-chair desire to play with our food will ensure that dining continues to be the kind of lifelong exploration that’s both invigorating and satisfying—messy hands and all.
Tell us your thoughts on messy eating: Do you subscribe to Emily Post? Think dinnertime should be a full-on brawl?
Sarah Baird is our second-ever Writer in Residence. Find her other work here.