Catherine Lippe, EYN Partnership Registered Nutritionist
Mealtimes aren’t just about the food you offer. They are an opportunity to support learning, physical development and social skills. Putting thought into your eating environment can make the difference between a happy mealtime or a chaotic food frenzy.
So how can you create a calming eating environment which supports learning and encourages children to eat well? Here’s a few things to think about:
1. Avoid distractions
Mealtimes are an activity in themselves and will require children to focus on what’s going on around them. Make sure the toys and activities from the previous session are cleared away to stop their attention wondering. It’s helpful for children, particularly fussy eaters, to focus on the food they are eating. Avoid distracting children with toys while you sneak in a few spoonfuls of food. If children don’t realise what they are eating they are less likely to overcome any fussy eating habits.
2. Make mealtimes an occasion
Use place mats, table cloths or decorations to make the table more inviting. Children can design and decorate their own place mats or even make paper flowers and vases to use on the tables. Encourage children to help you prepare the table for each meal time. They are more likely to eat well if they have had a hand in the set up. Preparing the table in this way also helps to differentiate the place they eat from where they may have been creating art masterpieces earlier in the day.
3. Use appropriate cutlery
Children can be given a spoon to hold as soon as they are able to and this can be as young as weaning around (around 6 months). From 10 months’ babies should be encouraged to self-feed so don’t be afraid to offer babies spoons even if they don’t get much food in their mouths at first – practice makes perfect! Learning how to use cutlery is an important developmental skill and can encourage fine motor skills. Don’t be afraid to offer children’s knives and forks as well as spoons. How will they learn to feed themselves if we never give them the tools to practice?
4. Use mealtimes as a learning opportunity
There are many aspects of learning that you can bring to the table. From physical and social skills to recognising shapes, colours and counting. Get children involved in:
· Laying the table, handing out cutlery, cups, plates and place mats.
· Serving themselves (with support where necessary) and clearing plates away afterwards.
· Talking about the colours and shapes on their plates.
· Counting items on their plate.
· Talking about where the food has come from.
5. Limit mealtimes to around 30 minutes
Keeping mealtimes short will reduce the risk of children losing interest and becoming distracted. If a child hasn’t eaten much during the first 20 minutes of the mealtime they are not likely to. Instead of embarking on lengthy mealtime negotiations, remove the food after around 20 minutes, offer a small helping of pudding and move on.