Mealtime can be a great opportunity for family to be together but it can also be a stressful time for parents and children. Here are 5 tips to help mealtime be successful and enjoyable.
Establish a routine
Having a routine at mealtimes such as eating in the same room, at the same table with the same utensils are all things which capitalize on the need for repetition in learning. The more you can make things about the meal the same the easier it will be to learn. Here is a simple routine to try at home:
Engage in Sensory activities (this will be discussed later in the post)
Provide warning ("it's time to wash hands") and transitional activities (pushing stool to sink, wash hands)
Help with food preparation and set the table
Eat (focus on the food and modeling)
Clean-up (throw/blow 1 piece of EACH food into trash,dishes to sink, wash hands)
Move your body before you eat
Prior to sitting down for a meal or snack-time, it is important our children are in the “just right” arousal for learning about food. Your child should participate in sensory-motor activities (15-20 minutes) prior to mealtimes to reach optimal arousal, increase whole-body awareness and improve sustained attention for mealtime which they will be required to sit. Activities should include both gross motor (obstacle courses, trampoline, or animal walks, etc.) and oral-motor components (blowing bubbles, whistles, etc.).
Use neutral language
Parents you can help your child explore a variety of foods by using neutral or positive educational language. Rather than judge the food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, use language that is focused on teaching your child about the sensory properties of food (color, shape, size, texture). It is important for a child to understand as much as possible about a food BEFORE it gets in into their mouth.
Play with your food
Being messy is an important part of learning to eat! Eating comes first, manners come second. Let’s think about a 6-9 month old infant just learning to eat and how messy they get. Mealtimes are a teaching opportunity, especially for children who have not learned to eat well. Parents and caregivers you are the teachers. You can be a good role model for your child through social modeling. Over-emphasizing chewing with mouths open and use of exaggerated swallowing helps children understand about what to do with food. Create characters, faces or “paint” using presented foods to teach children that novel foods are not scary to touch. Overall, children eat better when food is engaging, interesting, and attractive.
Use “you can” statements
How we talk to children during mealtimes is very critical. The words and tone of voice we use can impact their ability to explore and learn about foods. The goal during meals is to work up to eating foods without using questions, negative instructions, demands, or commands. “Can you…? Is the most frequent question parents use during mealtimes. However, what happens when your child says “no”. If you accept this answer, they won’t eat. If you disregard the “no” and push them, you will not only have a power struggle but eventually you will teach them that the opinion you just asked for is not valid, leading to negative feeding experiences. “Can you” statements implies a lack of confidence on our part as to whether our child really can do this eating task. It is important that we replace as many questions with “YOU CAN” statements to build confidence and avoid the power struggles. If your child continues to reply with “no, I can’t”, you can say “when you are ready, I believe you can!” Another strategy is to provide choice questions (“do you want A or B”) but only when the child is NOT eating. Remember if “no” is not an acceptable answer, don’t ask it as a question!