Everyone must eat multiple times a day. It would be amazing if the family had at least one meal per day where everyone eats together. Children learn by watching and they want to eat more when the adults are having the same foods they are. Sometimes it’s the cafeteria phenomenon: everyone else’s meal looks better than yours. One way to help children build good eating skills is to put some of their food on your plate and you put smaller pieces of your food on theirs during the mealtime. A healthy diet in children starts with good practices modeled to them by parents and caregivers.
The adult’s role in mealtime is to present the options. You can also dictate when mealtimes will be. It’s best not to let your child graze or fill up on empty calorie foods. Building healthy habits will prepare them for school where grazing won’t be available. Children need to learn when to eat and when to play.
Your child’s role is to choose how much to eat and when they are full. We want to teach them at an early age to listen to their bodies. When they are hungry, they can eat more. When they are full, they get to stop. You can save it for later, have them help you put it aside. We want to consistently train them early on not to throw food away. Teach them to say “all done” or “no more.” Teach them to set their plate aside and wait for you to take them out of their high chair. You can take the plate and teach them to wipe the area, face, and hands when they are done. This teaches them there is a clear ending to mealtime. This also helps with transitions to another activity. Pick your clean up routine and stick to it. Make it a game. Be consistent.
Meals and snack times are a good chance to talk about food. Here are some ideas to build in language exercises when they eat. Since we want to avoid children talking too much while eating, it is a good time to build receptive language and vocabulary.
- Umami (that yum flavor)
Talk about the food. Tell them what you like about the taste in your mouth and why it is good for them. You can talk about vitamins and minerals and how eating healthy foods will make them big, tall, and strong.
Name the foods on the plate and categorize them. You have fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy, legumes, etc. Talk about color. Invite them to nod along or discuss the meal with you.
Take sips of water between bites to prevent choking. Teach them to chew first, swallow, then talk and demonstrate this to them so they understand. This will teach them the concept of first… then. It will also teach them to wait, take turns, and hopefully will be a bonding experience because you are doing a shared activity.