Occupational therapists are well aware that meal times are more than just eating for the sake of nutritional intake. They can be a positive opportunity for bonding with family and friends, connecting, sharing stories, laughing together, and discussing difficulties of the day. Developing independence in meal management relies on a full range of skills: gross motor, fine motor, sensory processing, attention, social and communication skills and more.
For many children and their families though, meal times can be stressful, time pressured, and anxiety inducing. It can seem more efficient for food to be prepared and cut up for children who do not find cutlery easy to manipulate; and fussy eaters, being reluctant to try new things, can significantly limit the range of food on the plate.
The routines, rhythms and values of your household’s food-related traditions contribute greatly to a child’s relationship with food, as well as their confidence and competence with meal time skills.
The following ideas support independence in meal time skills, through rituals and play. This is about nurturing a love and appreciation of food in children, that extends far beyond the dinner table.
RITUALS – Develop traditions that fit with your family in the home
- Encourage regular family meals – ideally daily, but even a couple of times each week, or weekly, is a great idea. These times are the stuff of childhood memories, and allow for the most meaningful mealtime skill practise.
- Encourage children to serve themselves (and others) – Large plates/platters of food with tongs, spoons, spatulas/lifters provide opportunities to improve hand skills, bilateral and eye-hand coordination. ‘Self service’ is also motivating for children as they can choose how much of each food they would like to eat.
- Involve children in meal preparation – This helps nurture a sense of responsibility, pride in seeing other family members enjoying their work, and curiosity to try the food they have prepared themselves. Here are five Fine Motor Food Preparation Ideas for Toddlers and Preschoolers, Five Ways Toddlers Can Learn, Play and Help in the Kitchen, a very sensory Healthy Homemade Take-Away Chicken and lots of ‘Kids in the Kitchen’ fun cooking Blueberry Scones.
- Role model – Showing by example what independent mealtime skills looks like is a great way for children to learn: manners, utensil use, enjoyment in food, conversation skills and more.
- Allow children to experience setting the table themselves – Collecting and positioning cutlery, cups/glasses, plates, folding serviettes etc, is a great exercise in motor planning and sequencing, visual perception, and visual motor integration.
- Give children the responsibility of clearing the table after the meal
- Involve children in family meal/menu planning – Try boosting kids’ enthusiasm and participation in meal times by asking for their meal ideas. This also exposes children to the broader process involved in a meal finding its way to the dinner table.
- Shopping list writing/helping with shopping – This is a great way for older children to help out and practise practical skills of writing, reading and following lists. Other tasks such as carrying and unpacking groceries also give children an appreciation of the whole food experience.
- Encourage children to get their own breakfast – leave items out or safely accessible. If a little mess follows, it is all in the name of practise and skill building!
- Involve children in school lunch making routines, and encourage increasingly more independence as they grow – Children choosing and labouring over their own food is sure to reduce the tendency for lunches to be thrown out; or found days later, uneaten at the bottom of the schoolbag.
PLAY – Make kitchen tools and utensils available for use in play
- Knives and forks with play dough – Making pretend food out of play dough is a perfect medium for cutlery practise.
- Tongs and (training) chop sticks amongst loose parts (such as cotton balls/pom poms…)
- Bowls, cups, spoons/ladles, sauce bottles, measuring cups in the bath, water tub, sandpit, garden…
- Mud kitchens/ pretend cooking – For inspiration, check out our easy DIY Stove Cooker, DIY Stove Cooker Version 2.0 and our Road Side Mud Kitchen Adventure
- Tea parties for soft toys/dolls or even Teddy Bears’ Picnics!
- Grow a little herb garden – even potted herbs can be great for children to water and play with.
MORE RITUALS – Consider new food and meal related traditions in your community
- Visit cafes and restaurants – skills practised at home can be generalised to the ‘real world’ (practising skills in context).
- Enjoy meals out and about – picnics at the park (or in the backyard!), barbecues, on the beach, sitting on a log in the bush/forest…
- Involve children in adult dining experiences – It can be valuable for children to not always eat ‘children’s food’ at a ‘children’s table’; the power of role modelling and affording equal respect to children as adults at the dinner table is great.
- Give children age appropriate responsibilities – Even little ones can help, learn and have fun with kitchen and food related jobs. In a post entitled: Mummy’s Little Kitchen Helper, our two year old has a ball washing the dishes!
- Find an opportunity to offer food to the homeless or help out at a soup kitchen – Seeing the value of food to those with less, and serving others, are important experiences.
- Visit markets – Markets are rich with fun food experiences! Encourage children to ask store holders questions, try new foods, and be thrilled by the variety and quality of fresh foods!
MORE PLAY – Find opportunities for sensory exploration and enjoyment of food through play
- Food scraps – Follow the link for details of an Apple Skin/Peel Sensory Moment!
- Different ingredients – Allowing exploration of different food items, such as this Sensory Play With Flour, are a great idea for familiarity with a variety of food textures and scents.
- At the table -Why not allow children to play freely with different foods, especially young ones for whom food is very new. Yoghurt and ‘Babycinos‘ have always been popular in our house!
- Smell/taste different foods, enjoy and laugh and have fun with food (What face does everyone make when they lick or suck a piece of lemon?!)
- Food playdates – Cooking with friends and eating the food freshly prepared together can be so much fun!
…and … PLAY HARD!
The kind of freely directed, intrinsically motivated play where children practise and develop the full range of skills – physical, cognitive, social, emotional…
- If children are allowed to play hard, they’ll easily work up an appetite and really want to get stuck into helping get the food ready!
- Respecting the importance of play in children’s daily lives can bring both meal and snack time rituals and play into alignment.
Hungry children may have trouble playing and children’s flow of play need not be interrupted by an adult’s insistence to stop at a certain time for snacks/lunch.
Furthermore, children should be encouraged to build their independence by making themselves a sandwich/wrap, or salad; and peeling/cutting their own fruit, without adult pressure as to when or how they should do this. In this way, they will be fuelled by their own internal motivation, to improve, succeed and be independent. They would also be more likely to eat what they have made themselves.
Who cares if the vegemite/peanut butter is spread unevenly, even in one big clump on the bread!
Who cares if a child chooses a seemingly odd mix of cheese, olives and sultanas!
It makes for a refreshing change from adults always controlling what is on the menu, and what must be eaten when. Sometimes we don’t feel like certain foods. Sure, adults can provide the options, but it’s a great opportunity for children to exercise control over what they eat.
This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids 12 Months Series by Occupational and Physical Therapists. You can read all of the functional skills HERE. Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE.
Looking for more information about promoting mealtime independent skills in childhood? Stop by to see what the other OTs and PTs in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written…
Fine Motor Skills For Mealtimes | Therapy Fun Zone
Postural Control, Gross Motor Development and Mealtime |Your Therapy Source
Attention, Behavior, and Meal Time Problems | Sugar Aunts
4 Ways to Modify Meal Times for Fussy Eaters | Your Kids OT
Mealtime Skills, Rituals & Play – Nurturing a Love for Food | Kids Play Space
15 Tips for Picky Eaters | The Inspired Treehouse
Visual Perceptual Skills Needed for Independent Feeding | Growing Hands-On Kids
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