In all cultures, there is much celebration and ritual around cooking, eating and every aspect of good healthy food. Children understand very quickly that eating is very important. Both at home and in the childcare context they learn that there is a ritual to be followed both before and after their meal times, but they also learn very early in the piece that meal times can become a time of bargaining, negotiation and control over their parents, but not their teachers. Such situations can quickly become trying for parents and can turn children into fussy eaters at home.
At school, it is easier for children to fall into line. In the company of their peers they learn to eat together at basically the same speed, to wash their hands both before and after meals and to share different new foods together with their carers. They laugh and talk together and they follow the cues given by their peers and educators.
But what happens at home? Many parents want to know how to take away the drama from meal times and why their children suddenly become fussy eaters at home.
Experts tell us that children develop healthy eating habits by adults taking the care and time to provide good role modelling, by sitting with the children during meal times, by not rushing them through their meals, by sticking to set meal times with clear rules about no snacking in between meals (except for water) and by allowing children to decide about how much food they feel comfortable eating. Role modelling appropriate behaviour around eating will help them form good habits that make restaurant visits and social events less trying on everybody. Trying different foods together and teaching them about their foods takes away that boredom that often times they feel but don’t understand or know how to express.
The big No No things that, as adults we are warned not to do are: pressuring children to eat, force feeding them after 12 months, rewarding them with one food over another (I’ll give you a cracker if you eat your vegetables) and grazing (crackers between meals). But the biggest No that families now have to contend with, is the temptation to distract the children with devices including IPads. “I will let you watch Madagascar, if you eat all your dinner”.
Being mindful is the catch phrase of the times. Minimising distractions and focussing on the experience of eating will help children be mindful of their eating. Parents can use these times to discuss the food the children are eating – the colour, the senses, the shape, texture, sound, smell and taste and of course, the many things the child did during their busy day. So let’s all return to the rituals of our ancestors and enjoy the experience of eating. Don’t let Madagascar take over your child’s meal times. Let go of the office and all the things you did or need to do – be mindful and your children will follow suit.