Mealtimes offer a great opportunity to nourish more than our children’s bodies. Sharing a meal is the perfect opportunity to help children learn more about themselves, those around them, and their world. Here are some fun suggestions for nourishing young brains and hearts, as they enjoy their food.
Let’s work together. Shared mealtimes can be daunting for some children, particularly if they come from a small family. Encouraging them to be involved (after they have washed their hands of course) in the preparation fosters independence and teaches self-help skills, while giving a sense of ownership and control.
Children can help arrange the meal area by setting out cutlery, dishes and serviettes on tables, and preparing food ready for serving. Once seated, encourage children to serve themselves and pour a drink. Passing serving dishes around the table fosters sharing and good manners.
Learning eating skills can be messy but rather than seeing it as a mistake, view spills as another opportunity to foster independence and responsibility. Allowing children to touch and play with their food can also help their acceptance of new foods. Keep paper towels, sponges or similar items handy at meal times, so they can help clean up.
After the meal, children can work as a team to help clear away items in a special bucket or the sink, and to wipe down tables. Dividing waste into different bins – for example, compost, recycling and general waste – helps them learn about where food comes from, what happens to rubbish and how to help the planet.
Time to talk. Eating is a social occasion, where conversation is just as important as what’s on the plate. Children gain a sense of self by being encouraged to talk about their likes and dislikes, and about their families including where they come from, how they eat at home and what foods they like.
Similarly, by listening to others’ stories, they learn about their friends, different family structures, a variety of cultures, and the world around them.
Educators can ask questions to prompt different levels of sharing, specific to each child’s needs. They’re also important role models for social skills, in demonstrating how to listen, take turns to speak and use good manners.
What’s on the menu? Food is a feast for all the senses. As well as learning about different flavours, children learn about colour, texture, smell and sound.
Use specific comments to help children define different foods using descriptive words, which helps expand their vocabulary. For example, the carrot is orange and crunchy; the watermelon is soft, pink and sweet; this long, slippery spaghetti reminds me of a worm.
It can also help children learn about personal preferences. For example: I like to drink my milk warm but my friend likes to drink theirs cold, or I like ham on my sandwiches but my friend likes to eat ham with a fork.
Open-ended questions help children experience their food and express it in their own way. For example: what do you like about your sandwich? Think about how you can extend children’s comments and thus their understanding. For example: That’s right, strawberries are sweet. Can you think of other fruits that are sweet?
Draw children’s attention to texture by talking about needing a knife to cut an apple compared to bending a banana with their hands, the different way a fork spears crisp watermelon compared to a piece of firm meat, or how a spoon is best for both thick, warm soup and cold, creamy yoghurt.
Finger foods are also a great way to teach texture, dexterity and introduce new foods. Smooth cubes of cheese feel different to the soft fuzz of a peach, watermelon is wet and soft compared to a hard, dry carrot, holding a smooth, round wrap feels different to holding a sandwich.
Serve foods of a different shape and sizes. Compare round crackers, cherry tomatoes or slices of orange, cut sandwiches into triangles or fingers, cube cheese or ball melon. Take it a step further and serve food in different ways, for example fruit rocket skewers, arrange vegetables into faces on a plate, or combine fruit and yoghurt for smoothies.
Food helps my body. Meal times are a great time to talk about the different kinds of foods and how they help our bodies, as well as distinguishing between everyday foods and sometimes foods. For example: these crunchy carrots help us see better, or oranges have vitamin C which helps fight colds, or milk and cheese have calcium which keeps our teeth and bones strong.
This can also be a good chance to talk about food allergies and how some foods can make some bodies unwell to foster a sense of inclusion, acceptance of diversity and without pointing out individuals. Talk about the fact that while all foods are safe for most people, others have to be careful about what they eat. For example, eating eggs can make it hard for some people to breathe, or touching nuts gives some people a lumpy, red rash.
Mix it up. Variety is the spice of life after all and spontaneity can often lead to unexpected learning and connection.
If it’s a nice day, why not go head outside for a picnic? If not, why not have a ‘floor picnic’ in a different indoor area?
Think about combining mealtimes with a different class, to provide new socialising opportunities.
Themes are a great fun. Occasions like birthdays, Easter and Christmas are obvious examples, but what about choosing a different culture to explore or basing a meal around a specific shape or colour? This can be a good way to involve families as well.
Introduce music. Restaurants often have soft background music playing for ambience, while families might have the radio or TV on in the background at home. What about coming up with a little song to help children perform different tasks? For example: This is the way we set the table, set the table, set the table …
Literacy and numeracy can be included in ways as simple as asking children to put a specific number of cups on a table, or asking them to name foods on the table beginning with a specific letter.
At The Wellbeing Food Company, we’re passionate about helping childcare centres, children and families to thrive – no matter what their dietary or cultural food requirements. Our menus are created by Accredited Practising Dietitians alongside an expert team of chefs from diverse cultural backgrounds to balance optimal childhood nutrition with maximum ‘child-approved’ appeal. Allergy-safe meals are individually sealed and labelled to eliminate guesswork and cross-contamination risk. Because every child deserves to eat great food – and providers and parents deserve simple certainty, every day.
Want safe and sensational meals for your childcare, with lashings of simplicity and confidence? Let’s talk.