When infants and toddlers start to explore their food, it begins with using their hands to “play” with the food. For example, smelling the foods, looking at the foods, smashing the food on their tray, squashing foods in their hands, pushing it around and maybe even bringing the foods to their mouth. (Remember: it’s around a 32 step process before the child might even start wanting to try the foods; that is why consistent presentation of a variety of foods is so important.) With preschoolers we start to see the development of social and cultural meal skills, so use of utensils come into play and less “playing” is encouraged, even though it is still natural for the child to want to explore the sensory properties of the foods.
FAMILY MEALTIME ROUTINE:
At Meal/Snack at Table:
- Present all foods on table and serve all foods on child’s plate. Allow child with food for 10 minutes before feeding child.
- Goal is to present a carb, protein, fruit/veggie at every meal/snack (want variety because increase exposure = increase exploration and long-term receptiveness).
- Allow child to be dirty (no face wiping during feeding). If child needs to wipe hands, allow child to do so independently with a wash cloth. For babies, do not scrape food around the mouth with utensil - as this can promote a negative sensory experience during feeding. Leave the clean-up till the end of meal and away from the table.
Talk about the sounds, smells, sights, texture, movement, temperatures and tastes of the foods on the table:
- SMELLS: Have child smell foods and allow older child to be present during meal prep and serving of foods when setting table. Talk about the aromas. Does it smell like any other foods they eat?
- SIGHTS: Let child look at foods before cooking or preparation and describe color, shape, size and texture. Then look at the foods after they are cooked and prepared. Does it look different? What characteristics have changed?
- TEXTURES/TOUCH: Allow child to touch and manipulate foods. How does it feel? Is it hard? Is it soft? Can you smash it? Is the food warm or cold?
- TASTES: Have child really start identifying flavors. Is it sweet like a watermelon or sour like a lemon?
- SOUND: Does it crunch when you chew it? Is it squeeky? What sounds do you hear coming from the boiling pots?
After Meal/Snack at Table:
- Have child throw away food on plate - preferably using hands.
- Child should clean up at sink AFTER meal time, not at table. The goal is for a positive experience during the meal, followed by appropriate transitions to end the meal.
Mealtime can be a learning experience for children and a pleasure for the family. Early exposure to different smells, sights, tastes and sounds at mealtime provide feedback to a child's senses that can encourage healthy behaviors for a lifetime. This is a valuable opportunity for families to come together and place meaning behind an otherwise mundane task. Broadening the senses of the younger children, practicing life skills for the older children, and building relationships for families as a whole, make mealtime a feast for the senses as well as the heart.