6 Fun Ways To ‘Learn’ About Food With Your Picky Eater
Let’s think about it – how do kids learn about more traditional topics like math and language? By sitting and listening/watching? No way! Kids learn by using manipulatives, doing experiments, and engaging in a variety of hands-on activities… Kids learn through play! And guess what – feeding is no different.
FOOD PLAY IS FUN – AND IMPORTANT!
Before we get into ways you can explore food with your kids, let’s take a minute here to debunk a few myths about feeding with our kids.
Myth #1: Eating is easy.
Did you know that eating is actually the most complex physical task a child engages in and it is the only task which requires simultaneous coordination of all our sensory systems. Isn’t that crazy to think about?!
Myth #2: Eating is a 2 step process; you sit down and you eat.
According to Dr. Kay Toomey and the Star Institute, there are approximately 32+ steps to feeding for children with feeding difficulties in the process of learning how to eat.
Myth #3: It is not appropriate to play with your food.
As SST we love to remind kids that getting messy can be fun! Actually, wearing your food is a part of the normal developmental process of learning to eat it. In fact, kids can learn tons about food before it even gets into the child’s mouth. Because our kids learn through play, it is so important that we allow our kids the opportunity to learn about the properties of food by looking at it, using it as a tool, touching it, smelling it, and ultimately having fun.
Using all of your senses to learn about food, help kids understand how that food will eventually feel/taste/be in their mouth. It allows them to get more comfortable with new foods.
One study completed in Finland that investigated the impact of a ‘sensory based food education’ in pre-schools showed that kids that went through the program ended up choosing more fruits then vegetables…why? Because they let the kids use all of their senses to explore the foods through preparing meals, helping in the garden and engaging in ‘sensory activities’. So roll up those sleeves and have fun with your kids. Together you can get messy, explore, investigate and learn all about the different properties of food.
HERE ARE 6 FUN WAYS TO PLAY AND EXPLORE FOOD WITH YOUR KIDS:
1. Pretend play:
Can the apple sauce on your plate become a muddy race track and the carrot stick your race car? What about that pretzel stick, can you turn it into a mustache or walrus teeth? Using imaginative play can help kids feel more comfortable around unfamiliar foods and use all of their senses to learn about it in preparation for eating it. A fan favorite for some of our feeding friends at SST is going on Frozen adventures and making different potions and magic spells with our foods in order to save Arendelle. What is your child interested in? Can you turn food play into a fun adventure?
2. Imitation games:
Monkey see, monkey do – through the process of modeling, you can engage and interact with your child – and food in a fun and silly way. Not only will this help your kids learn about food, but it also helps bring awareness to their face and mouth. Can you make different faces or put the food item on different body parts and have your child copy it? Can the child do the same and you copy them? It is important to start simple (and away from the mouth) and work up to body parts close to the mouth.
It is important for your child to see the same food in a variety of different ways. Pasta sauce isn’t always in a jar, applesauce in a can, pouches in a – well pouch. Bring out a plate and pour/spread those wet foods out to explore in a new way. Can your child use a utensil or other food to draw in it or write their name? What about their fingers to draw – this is a great way for your kids to feel the food and understand it with their hands first. Bonus: can the kids use other foods to make letters or pictures within the wet item? A fan favorite is using spaghetti noodles in a plate of red sauce to write letters and words.
4. Build and craft:
Are there any future architects out there? How can you use different ingredients to build towers or create different things. Marshmallows or other sticky foods are a great for sticking things into. Peanut butter or frosting are great at holding other items together. Get creative here – the possibilities are endless. Click HERE to find a variety of Valentine’s themed food crafts.
For your older kids out there, ‘food science’ can be a motivating and engaging way to interact with new foods. What happens if you add food coloring to frosting? Or if you pour water over M&M’s? Reframing investigation as ‘experiments’ can provide an opportunity to talk about, touch, and better understand a variety of different foods.
6. Help with meal prep:
An extra set of hands can always be helpful! Having your child help with meal prep is a nice way to spend quality time together and it is a natural opportunity for your kids to use all of their senses around food. An added bonus, this helps your child feel more in control of the meal and have less emotional lability due to mealtime being ‘unexpected’.
A few other important concepts to remember when it comes to food play, meal time, and feeding in general:
- Add language: Remember to talk about the food experience with your child. What does it smell like? what does it feel like? Is the food warm or cold? Crunchy or chewy? Sweet or salty? How does your child describe the food (trust me, this can give you so much insight!)? Using language can help your child add meaning to what they are experiencing which ultimately gives them more control and a better understanding of the food they have in front of them. If a child can understand it, it suddenly becomes safer and in turn they are more likely to eat it.
- New shape = new food: It might seem silly to us, but a baby carrot and a full carrot are perceived as entirely different foods for our kids. Presenting the same food in different shapes and sizes and allowing them the space to explore can help them generalize their feeding skills.
- They are watching you: Kids reference those around them to learn/understand how to do many things – this is called observational learning. At mealtime or during food play, make sure you are an active participant and model the behavior or action you want your child to try. Don’t be afraid to put on your theater hat and really model what you are doing (big, dramatic chews, etc.) because more often than not, your child will learn from this!
Food play can be different then meal time (or not). But with food play it is important to remember, it is all about the process, not the product. Focus on the experience with your child, not whether or not they eat the food. Positive experiences and multiple exposures can help your child be more comfortable with foods.
We hope you find this post helpful. Click HERE for more resources.
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Hi, I am an occupational therapist at South Shore Therapies. I specialize in pediatirc brain injury and stroke, but love working with all families to help kids reach their optimal potential. Our mission with SST’s social media platform is to empower, educate and inspire families to take on life’s challenges while promoting an optimistic outlook and a brighter future.
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