You glance over and realize that your child hasn’t eaten anything.
The food is delicious. Why is your little one more into feeling than tasting? Next to him, his older sister is making her vegetables into an art project.
You want to just continue chatting and enjoying your own meal. Is that wrong? You want to be a good parent. Good parents insist that kids eat vegetables, right?
The idea of having to fight with your child about yet another thing is tiring. Is it such a big deal if they play with their food instead of eating it? Are you setting them up for a lifetime of poor eating habits?
You really do want your child to learn to eat a healthy diet. You want them to have great table manners and social skills. You always thought family meal time was going to be a beautiful experience.
Instead, you’re feeling stressed because your mother-in-law is watching your parenting fail.
There’s no need to fake a smile and start a conversation about the weather. Use a real smile and explain that you’re excited to see your children so engaged in their play. Here’s why playing with food is a great thing.
Why do kids play with their food?
Have you ever heard that children’s play is their work? It’s true. The activities children do contribute to their development. They are gaining information about the world, and practicing skills needed to perform as functional adults.
They’re working on fine motor skills: pinching, moving their hand to their mouthes, handling tools proficiently.
They’re also conducting scientific observations of the items on their plate. How do things of this color taste? How do things of this shape act? What is the texture of this?
Why food play is actually a big deal
Imagine that someone is trying to stick something in your mouth that you can’t identify. How would you react? Gulp it down and hope for the best?
Most of us want to know what we’re putting into our bodies. Even in a situation where we intend to try new foods, we’ll usually only go after one or two. Children are no different. Because they are new to life, food is also new to them. It makes sense that they want to get familiar with it before they eat it.
Have you ever heard of food therapy? Some occupational therapists specialize in helping children get comfortable with new foods and eat a healthy, well rounded diet. Guess what they do with the children?
Yep. They help them play with their food.
The more positive interactions a child has with a food, the more likely he is to want to eat it. Some children need special help to get to that point, but most kids just need the chance to play on their own terms.
If you want to raise kids that eat well, let them play with their food a little bit.
None of us enjoys being asked to perform a new task in front of a critical audience. When we have an important presentation to give, we’ll practice in front of the mirror. Musicians spend hours on a piece before going on stage. Feeling rushed makes us feel resentful.
If you want children who are pleasant at meal time, let them practice with their utensils in a friendly environment.
4 Tips to for making the most of meal time
- Dress for success. Make sure your child is either wearing a bib, or washable clothes that you don’t mind getting messy. If you aren’t worried about laundry, it will be easier to let your child play.
- Set realistic boundaries. You may choose to let your child bathe in his oatmeal, but it’s ok to set some boundaries too. You can tell the child that peas need to stay on the tray. If he can’t then the peas will need to go away.
- Give your child a little bit of everything you are eating, but don’t force her to eat any one thing. Let her explore and learn to listen to her own body to figure out how much she needs to eat.
- Set a good example. You’re probably already doing this one. One of these days you’ll look over and see that your child is following your lead.
Enjoy your meal!
Go ahead and relax. Savor your food. Connect with the ones you love. Let your child experiment. Let him play. Let her learn to love what’s on her plate on her own terms.
If someone else has a problem with your approach, confidently explain that you’re teaching your child to enjoy a wide range of foods. Confidence is convincing.
In the mean time, you‘ll be setting a great example of a caring, engaged parent who eats a balanced diet — and enjoys it too.