Something that seems a great shame in today’s world is the fact that many of us seem to have fallen out of love with food. For many, food is merely a fuel to fill us up and provide us with essential energy for survival. We often discuss food simply in relation to its nutrient content and refer to foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. At the same time, people often avoid whole food groups and take part in extreme crash diets – all the time limiting the array of foods they could be enjoying.
Importantly this is sending a message to younger generations and to our children – the message that food is our enemy. I’m on a mission to help bring the enjoyment back into eating and to help us fall back in love with food again. A great place to start (especially as summer approaches) is with our kids!
So where to begin? First and foremost we need to help children enjoy mealtimes and eating occasions. We need to make food fun. Eating should be an important part of a child’s day. Not simply something to get through until they can carry on playing again. Making food fun can be easy and there are a number of ways to achieve this.
A dining experience to remember!
To make mealtimes fun, why not try using colourful tablecloths or napkins with characters on them to get children interested initially. When setting the table you could also make it fun by introducing little games or competitions e.g. – who can set the table the fastest/best, who can find the hidden spoon, who can make the table look the most exciting, who has a note under their placemat today? Building this kind of routine into dinner time can make mealtimes a more enjoyable experience, and make children look forward to mealtimes rather than dreading them.
It’s important to avoid making mealtimes a battlefield. Even if you’re trying to get the kids to eat well, arguing over the broccoli is unlikely to help in the long run. Instead, try and offer praise for the positive things your child has done. “Well done, you ate most of it” or “Oh you enjoyed your carrots then”. This stops mealtimes becoming a daily battle and helps your children to associate mealtimes with positivity and praise rather than negativity. If food is refused, remove the plate away without much comment and offer it later, if appropriate.
Using fun equipment such as character cutlery and colourful plates can help make mealtimes even more enjoyable for kids too. Something I always enjoyed as a child was making my own place names and then deciding who sits where!
Eating together is important for a number of reasons. Again it helps to make food and mealtimes fun and helps to separate food from the rest of the day’s activities. It also allows social interaction between family members, a time to sit back and talk about your day’s activities. It’s also a key time to help influence what your children eat. Most importantly children, especially young children, will often copy others around them when it comes to eating and the food they choose, including their parents. However friends, siblings and other family members such as brothers, uncles and cousins can all help to encourage your kids to eat up the foods on their plate too.
To make these mealtimes and eating occasions more fun, you could jazz them up from time to time by having indoor or outdoor picnics, buffet meals or ‘make your own meals’ (pizza toppings or fajitas, for example).
This can help to add interest into standard mealtime routines and therefore help children become more involved and more excited about food and mealtimes.
Making foods together
Children are often more likely to eat foods that they have been involved in preparing. It’s a good idea to get children involved from a young age in all aspects of food, from writing lists, to going shopping to setting the table and to cooking and serving the dinner. Rather than making this a chore, give them tasks and allow them choices – which table cloth shall we use today? Which vegetables shall we choose at the shops? Who can make the table look the most exciting? Who will sit where around the table today?
Get them involved in chopping, stirring, mixing, kneading, and garnishing foods to help spark some interest in the food they are going to be eating. There are plenty of fun, online recipes you can get the children involved with making too. Try making popcorn from scratch or fruit and yoghurt blended into an ice cream or ants on a log (celery with cream cheese and raisins). You could even try a ‘bake off’ style activity with your children’s family or friends.
Giving them choice (but not complete choice)
You won’t necessarily want your kids to make all the decisions around the foods they are eating. Left to their own devices their menu would probably consist entirely or crisps and ice cream, which of course, isn’t ideal. However, allowing some autonomy around food choices can help to develop their independence and, again, help them to feel more involved at mealtimes. Try offering a choice between a few healthy options – “Would you like peas or sweetcorn?”, “Shall we have spaghetti bolognaise or chilli con carne?” “Would you like a yoghurt or some cheese with that?”. Giving them these choices helps them to feel part of the decision and hopefully, you’ll find them more likely to enjoy something they themselves chose!
Trying new and exotic foods
Try bringing in a new or exciting food once a week for everyone to try. This increases the variety that children are exposed to, which in turn can help them to eat a wider variety of foods as they get older. You could include this new food in the main course or as part of the dessert. You could even make it into a fun activity before the food is served where everyone gets a taste and says what they think, or rates it on a scale of one to ten. Get them to think about what they do and don’t like about the new food and compare it with other foods they have eaten before. This helps children to explore foods and new tastes and also to think about the foods before dismissing (or even accepting) them entirely.
Naming new foods
Many parents find more success in getting their children to eat well when they use different names: so ‘trees’ instead of broccoli, ‘lava’ for tomato sauce, ‘monkey food’ for bananas, or ‘caterpillar leaves’ for spinach. Find names that your children will find interesting, a favourite character who might eat them for example?
You could also try decorating the plate with smiley faces or making them into characters (time permitting, of course) and giving them a name too. It’s also best to do this with snacks, rather than main meals, so that children don’t expect all their foods to be served this way.
Finally, find out which ideas work to help your family enjoy mealtimes more and to help make food fun and enjoyable. Remember no one expects busy parents to make all mealtimes into a fun activity, everyday but some of these ideas may just help to make healthy eating a little easier.
Other fun ideas to try:
- Try doing a Food Fact Quiz to kick off mealtimes
- Do some fun blind taste testing
- Try out using sticker and star charts when new foods are tried or tasted
- Weekend ‘midnight’ feasts with plenty of healthy food options
- Try offering water diffused with fruits or mint or cucumber as a tasty alternative for hydration
Let me know if you have had any ideas that you have tried with your kids too. I’m always on the look out for more inspiration! Also don’t forget to check out the Child Nutrition part of my website!