I spend a lot of time in my job helping parents to cope with fussy eating and giving them tips to successfully start weaning. And believe it or not, one of the best ways to approach both the picky eating and weaning stage is to get your child interested in food – before they’ve even eaten a mouthful!
By emphasising enjoyment of food from the get-go, we can instil an importance of food and mealtimes in our children’s minds right from the outset. I like to think of learning about the enjoyment of food in the same way as I think about teaching my kids to read or write. After all, they are going to be eating three meals a day for their whole lives – so understanding about food is a fundamental life skill that they need to develop as they grow.
With that in mind, today I’m sharing my top tips for how to foster a love of food in your little ones beyond simple mealtimes. Now that’s not to say that if you follow these tips, your toddler will immediately be gobbling up the broccoli and never fidget at the table again. I know plenty of parents who work in the field of food, and who follow similar practices to the ones below, but still can’t figure out how to get their toddler eating their vegetables, for example! I’m a nutritionist myself and mealtimes with my two definitely haven’t always been plain sailing (see my blog on mealtime environments)!
But, trust me: building some of these tips into your little family’s routine is likely help them learn to love food in the long run – even if sometimes it can seem like nothing you do is paying dividends initially. And it’s never too late to start, either. You can put these tips into practise with really little ones – but equally please don’t fret if you didn’t start when your kids were tiny. A lot of these tips apply for children of all ages (and even teenagers!), too.
10 tips to role model a love of food for your kids
Read and talk to children about food
Chat little and often to your kids about delicious food and how food plays such a huge role in our lives. From touchy feely books to The Hungry Caterpillar, there are so many great picture books about food for very young babies that can help spark this chatter. And as kids grow, food crops up everywhere in their books, from the BFG’s frobscottle to Bertie Bott’s beans at Hogwarts. Use these snippets as conversation starters. You can use tech as well as print to talk about food, too.
Get them engaged in food-related toys
Toy food and play kitchens are excellent opportunities to natter about food with your little ones and get them learning and developing skills around food as well as familiarising children with it so well too. You don’t have to invest in new toys, either. Lots of real kit from your kitchen can be turned into toys. A plastic bowl and a spoon to tap it with can keep a baby amused for a while. Or for toddlers, try popping different items on a set of weighing scales to see how the arrow moves. Kitchen-related activities like these keep them occupied whilst they begin to learn about food. Obviously, be very careful to keep anything sharp or heavy from your kitchen well out of their reach!
If you do want to buy some items, we’ve always loved magnetic foods that the kids can “chop” at home, as well as mini kitchens and even kids baking sets. Casdon do some super realistic play kits created to mimic some of the best kitchen brands.
Try arts and crafts
The internet is a free and limitless resource of craft projects to fit both your child’s age and the kit you have to hand at home. And so much of it can be food-related! Think painted macaroni pictures, potato printing or homemade playdough made from flour, water and food colouring. You don’t need to use actual food itself in their crafts either – your toddler can simply draw pictures of fruits and veggies or make 3D models. But using food for activities can help familiarise them with foods in their natural forms too, without the pressure to eat them.
Get them involved with your mealtimes
Pre-weaning, babies can be bought to the table whilst you’re eating to learn from you – their primary role model. And as soon as they’re eating themselves, there are so many ways to involve babies in family mealtimes every day. But for older children it might be simply asking them to lay the table, draw name places, serve up foods, stir salads etc. Additionally having a written up “mealtime” routine, or a “open” “closed” sign for when mealtimes happen (a bit like a café) might help little ones get more excited about mealtimes and appreciate the idea of them more.
Visit a farm shop or Pick Your Own
Talk to your children about where food comes from – how it’s grown and the people who work to get in on our tables, from farmers to delivery truck drivers to supermarket shelf stackers. A great way to instigate this is to visit a farm shop or PYO together. Different seasons provide different opportunities for day-trips out – from pumpkin patches at Halloween to strawberry picking in summer.
Grow your own food together
You don’t need to be especially green-fingered yourself or have a massive garden or allotment in order to grow your own food. Visit your local garden centre with your kids for some inspiration and to figure out what solutions could work for your home. Many veggies can be grown from plug plants in pots, window boxes or grow bags, for example, or you could try different herbs on a sunny windowsill (or even a simple cress head, which is easy to come by). Growing something from seed is a particularly satisfying project for kids. The easiest is cress, as it’s foolproof and germinates and sprouts quickly, so toddlers see rapid results for their efforts. Then they get to snip it up too and try it in an egg and cress sandwich or salad.
Read recipes together and write shopping lists
Show your kids how you plan for the weekly food shop. As they grow, you can give them a say in what you’re going to eat as a family and get them to join in with writing grocery lists and seeing what ingredients you already have in the kitchen cupboards. Talk to them about food waste and how it’s important to cook with those fresh foods you have to hand in the fridge. If you can, ask their opinion on what they want during the week, give them the chance to choose one meal or to select items for their packed lunch, for example. I often give my son an A and B option before getting started with the cooking, it helps them feel more involved in the meal, and so hopefully will accept it more readily, too.
Buy food together when you’re out and about
Get your child involved in shopping for food and cooking it. Food markets with their colourful produce and delicious fresh food stalls can be really inspirational places for budding little foodies. Their curiosity about different ingredients will grow if they’ve picked them up off a supermarket shelf or from a deli counter themselves. They can carry their goodies home and together you can decide what to cook with them.
Get your kids in the kitchen
Children often enjoy trying new meals they’ve had a hand in preparing. Kids of all ages can help cook and you don’t always need to turn it into a major event where they need to sit still without wriggling and follow a recipe with you from start to finish. Of course, that’s fun when you can commit to it – but you’ll need patience and time at the end to clear up the flour your toddler has tipped all over your kitchen. Meanwhile, you’ll still be preparing food and snacks all day, every day for them… so encourage them to come and help you. Even the smallest hands can try squeezing a lemon, snipping some herbs with little kitchen scissors or spreading butter on a piece of bread. My children love doing this and often take the skills they learn into their own play.
Ask them to help at home
Finally – and on the subject of clearing up! – don’t forget to involve your kids from an early age in the chores. Little ones can set the table with cutlery, help clear away after lunch and do the dishes. The last one can have the most appeal for young kids, given all the bubbles in the kitchen sink. Just keep an eye on hot water and don’t let little hands near anything sharp or non-shatterproof.
I hope these tips help your kids spark an interest in the wonderful world of food. There are so many ways each day to start a conversation about the food we eat together.
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