We’ve all been there: You’ve just spent a good 30 minutes preparing a meal that you think your child will love and devour. But when you put it on the table, your child sniffs and explains that they won’t eat it, have never liked it and definitely won’t try it tonight. The dinner table soon turns into a power struggle, and you both feel annoyed and unheard.
As it turns out, asking your child to “just try one bite” does more harm than good. Instead, practice releasing the pressure. Recent research shows that letting your child play with their food—without the pressure of actually eating it—can help your child safely explore new tastes and textures in an anxiety-free environment. Children learn through play, and bringing this concept into mealtime can be a game changer for many children, but especially for children with sensory challenges or certain food or texture aversions.
Eating is work too
According to Simone Emery, child nutritionist and natural eating advocate at Little Bellies, eating is one of the most complex things a child learns. “To execute a gulp, we use 26 muscles and six cranial nerves, as well as all five senses and body awareness to interpret a superhighway of information,” she notes. “Eating is a lot of hard work, so it’s easy to see how a playful approach can facilitate stress-free habits.”
Adding play to snacks and meals can help children become familiar with food—especially new foods. Letting kids play with food can also reduce anxiety and remove any feeling of food pressure kids may feel because it increases their curiosity, Emery tells Motherly. “Food is less of a surprise when we play with it first,” she shares.
Recent research supports this. In a study of 62 preschoolers in the UK, researchers divided the children into three groups: one group engaged in a sensory play activity involving edible fruits and vegetables, one group engaged in a non-food sensory activity, and the other group looked at pictures of fruits and vegetables. The researchers found that the children who actually played with fruit and vegetables ended up tasting and eating more than the children in the other two groups.
“To learn about food, you have to get messy,” says Emery.
avoid power struggle
So how do you ensure that a) your child doesn’t starve and b) you don’t spend minutes preparing a second meal? Fill their plates with a few foods that your child knows and already likes and add just one or two new foods to discover. Then encourage them to get their hands dirty.
Letting kids touch and let touch what’s on their plate without expecting to actually taste it can take some of the pressure off of the situation for everyone involved.
“To learn about food, you have to get messy,” says Emery. That could mean giving kids the freedom to stack, roll, mash, or mash what’s on their plate, all with the goal of simply familiarizing themselves with the idea of a new food and its texture, smell, and taste to become familiar with its color. This is especially helpful when introducing foods they have never seen before. But giving kids the space and time to explore here is key, notes Emery.
Ideally, this food exploration takes place during meal prep and meal times, in what Emery calls “a game with a contextual learning purpose.”
What if they happen to taste the food while playing with it? That’s just an added bonus.
One more thing: Don’t try to wipe that cute chin or clean those messy hands until exploration time is up, Emery adds. By doing this, you unwittingly create a more stressful eating dynamic. “Giving the child the opportunity to play, learn, and eat while you eat with them is less stressful, encourages learning, and builds a long-term, happy relationship with food,” says Emery.
While table manners are a very valuable skill, they may come when the time comes. In the meantime, it’s incredibly important to open your child up to the wider world of food and all the sensory experiences that come with it, especially when they’re young.
Find out more about picky eaters on The Motherly Podcast
Nutritional roles of parents and children
“As parents, we need to make sure a child is eating right by integrating developmental, nutritional and environmental advice,” says Emery. But even in this area, children should have freedom of choice.
According to the work of nutritionist and therapist Ellyn Satter, there is a clear distinction between the child’s role and the parent’s role when it comes to feeding and eating. Respecting these natural boundaries can make meal times easier and more enjoyable for everyone involved.
The division of responsibility in the feeding of young children by adolescents
The Ellyn Satter Institute considers these roles as follows:
- The parents or guardians decide What? When and Where meal
- The child decides if and how much meal
This approach is a helpful reminder that children need to be able to choose for themselves whether they want to eat at all—and how much they want to eat.
This makes eating fun again
Here are a few fun ways to get your child involved in Little Bellies food exploration through play. Try these games at your next snack break or meal.
Coulthard H, Sealy A. Play with your food! Sensory play is associated with tasting fruits and vegetables in preschool children. appetite. 1 Jun 2017;113:84-90.
Snacks, first foods, nutrition, health