Happy Mealtimes and Fun with Food

With so many mouths to feed mealtimes are an important part of our day and an entertaining social experience. Admittedly some days the children are overexcited and find it hard to sit down, others they argue, sometimes they try to build barricades to hide behind (cereal boxes are a great fortress) and occasionally they will put on music during the mealtime which can be fine as long as everyone agrees on the song!

The children who join us enjoy mealtimes as we try to engage everyone in conversation, even the little ones who can’t talk. One of the favourite mealtime games is to copy the youngest at the table. If they make a sound they are copied by the rest of the table. It usually ends up with quite a noisy round of table slapping and laughing. The babies love the fact that they are holding the attention of a large group. Engaging the toddlers in conversation is fun too. The toddlers listen to the older children with a keen ear and often repeat words that they recognise or sounds that they hear in the conversations. An example would be when our seven year olds were talking about a trip to a local environmental centre and one of our mindees heard the word ‘pig’. She immediately started snorting which made everyone laugh and immediately she won centre stage in performing a round of animal noises for the table. At a slightly older age the questions that pre-schoolers ask can be intriguing and the older children enjoy the fun they can have answering these. As an adult when we are asked implausible questions we are tempted to answer them with direct, no-nonsense answers; mealtimes in our house have maybe made me a little more playful as I follow the lead of my own children and see the vivacity it brings to conversation with younger children. An example would be a conversation we were having about holidays at the table last week. Our three-year-old mindee was quiet until he heard the word ‘aeroplane’. He suddenly joined in,
“I like aeroplanes and helicopters. Can I go in a helicopter?”
The question was answered with several questions and the children realised they could have fun with this conversation,
“Where would you go?”
“How fast would you go?”
“Wouldn’t you rather go in a spaceship?”
“Could I go with you?”
“Would you fly the helicopter?”
Again our little childmindee was swept into the conversation and happily explained with authority that he did like spaceships but would rather go in a helicopter or a steam train. He decided that he could be the driver and the imagination started to emerge as he suggested that the steam train would fly if it had propellers and he would be really fast. This impressed the older children no end!

Our older children are quickly drawn into conversation with our two regular playful questions,
“Who was naughty in school today?”
and
“What was the funniest thing that happened in school today?”
The former question invariably ends up with all the children putting up their hands and me saying ‘I hope you weren’t naughty’ and everyone laughing before they share stories about class mischief and meyhem.

The challenge of childminding mealtimes has been contending with the fussy eater and we have had a few. Over the few years I have been minding I have discovered that the best way to deal with the non-eaters is to let them enjoy the mealtime experience with no pressure. I serve the same food to all but try to have enough variety at the table to offer some choice. If the children won’t eat then I don’t pressure them. I have found that when they are hungry enough they will eat and it’s always a big moment when they will accept a new food even if it is just to hold it and put it on their plates and not eat it. Between mealtimes I try to help the fussy eaters to encounter new foods through food games. These are a few of the games we play.

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Food mixing
You will need:
A large mixing bowl
A wooden spoon
several small bowls or containers
different foods to put in each container such as – flour, cereal, honey, banana, chopped tomatoes, chopped boiled egg, jam, sliced ham, cooked couscous, peas, cooked spaghetti, breadcrumbs – anything that you think will be easily transported into the mixing bowl using utensils or fingers.

You then show the children how to move the ingredients from the bowl to the mixing bowl and to stir. The foods may taste awful together but it doesn’t matter. The fussy eaters are reluctant to taste the food so they will be less worried if you are simply giving them something to feel, hold and play with. If they understand that the game is simply putting it all into a bowl to mix up they will soon learn to have fun and get stuck in. You will probably find that they will start with the food that they are most comfortable with and when that runs out they will start to play with the other foods. Some of the foods that they are least comfortable with may not be interacted with at all but that’s okay, it’s their choice entirely, it’s an exercise in letting them choose. I encourage the children to touch the food if possible but if they aren’t happy with that then spoons are wonderful. It’s great for children who have a transporting schema.

Pea Bobbing
You will need:
Semi-defrosted peas
A tub
Water
Straws

Put the peas into the tub and fill the tub with water. The children should try to pick up the peas with the straw. The winner is the child with the most peas. Our most reluctant eaters usually end up eating a few peas and it’s a great way to get some vitamin C and iron down them.

Food Artwork
You will need:
Paper
several small bowls or containers
different foods to put in each container – a variety of colourful foods such as chopped tomatoes, chopped mixed peppers, spaghetti, cucumbers, shredded cheese, jam, peas etc.

I encourage the children to get stuck in with their fingers with this game. It probably takes a demonstration to show the children what to do. Usually the magic of making a simple face shape for the children is enough to get them creating. The non-threatening act of playing with the food to make pictures usually encourages them to lick their fingers and to try the foods.

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I am a firm believer in letting younger children play with their food. The more comfortable they are with their food the more likely they are to put it closer to their mouths. The games have led to a few creative plates of food at our meal table and I do explain to parents that the children are likely to create some artwork at mealtimes at home.

I find that every child we look after is different and I am always interested in new ideas for helping fussy eaters to gain confidence with new foods so if anyone is looking in on this blog with ideas please feel free to add suggestions or experiences.

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