By Alison Racine, The Curious Child, Brooklyn.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love it if someone packed my lunch everyday. I think I’d eat about every bite. Unfortunately, kids don’t always have the same appreciation for food that their adult counterparts do. As a Preschool teacher, I have helped my little ones learn to eat healthfully and mindfully.
Here are 5 helpful tips:
1. LET THEM PLAY WITH KNIVES: Maybe you have the next Ina Garten or Bobby Flay on your hands-but the world will never know if you don’t let them help out in the kitchen! Children love to feel prideful of the things they’ve made. When children take a greater roll in the process of cooking, they are more likely to try what is being cooked. I’m not suggesting your child bake a soufflé right out of the gate, but give a 2-year-old the job of putting the cucumbers in the salad bowl after you’ve cut them, or having a 3-year-old cut the cucumbers themselves with safe plastic knives, will go over big! I’ve taught a cooking class and the kids would race into the room, chomping at the bit to find out what we were cooking. Each class was completely hands on and each lesson was scaffolded to create successful participation and learning in each age group. Many of my most picky eaters would at least try the food because they had helped to make it.
2. ALLOW THEM TO BE THE EXPERT: Kids love to be the expert, so arming them with positive knowledge about nutrition, what to eat when and how much is a great way to have children eating healthy. During lunchtime, we talk about entrees, sides and dessert. We talk about why we generally eat our entrees first or with our sides, because usually there is the most nutrition in the entree or the sides. I talk about how our bodies need protein to make our muscles strong, carbohydrates to make our bodies run fast, omega 3 to help our brain think, vitamin C to keep our bodies from getting sick. I will survey a child’s lunch and comment on the foods being consumed in a casual, organic way to teach them about what each food in their lunch does for their growing bodies.
3. GIVE THEM DESSERT AT EVERY MEAL: Dessert is always a power struggle-if you let it be. One way I find success in the battle of dessert vs. nutritional food is to educate them about eating the entrée and sides first and dessert second but then open the lunchbox as fair game on all fronts-meaning all foods are available. This helps children self-regulate from a young age. If you do take this advice, I recommend that you make your dessert option a small one to accompany the rest of the nutritional foods in your child’s meal. Think tiny muffin, or one piece of chocolate-this way if your child decides to eat the dessert first they will still be hungry for the other items on the menu.
4. SITTING AT THE TABLE AT MEALTIME IS A MUST: Sitting is the first step to any mindful eating routine. If a child is not sitting, my guess is there is very little focused eating happening. A bite here, a bite there and then your kiddo is ready to get to the more important things, perhaps playing with a stick they found or building a house for a friendly monster. Whatever the distraction from mealtime, I recommend you consistently redirect your child back to the table. It is important in this moment to remember to reassure them that there is time for whatever else it is that they are looking to do, later. You may even need to be specific as to when that might be, “Dear, sweet, child of mine, we can play with the T. Rex after you have finished having a meal.”
5. ALWAYS SET A GOOD EXAMPLE: Well folks, this is the portion of the article when I ask us all to slow down and practice what we preach. Children are constantly looking to their adults to make sense of the world around them, so if you are able to model the behavior you would like to see in your child (sitting at the table, engaging in conversation, eating your entrée and side first) you will have greater success than if you are engaged with other things. As a teacher, there is always approximately 4.5 million things that I could be doing at lunchtime, i.e. writing an email, assessing individual goals for my children, planning project work, etc. I’m sure your life is no less chaotic. Although I know that I have those 4.5 million things to do, I do my best to model and make it a practice to sit with the children to make mealtime sacred. A time where things can wait, a time that is for conversation and refueling our bodies so we are ready for the next adventure.
It is of course important to remember that all children learn differently and that you will need to find the best balanced system that works for your child. Each child is capable, creative and curious. If you have more questions about mindful eating and would like to set up an individualized assessment of your child’s eating habits please email firstname.lastname@example.org