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Want to Set Your Child Up for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating? Let Them Play with Their Food!

According to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW), poor diet and obesity are two of the greatest concerns faced by Australian children. Also concerning is the fact that a mind-boggling 96% of children age 5 – 14 do not eat enough vegetables each day to meet the necessary health requirements.

Yet, every toddler parent knows the headache that can come from encouraging your little one to try new or unfamiliar foods.

Why Are Children Afraid of New Foods?

Though it can be maddening to slave over a home cooked meal only to watch your toddler turn up their nose and push their plate away without so much as smelling your offering, it’s important to remember that such reactions are quite normal and are, in fact, part of the survival instinct ingrained in humans.

Neophobia means “fear of the new”, and it is used to describe the aversion children have to foods that are unfamiliar to them. Scientists believe this avoidance behavior is an evolutionary trait that was used by children for centuries to help them avoid eating dangerous or poisonous plants or animals.

To move past neophobia, it is important that children are repeatedly exposed to new foods, even if they don’t taste them right away. It is only through repeated exposure that children will eventually reach out and explore new foods. So, as tempting as it may be to fill up your child’s plate with chicken nuggets…or mashed potatoes…or any other food they love, keep those green veggies on their plate and stay the course. Your child will be healthier thanks to your efforts.

How Can Playing with Food Help?

If you regularly read our blog, you know the importance of play in a child’s learning and development. It is through play that children make sense of their environment…and this includes food.

You may have grown up in a home where “Don’t play with your food!” was a common mantra, but it is time to let that idea go…at least while children are young and still developing food preferences.

When presenting your child with a new food, encourage them to explore and ask questions of it.

What does it look like?

What does it smell like?

What does it feel like?

Rather than viewing a new food introduction as successful only if the food is consumed, consider it a victory if your child looks, smells, or touches the food. That is progress!

Continue presenting the food to the child repeatedly. One day, you’ll be surprised to see them munching away on something they’ve been interacting with (but not eating) for weeks.

As your child learns it is safe to try new foods, you’ll find they become more comfortable with trying new items and it takes less time for them to taste new offerings. And, as their palate broadens, you’ll notice them enjoying a variety of healthy foods and vegetables.

Play Ideas for Food

Here are some fun ways to encourage your child to experience food in a playful way:

  • Add new fruit to a clear bowl of Jello. Allow your child to dig through the Jello to retrieve the fruit pieces, then encourage them to explore what the new food looks/smells/feels/tastes like.

  • Have your child sort peas and cubed carrots into separate piles.

  • Use sliced vegetables to engage in a veggie sword fight.

  • Get your child in the kitchen! Letting children participate in the cooking experience is great for fine motor skill development and problem solving. And knowing they had a hand in cooking the food increases their curiosity in it and makes them more likely to explore it.
    Build towers using disk-like slices of cucumber, zucchini, radish, or carrot. Challenge your child to see how tall they can build their tower before it falls over.

  • Separate foods on the plate according to color.

  • Go grocery shopping together. This is a wonderful way for children to explore the sight/smell/feel of new foods. Allow them to pick out a new food to try at the next meal.

  • Play a blind taste test game. Have your child close their eyes or place a soft headband or blindfold over their eyes. Give them a piece of unfamiliar food and have them guess what it is.

Be Patient

Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day…and your child’s palate won’t be either. Take the focus away from consumption of new food and instead enjoy the little victories when your child interacts with new food in any way.

If, after several weeks, your child is still refusing to interact with new foods in any way, you may want to enlist the help of a counselor who can determine if your child is dealing with a food-related sensory aversion and can offer help.

For any more information, call Clovel Childcare and Early Learning Centre, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. For any information about our Educational Programs, give us a call at 02 9199 0294 or fill in this contact us form.

Thanks for reading,
Clovel Childcare
1300 863 986