Meals are sacred times- to nourish our bodies as well as have a social interaction with people around us by eating together. We already know why force feeding ought to be avoided. But how does one encourage independent eating in young children? This is especially difficult in the Indian millenial setup. Here is what helped us, and what I recommend parents too.
Although this is about independent eating in children, the role of the adult is most important. Yes, there will be messes. Yes, the child may eat 3 bowls today and just 2 spoons tomorrow. It’s okay. What helped me was, reminding myself that my job was to offer, show, be patient and trust that V’s understanding of her body. My happiness is not linked to the size of V’s belly.
2. Dedicated eating area
Always have a dedicated area for mealtimes. It could be a weaning table or a dining table or a corner of the living room floor. It reinforces to the child that this is a special area where only eating takes place.A weaning table is especially useful for starting baby-led weaning in infants. However, due to space constraints, we directly started having family meals with V, with the booster chair on the floor.
3. Welcome your sous-chef
Involve the child in as much food preparation as possible. Children under one can easily help with washing vegetables or sorting them or peeling potato skin. Toddlers can help in chopping, measuring, loading cookers, cleaning greens, etc. These are also irreplaceable sensory experiences- smelling masalas, feeling textures, etc.
4. Transition chores
Children can also help with other chores like setting the table, transporting food from kitchen to serving area, laying out placemats, plates and water, etc. Simple laminated placemat printables available online can make it easy for toddlers.
These jobs give the child a sense of independence, help self-esteem because they are doing purposeful and useful work, and give her a chance to refine movements.
By the time the child is 1-1.5 years plus, she can be encouraged to put food on her plate on her own. This helps in multiple ways- understanding the difference between cutlery used for sabzis or gravies; conservation of space, sequencing tasks, and taking responsibility for their own feeding.
6. Eating together
It is important that the child eats with the rest of the family, so that she has a chance to observe how we eat– peeling off chapatis, dunking the dosa in the sambar, putting it into our mouth and chewing. She also needs to understand that eating is a pleasurable activity. We usually keep conversations light and talk about our day while at the dinner table. Apart from just eating habits, this has also helped V learn table etiquette, phrases like ”please pass the..” , sharing, portioning and trying out everything on the table.
And once we sit down as a family to eat, it is important that the child has cutlery of her size. We use regular child sized steel plates, spoons and forks sourced from the local utensils store (perks of living in chennai). A small open tumbler and jug to pour water from encourages refinement of motor skills.
It also goes without saying, that for the child to have a positive relationship with food, there be minimal or zero distractions in the form of screens, books or stories.
Let the child have the freedom to choose how much she wants to eat. Let her explore the food with her fingers or the spoon. We can show her once in a while the right way, and then give her time to master it so that it doesn’t get irritating for her.
8. Cleanup after eating
Encourage the child to help in cleanup as well. Putting plates away after eating, picking up messes and a simple washcloth to wipe the table after done, for example, to reinforce that eating time is now over.
9. Eating at school
Choose a school that is supportive of your family’s choices and philosophy when it comes to independent eating, so that there is minimal confusion for the child.
10. Some common difficulties
What does one do when an older child keeps moving or running away in between food? When the child sees good behaviour with food modelled right from the start, the chances of this happening are very less. However, ask yourself if this is a one off situation. Is she restless today because of the weather/ other disturbances/ happenings at home or school? If it happens on an everyday basis, remind her firmly but gently, that she can play or paint AFTER finishing her food and clearing away her plate.
And what does one do when well-meaning relatives insist on force feeding or distraction-feeding the child? I used to speak for V. I believe that children need to hear their safe space, their parents be their voice, when they lack one. Tell firmly yet gently, ” I trust V will be able to eat as much as she wants on her own. Please trust her as well.”
And what about the mess? A simple bib and mat/ newspaper under the chair and encouraging the child to help with cleanup is easier on us.
In conclusion, yes, involving the child in food prep or cleanup will take much longer. It may not seen the most efficient or fastest way to us, but it is a chance for her to refine her movements and learn. We need to remember that we will be doing her a great injustice by swooping in and ‘helping’. Yes, handing over the reins to the child is scary because it requires us breaking away from conditioning. But is it worth it? Yes. Mealtimes at home as well as outdoors are a breeze now, for both V and us. Food is treated with reverence and love, as it should be.