Meal Time Is More Than Just Good Food
Foods are important in many ways, from providing tasteful pleasures, to supplying appropriate nutrition, to helping avoid certain diseases and medical conditions. It is widely known that many major diseases, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer are related to the foods we eat. In a childcare center or preschool program, foods are not only the fuel that keeps young bodies moving throughout the day, but they can help keep children healthy and make sure the immune system is properly armed to ward off illnesses.
Early childhood caregivers help shape lifelong eating habits by introducing healthy foods and modeling healthy eating. Children as young as two years old can begin to grasp information about food and how it helps their bodies. Unfortunately, studies have shown that very little nutrition information is given to children, especially during mealtimes. Yet by teaching sound nutrition principles, parents and caregivers can promote healthy eating habits.
Here are some suggestions that can help caregivers be positive role models for children:
- Sit at the table with children and eat the same foods they eat. Eating the same foods that are served to the children, sends the message that you value eating nutritious foods. Try not to “diet” or avoid food in front of children because this may indicate that certain foods are “bad” or that there is a need to be thin. To satisfy snacking urges, ring healthful snacks to share with the children such as fruits, vegetables, crackers, or pretzels.
- Create a pleasant and relaxed learning environment at mealtimes. Eating is a social time and children can learn much from the conversation that takes place at the table. Conversation should be on topics of the children’s interest, while encouraging discussion of the foods served. Children may want to talk about similar foods that they eat at home.
- Provide opportunities to explore food by taste, touch, sight, smell, and even sound. Taste may be described as sweet, salty, sour, or even “tastes good/bad.” Touching foods as with forks and spoons can reveal if they are firm or squishy, bumpy or smooth. Foods’ appearance may include color, solid/liquid, and shapes such as a mountain of mashed potatoes. Smells of the same uncooked and cooked food may differ. Some foods make interesting sounds, such as crackers breaking and apples crunching.
- Encourage hand-eye coordination and development of fine motor skills through activities such as scrubbing vegetables with a brush, making dips for vegetables and fruit, or tearing lettuce into a bowl. Try rolling dough, pouring water, shaking and mixing, and peeling or cracking eggs. And of course, be sure children wash hands thoroughly before and after handling food!
- Young children can learn to use table utensils. Cutting soft foods or spreading them on bread or crackers is one way to use a table knife. As always, closely supervise these activities.
One fun activity is making sandwich cut-ups. Let the children help mix peanut butter with a small amount of mashed bananas, grated carrot, or applesauce. These ingredients not only make exciting flavors, but also make the peanut butter easier to spread and swallow. Let children spread the filling on partially frozen bread. (This makes it easier to spread the peanut butter. Allow bread to thaw before eating.) Have children decide how they want their sandwiches cut. You may even use cookie cutters and make different shapes. Help children count the number of pieces in their sandwiches. Let them move the pieces around and put them back together like a puzzle. Talk about whole versus halves and quarters.
Here’s some basic nutrition information than can be shared with children during meal and snack times:
- Meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and dried beans/peas contain protein. Protein helps muscles grow and become strong.
- Breads, potatoes, beets, beans, and peas contain carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are energy foods. Cakes, candy, and “dessert” foods also contain carbohydrates and are acceptable in small amounts but do not supply long-lasting energy.
- Fats also give energy. The body needs a small amount of fat each day. Moderate amounts of fat are essential for proper brain development in young children.
- Vitamins and minerals are different from carbohydrates, proteins, and fat because they do not provide energy or make up any part of the body. Vitamins and minerals are like the fuse on a firecracker. They trigger chemical reactions in the body so that all the other nutrients can do their job. Every body action from running to sneezing involves vitamins and minerals.
There are many vitamins and minerals that are important for balanced nutrition, so it is important not to overemphasize any particular vitamin or food. If children eat a variety of foods, such as foods of different colors, textures, tastes, etc., they will probably get all the vitamins and minerals they need. For example, Vitamin C is found in broccoli, tomatoes, cantaloupe, citrus, and strawberries. Vitamin C helps keep gums, teeth, and blood vessels healthy and helps the body to heal itself. Vitamin K, found in greens, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, cereals, and soybeans, helps in blood clotting. Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and teeth. It is found in fortified milk, fish, and even sunlight on the skin. Vitamin A, found in carrots and other orange, green, and yellow vegetables, is needed for healthy eyes and skin. Vitamin E helps in making red blood cells and helps protect body tissues. It is found in vegetables oils, nuts, and whole grains.
Meal and snack times are more than just “fuel” times. New foods can be introduced, including ethnic foods. Children can experience different foods and tastes and begin to put in place their own likes and dislikes about foods. Learning about healthy foods and healthy eating and spending time with friends and family while eating makes meal times special indeed!Pam David is a licensed registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Consultants, Birmingham, Alabama.
Use this nutrition activity from I Am Amazing to show the importance of good foods.
Provide children with apples, large marshmallows and table knives. Help the children cut through the marshmallows with the knives. Talk about the sticky, white sugar on the knives and how this can stick to the teeth, too.
Then take the same sticky knives and cut into the apples. Talk about how the apple cleaned the knives and removed the marshmallow. Some foods are better for our teeth than others. What happens to our teeth when we eat the apples after eating sticky foods?
THE PARENT CONNECTION
Invite parents to have lunch with their children, schedule permitting. Parents can offer a different perspective on the conversation that takes place at the table. Children like to “show off” their parents and the parents can see what meal time is like in your center.