Food ideas to get the approval and acceptance of your little food critic

We’re sure approximately 96.3 per cent of parents deal with a child who, let’s say, is choosey about what they want to eat. So choosey, in fact, they may choose to eat almost nothing you put in front of them. The amount of stress that puts on parents can be surprisingly strong. After all, as adults, we eat what we want, we understand benefits and consequences of what we put in our bodies, we understand when we’re famished and when we’re just not that hungry. But for some reason, when it comes to the little humans we’ve created, their diet can become a massive focus of parenting-what-did-we-do-wrong. You want so badly to make all the right decisions in parenting, to ensure your child is well-fed from a variety of nutritious sources so they can grow to be the healthiest, best version of themselves.

So how do we handle this picky phase – (though the term phase suggests it’s a short period of time when in fact it can be years or even a lifetime of challenging food preferences)?

We brought the village together and came up with some suggestions to ease the stress mealtime puts on everyone.

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  1. Serve veggies first. Offering vegetables before bringing out the rest of the food can be a way to get children to scarf nutrients up before filling up on pasta and bread. For example, in Italian culture, it’s common to serve four courses, the antipasti which might include cold grilled vegetables, cured meats, etc, the primi, or first course, is where starch-based meals come into play, the secondi, or main course, is normally a protein-based dish such as fish, meat, poultry or eggs, and the cortorni, or side dishes, which are usually vegetables or even salad that accompany the second course. What we like about this is that a person’s hunger is slowly reduced, which could be a neat way to adapt into your family’s meal, Italian or not!
  2. Drizzle the veggies with salted butter. Butter makes veggies yummy and the fat helps little bodies absorb many nutrients better!
  3. A fun buffet! Enter, the chicken nugget bar. So yes, there’s chicken nuggets to guarantee your child will eat something, but offer a range of healthier dips for them to try that will add nutrients to their growing bodies. Think greek yogurt, hummus, beetroot dip or more. Bonus points if you can make vegetable nuggets and get them to eat those along with the dips. Speaking of dips, don’t nix dips, yes some of them may have ingredients you might question, but if said dips get your children to eat vegetables, why not give it a try? With homemade dips, you can also control the sugar or salt in them.
  4. Make it a game! Get your child to close his or her eyes and guess the colour of the food they’re about to taste. American radio producer Hillary Frank said this is the way she got her children to eat capsicum.
  5. Taste the rainbow. Form different coloured foods into a rainbow onto the plate, or try a drop of food colouring if you think they might be adventurous!
  6. A tried and often true classic is to sneak veggies in other foods – blended into pasta sauces, baked into muffins, pancakes, smoothies, etc.
  7. Ensure children are actually hungry. Additionally, offering a smaller main dish, such as a small portion of mac ‘n’ cheese, encourages them to consume more of their side dish, like garlic broccoli, as their hunger persists. This approach is both common sense and scientific evidence.
  8. Talk about how veggies make your body strong–and then after dinner have a jumping/running/skipping/whatever contest. It’s amazing how much higher you can jump after you eat all your broccoli (wink, wink)!
  9. Include food discovery outside of meal time. One UK study investigated the impact of a non-taste sensory activity program in a nursery school setting, involving children aged 12 to 36 months. Children in the intervention group engaged in activities focusing on looking, listening, feeling, and smelling unusual fruits and vegetables every day for four weeks. The results showed that these children were more inclined to touch and taste the vegetables they had been familiarised with during playtime activities, compared to a control group that did not participate in such activities.
  10. “We also turn eating into a game,” says educator Kristen from our ____ campus. “Using utensils as characters that make funny sounds (our class favourite is the ‘forklift’). Playing these storytelling games during meals not only enriches our caregiving but takes the pressure off the child.”
  11. Use a veggie discovery chart! Studies show that it can take a child anywhere between 7 to 20 exposures to a certain ingredient before they start to feel familiar with that food, so by putting stickers every time they are exposed to a vegetable on this list, that helps their exposure. If they didn’t like it, they can put a red sticker; if they liked it so-so, they get to put a yellow sticker; and if they loved it, they get to put a green sticker. The loves can help parents put successful meals together! You can find a veggie discovery chart here.
  12. Roast vegetables with something sweeter. Children have more taste buds and a sharper sense of taste than adults, which may explain why they often find the slight bitterness in many vegetables more pronounced. Our evolutionary instincts to avoid bitter flavours, once a protection against poisonous substances, can make it challenging for little ones to appreciate these tastes. However, vegetables are incredibly beneficial and can act as a form of preventative medicine. To make veggies more appealing to children, try adding a bit of brown sugar or maple syrup to roasted vegetables. Other tasty additions could include a vinaigrette, yogurt, butter, lemon juice, or tomato sauce making the vegetables more palatable and encouraging children to try new foods.
  13. Some parents have great success with making a little plate of veggies and serve as an “appetizer” while parents finish preparing dinner. Children are usually hungry and need a distraction. This way they fill their tummies first with healthy foods. Or be playful about it and ask the children to watch the plate, but under no circumstance are they to have any. And if they take one, be dramatic with your ‘NO NO THOSE ARE MINE ONLY’ response, which will probably result in giggles and more ‘sneaking’!
  14. Healthy breakfast pancakes! Who says vegetables have to be for lunch and dinner? Check out this recipe.
  15. Reduce snacks or morning/afternoon teas. Part of the culprit might be your child is already full for the day by the time they get to dinner, so they’re selective in what they’ll eat on their plate because they’re just not very hungry.
  16. “When my cousins and I were children, our parents would try to get us to eat broccoli, they would say they were ‘little trees’ and we would all pretend we were giraffes to eat the broccoli. It worked!” Jell, social media and marketing specialist.
  17. Why stick to traditional cutlery? Try letting your child skewer bite-sized food on toothpicks or using chopsticks. Your child might have a lot of fun and actually eat the veggies, meat or whatever they don’t normally try.
  18. Re-Package, Re-Spin, Re-Brand. Think of yourself as the mastermind behind a food marketing campaign, where your toughest critics are pint-sized food connoisseurs. To make a food they’re not keen on seem more appealing, give it a humorous twist. For example, if carrots are a no-go, try calling them ‘X-Ray Vision Sticks’, suggesting they’re the secret behind superheroes’ sharp eyesight. The idea is to weave a bit of storytelling and humour into meals, transforming mundane foods into characters of a whimsical, edible tale
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19. If you have the creativity and the time, present the food into characters, scenes or animals your child likes. Search for ideas on Pinterest or Instagram!

20. Don’t answer the question ‘what’s for dinner’. Come up with a silly answer such as “bugs and onions”, or something obvious ‘food’, but don’t give them time to dread dinner.

21. In Piaget’s developmental stages, there’s a phase known as the preoperational stage, where a child’s understanding of conservation is still developing. For example, if you pour juice from a short, wide glass into a tall, narrow one, they might believe the tall glass contains more juice because it looks “bigger,” even when they see the pouring happen. This concept can be cleverly applied to serving vegetables to children. By arranging the veggies closer together, they seem “smaller” to the child, giving the impression that they’re eating less. Conversely, spreading out items like chicken nuggets can create the illusion of a larger portion, making mealtime a bit more appealing to them

22. Everyone at the table eats the same meal, but try to include one item everyone likes. No alternatives, or if you have to, make the alternative something like veggie sticks and hummus. Eating together as a family is also a great way to bond and create lasting memories.

23. The one-bite rule: say something like, “Remember the time you didn’t think you’d like cherries, but you did? Let’s try this sweet potato now, because you might like it. Once you try it you can say, “No thank you!” but you have to at least try it! Then that food is no thank you food.”

24. The ‘silver bowl snack’ to expand their palate, one tiny taste at a time. If your child doesn’t like something, say something like, “well your tastebuds must not be grown up enough for that yet, let’s see what happens next time you try it.” Since children often want to be more “grown up” they may willingly try the offending food again the next time it was offered. If the child decides to try it, make a big deal about how grown up your child is getting.

25. Keep pre-cut vegetables and fruits in a bowl or clear Tupperware container, front and centre in the fridge and — important — then place some on a platter on the kitchen counter in your child’s line of vision all afternoon.

26. Do your children like mashed potatoes? Get more veggies in there! If the mashed potatoes turn green? Well, they’re Hulk potatoes obviously. Are they orange? Then they’re Nemo or insert-your-child’s-favourite-orange-character-here.

27. “We get our children to pick a meal they want to eat for dinner for the week and we buy the ingredients then they all get a night to cook dinner for us, makes them interested in wanting to eat the meal they make for us, and they need to choose something with a minimum of two veggies.” Jess, enrolments officer.

28. Sprinkles also go a long way. Yes, actual sprinkles, or foods that they can shake on like sprinkles. Think seasonings, herbs and chia seeds. If a child doesn’t like the food presented, ask what you can add to make it more exciting. And let them do the sprinkling. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.

29. While it’s easy to use a smartphone or TV to occupy your child’s attention and you might even see your child mindlessly eat, that’s actually not what you want. You want children to be focused on the food, but also focused on family time and conversation.

30. Relax! Try not to put pressure on them to eat. You wouldn’t want someone constantly commenting on your plate choices and habits. Mel, operations manager of Little Scholars, said her son has been picky since he was two years old. When she spoke to a nutritionist, she said “as long as he was eating 20-25 different foods throughout the week he would be OK.” While it can feel stressful, your child is likely getting the nutrients they need, whether you’re offering fresh, frozen, tinned foods, you’re trying your best, your child is flourishing, and one day, this will just be a memory!

Did you know that clay is not only a fun material for children to play with but also incredibly beneficial for their development?

What’s fantastic about clay is its open-ended nature. There’s no right or wrong way to play with it, giving children the freedom to explore and express themselves. Whether they’re rolling it into balls, flattening it into pancakes, or creating intricate sculptures, each action reveals something unique about them. It could be their level of focus, their creativity, or even how they approach problem-solving.

You might be surprised to learn that playing with clay hits multiple developmental milestones. It’s not just about getting their hands dirty; it’s about building essential life skills. Here’s how:

Benefits include:

  • Children develop hand-eye coordination by squeezing, patting, and pounding the clay
  • They also develop finger and hand muscles by poking and pinching the clay
  • It allows children to be creative and learn about texture, shapes, and forms by manipulating the clay by rolling, cutting, and shaping it
  • It gives children experience making three-dimensional objects that can be reused or recycled when dry
  • It allows children to socialise with others while working on collaborative projects or sharing ideas
  • Children can learn to express feelings and ideas in a safe and engaging way.

These are all important skills for children, especially as they prepare to move into formal education. The benefit of using clay is that it’s a natural, moldable medium that can be used as a cement, an adhesive and even a paint.

The Experts Weigh In

Paul R White, an American clinical social worker, has been using clay as a therapeutic tool for over 30 years. In his book, CLAYtherapy, he talks about how clay play can naturally facilitate meaningful conversations between children and adults. He developed numerous unique aids and techniques that have assisted him in teaching children to cope with stress, express feelings and to solve problems, including through the use and manipulation of clay. White also presented a paper on clay therapy to the World Congress of Child Play Therapy and Child Psychotherapy in London, England.

He has used clay in his practice as an ice breaker, as an aggression reliever and as a primary tool in treatment.

In his book, White says “Through mutual clay play, a conversation between child and counselor automatically emerges. Dialogue doesn’t have to be forced or fabricated, but happens naturally when the counselor is revealing, demonstrating and teaching this dynamic and engaging clay process and the child is asking, learning and experiencing his or her own trial and error. This manner of interaction links the adult with the child through a hands-on, verbal, nonintrusive, problem-solving counselling process.”

Lisa Terreni, a senior lecturer in early childhood education, also champions the use of clay. She believes it gives children another language for expressing their thoughts and ideas.

“From many anecdotal observations of children using clay I feel strongly that, apart from teaching young children the physical skills required to use the medium successfully to create three dimensional artworks, using clay gives children another language for expressing their thoughts, ideas and emerging working theories about their world,” she said in a blog post for Early Arts.

Marvin Bartel, a professor of art at Goshen College in the United States, says in a blog post on his website that ‘clay is so fascinating that some children work for long periods without any adult motivation to maintain their interest. It can be a great way to extend the attention span of some children.’

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According to experts from Pennsylvania State University, children will show many parts of themselves through clay experiences:

  • Approaches and reactions to a new material (imagination, steps of involvement, temperament, feelings)
  • Initiative, curiosity, and problem solving
  • Technique and manipulation (what they do and what skills they use)
  • Physical development (small and large motor skills)
  • Ideas in representational forms (connecting ideas to meaning, symbolic demonstrations)
  • Expression and communication (language, literacy, and social and emotional skills)
  • Interactions and progressions over time (with other people, other materials)

Fine and Large Muscle Development

One of the lesser-known but incredibly important benefits of clay play is muscle development. When children manipulate clay, they’re actually engaging both fine and large muscles, which is crucial for their physical development.

  • Fine Motor Skills Actions like pinching, poking, and rolling small pieces of clay engage the smaller muscles in the fingers and hands. These movements are essential for tasks like holding a pencil, buttoning a shirt, or tying shoelaces.
  • Large Muscle Skills When children knead, pound, or push the clay, they’re using their arms, shoulders, and even their core muscles. These large muscle activities are foundational for skills like lifting, pushing, and pulling.

What the research says

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Anxiety

One study in Iran aimed to examine the impact of clay therapy and narrative therapy on reducing anxiety levels in pre-school children. The study involved 30 kindergarten children who were divided into three groups: 10 in the clay therapy group, 10 in the narrative therapy group, and 10 in the control group. The study found significant differences in anxiety levels among the groups. Both the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups showed a reduction in anxiety compared to the control group. The clay therapy group had a mean score of 3.63, and the narrative therapy group had a mean score of 2.83, both of which were significantly different from the control group’s mean score of -0.71. However, there was no significant difference between the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups in terms of anxiety reduction.

The study concludes that both clay and narrative therapies are effective in improving self-esteem, school performance, and sociability of the children, as reported by the parents.

Psychosocial Wellbeing

Another study out of Kenya, looked at how clay play supported children who lost access to schools during the pandemic, affecting children’s right to education and their psychosocial wellbeing.

The study, published in the East African Journal of Arts and Social Sciences, looked into the psychosocial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and how play, particularly with painting and clay modelling, can be a therapeutic and educational tool. The paper argues that these forms of play can help children cope with the stresses and traumas induced by the pandemic, while also promoting cognitive and social learning.

The study argues that play with art forms like painting and clay modelling can be powerful tools for cognitive and social learning. They can also serve as therapeutic activities to counter depression and violent behaviour. Activities such as clay modelling and painting are described as non-serious activities that free the mind and are excellent for expression. Clay is described as a malleable material that can be easily manipulated, while painting offers a colourful medium for expression.

The study suggests that these art-based activities should be integrated into the curriculum, especially for children aged four to six, to enhance their psycho-motor and creativity development.

Fine Motor Skills

An Indonesian study investigated the impact of constructive play with clay on children’s fine motor skills. The small study by researchers from STKIP Kusuma Negara included two groups of 11 children each, one as the experimental group and the other as the control group. The study used test observation techniques for data collection and employs both descriptive and nonparametric statistical analysis. The results indicated a significant difference between the two groups, suggesting that constructive play with clay positively impacts children’s fine motor skills.

In the study, the authors highlight the physical aspects of working with clay.

“Working with clay fosters large muscle and fine motor control. Clay is fairly resistant and will need to be kneaded and worked to make it pliable. Children can stand or sit while using clay. Standing provides the advantage of a whole-body muscular reaction to the clay. Hard clay provides solid resistance the child must overcome. This will involve using the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. Playing with clay develops large muscles and fine motor control because the clay is quite resistant and kneaded to make it soft.”

The benefits of clay play in early childhood development are supported not only by expert opinions but also by a growing body of scientific research. From fostering creativity and social skills to enhancing both fine and large muscle development, clay play serves as a multifaceted educational tool.

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