If you have ever watched babies eating their first foods, it’s clear that eating is about more than just nutrition. It is about smelling, feeling, tasting and experiencing the food for all its sensory glory. Babies explore the food unhurriedly, eating what they want and leaving what they don’t.
Offering first foods is a developmental milestone that parents and grandparents anticipate with excitement. If we could just retain the joy of those early meals through our lifetime! Too often, as children get older, meals become an inconvenient need that takes a back seat to other priorities in a busy and hurried life.
The Canada Food Guide expands the definition of healthy eating to include the where, when, why and how to eat. It urges us to take time to eat, notice when we’re hungry and when we’re full, to enjoy our food and to eat meals with others. Mealtimes should be about more than just staving off hunger.
Making the most of mealtimes can have a life-long impact on a child’s well-being. Mealtimes offer children a chance to develop a healthy relationship with food, be heathy eaters, learn social skills, improve language skills, and build a strong connection with family. Grandparents, who may have more time than harried parents to spend preparing and eating meals with their grandchildren, can play an important role in maximizing mealtime opportunities.
Grandparents can help to keep culture and food traditions alive by sharing them across generations. Talk about your own experiences with food and memories from your own childhood. Have your grandchildren help you prepare a traditional dish or family favourite meal. Talk about where foods come from and where you can get them. Invite other family members or friends, set the table and sit together. Not only does this expose children to new foods, it helps them learn about family history and fosters a sense of belonging.
Meals can be a chance to learn literacy and social skills. Studies have shown that children who eat together with their family have improved language skills in the preschool years and improved school performance in the school age and teenage years. Family meals can include a grandparent eating with their grandchildren.
Use mealtimes as a time to communicate. That means turning off the TV, putting away the phone and talking to each other. Grandparents can use the time to tell stories about their own childhood or ask questions that can get the grandchildren talking about their own experiences. Use fun, open-ended questions and keep the conversation lively and positive. Start questions with “Tell me about…”, “What would you do if…”, “Why do you think…”
If you are stuck for things to talk about, there are tools available online to help stimulate conversation. Check out the “Let’s Talk….Mealtime Conversation Cards for Toddlers and Preschoolers” available at BetterTogetherBC.ca. There are conversation starters for older children online as well. You can help bring back the art of conversation before it is lost to the world of technology.
Mealtimes offer an opportunity to help your grandchildren develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food, a job that’s easier than it might sound. All you have to do is offer meals and snacks at regular times and offer a variety of foods, including foods they’ve never tried before. That’s it! Resist the urge to coax, bribe or force them to eat or try new foods. Some children will need to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times before they will try it. The best thing you can do is eat it yourself.
Children learn to eat and try new foods by watching the adults in their lives. They should have the freedom to choose what they eat and how much. Children are very good at self-regulating how much food they eat. The less we interfere, the better. And don’t rush. Make meal times a pleasant and positive experience.
Eating together with family helps children develop social skills and can lower the risk of adolescent mental health problems and addictions. Research shows that children who eat at least one meal a day with an adult are less likely to smoke or use drugs or alcohol. They are less likely to be bullied, and have lower risk of depression and suicide in the teen years.
Family meals help children feel more secure and stable, with a greater sense of belonging. A strong bond with grandparents can widen the circle of support and increase a feeling of family connectedness. Enjoy the company and conversation, as well as the food.