4 tried and tested ways to nurture food exploration

05 May 2018. By Lorren

Getting our kids into the kitchen to help us is one way we can help them have a positive experience with food. It gives them the chance to become familiar with new foods and feeding tools without us expecting them to actually eat anything. It also helps our toddlers view themselves as capable & competent, which is a great mind-set to bring to the table for a peaceful mealtime.

Here are our top 4 tried and tested kitchen and play based ways to help your toddler develop confidence around different types of foods and kitchen utensils.

One of the things here at The Food Tree that we find helpful is to look for strategies away from the dinner table that help our toddlers have important exposure to new foods and be able to explore them in a safe and low pressure way.

So we thought we'd share some of our favourite strategies:

1. Spend some time with your child making food for others

Do you have friends or neighbours with a new baby? Perhaps someone you know is in need of a random act of kindness.

Spending time with your toddler while making food for others shows them they can feel good about learning to help others, while getting that all important introduction to different types of food.

Whether it's mixing up a batch of our favourite bliss balls or dishing up some casserole for a family in need, your child can be involved in the hands on preparation, mixing, or serving of ingredients, knowing that there is no expectation they eat it.

This is a great time to bring out new foods to touch, smell (and if they're curious and willing, then taste!)

2. Making ice blocks whatever the weather

Making ice blocks at home is super easy and is perfect for a child who's cautious about new foods.

You can make it as messy as you like, depending on the ingredients you choose. Mashing bananas & squeezing fresh oranges are great physical skills, strengthening your toddlers' hands, developing their dexterity, and giving them the opportunity to become familiar with some utensils they will need to use at the table.

Make sure you include some of their favourite safe foods, as well as something new or that they haven't enjoyed before. You can fill one mould purely with favourites, then experiment making combinations. The ultimate science experiment!

Because there's a delay while the ice blocks freeze it also helps develop our toddlers' impulse control and patience- both very important life skills!

Here are some of our favourite homemade ice blocks you might like to try (whatever the weather) and would love to hear how yours turned out!

3. Make it not about food

Making playdough is the ultimate kitchen learning experience!

We love encouraging our kids to look at what happens as they mix; guessing what might happen when they add more flour or water encourages scientific thinking.

Following instructions and learning new words helps build communication skills. And the tipping, pouring, stirring, scooping are all fantastic for building our toddlers' physical strength and coordination.

Get messy. See how the mixture feels at every stage; the dry flour, and the slippery oil, the sticky dough and the smooth end result. Exposure to different textures and sensory experiences are all good for building their acceptance of new experiences.

Being able to laugh and thrive when things get a bit sticky is something that can help them through all kinds of life events. Not to mention, if you manage to embrace the mess yourself and have fun with this process, its lots of fun.

Once you've made your playdough, set up some items to play with it; small child safe cutlery, little plates, items to stick in the playdough to decorate ( lids, big buttons, or natural materials: stones, sticks, dried leaves, herbs, flowers all work well).

For many, the first time they ‘try' a new food is during their pretend play. So if you choose to play playdough alongside your child, try to let them lead the play as much as possible. This is a great opportunity to observe, listen and learn about their preferences, ideas and creativity. Imaginative play is so important for children to work through ideas, concerns and concepts.

4. Helping set the table

Most children love special roles of responsibility. It helps grow their self-esteem and confidence as we show them that we trust them and value their contribution to the family.

For toddlers and little kids, having them help us set up the dinner table supports that transition from play or other activities to mealtimes, preparing your toddler for what's next.

They've an opportunity to think about where everyone will be sitting, the feeding tools and food that will be on offer.

Give them an opportunity to make some choices about how the table is laid. You could try offering from two choices that you already feel comfortable with. For example "Should we put out the blue or red cups today?"

Breaking the meal time preparation into smaller steps, such as "first we put out the placemats, now what else will we need?" This can help our kids feel like they're a part of the decisions that are being made, giving them some of that control and autonomy that they crave. It also helps build critical thinking and problem solving skill.

And finally, how you can set your toddler up for success with these 4 great kitchen-play activities

Choose times where you can support your toddler to gain confidence in the task, until they are more independent with helping out.

Make sure you have the time to slow the task down, and give your child focus and connection. If they're already too hungry or tired, it may become extra work for everyone rather than a bonding experience!

On busy nights it may just be that they help find the placemats and take them (or most of them) to the table.

It may be that they only help out occasionally, and that is ok to, it is finding what works for your family, understanding the value that these activities can offer, and looking for opportunities that suit your situation.

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