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Good nutrition is essential for young children's developing brains. But mealtime involves much more than just the nutritional value of the food eaten. Mealtimes are a perfect opportunity to shape the developing brain through positive, supportive interactions and face-to-face communication.
Adults should sit with children during meals. Mealtime is an important time to build relationships and develop skills such as language, consideration for others, and age-appropriate self-feeding skills. Adults set the tone at mealtime. When the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed, both children and adults look forward to the time together.
Pleasurable family mealtimes are very important for a child’s healthy brain development. Plan and establish a routine for everyone in the household to share at least one unhurried mealtime every day. Mealtime routines for young children need to be predictable. Children who know that they will always have plenty of nutritious foods at expected times, and will not be rushed to eat, learn to enjoy mealtimes.
Enjoyable meal and snack times teach children to trust adults to meet their basic needs. Children who never know when food will be available tend to overeat when offered food. This pattern can foster many developmental problems and can lead to obesity.
Adults help children develop eating patterns and habits. Adults have the responsibility to structure children's eating by deciding what foods are served, when meals and snacks take place, and where food is eaten. Young children cannot eat as much as adults at one time, so regular nutritious snacks should also be served. Children should be allowed to decide whether to eat, what to eat from the choices offered, and how much to eat. Infants and young children know when they have had enough to eat, and will stop when they are full. Forcing children to "clean your plate" creates tension, and sets a pattern for overeating that can lead to obesity.
Many parents worry that their children will not get the proper balance of nutrients unless they insist on certain foods. Actually, young children will eat a variety of foods over time. Remember that some children need to experience a new food 7 - 10 times before they will try it. Keep serving nutritious meals and snacks, and encourage children to try new foods — but do not force them.
Infants and young children like to imitate the food preferences of adults. Children who watch an adult try a food may be more likely to taste it. When adults state that they dislike a food, children may also refuse it.
As infants develop fine motor skills and better control of the mouth and face muscles, they also begin to learn self-feeding skills. Between 6 months and one year of age, infants are generally ready for self-feeding. Begin by encouraging finger feeding, then introduce the spoon and fork. Children can begin using a cup for drinking at about six months. Sippy cups may be helpful as children begin to use a cup, but drinking from an open cup uses different muscles. You can begin introducing a regular, open cup between six and nine months. As children eat more textured foods, and drink from a regular cup, they exercise the same mouth muscles thatare important in developing speech. Children need time to practice these new skills, so mealtimes should not be hurried.