Will Food Games Help my Child Eat

Will Food Games Help my Child Eat

“Toot toot here comes the train” or “swoosh the plane is coming to land.” 

Playing feeding games with your baby along with plating food into faces, cutting sandwiches into shapes or having a race to see who finishes first, can seem like fun and harmless ways to encourage your child to eat. But they are short-term fixes to feeding issues. So, what is so wrong about making food fly or having an eating race? Games and putting a lot of special effort into your child’s food can:

  1. Interfere with your job and your child’s job in feeding.
  2. Distract your child from their own feeding jobs.
  3. Interrupts how you and your child communicate.
  4. Affect how your child develops their eating skills.

Focus on your feeding job

As parents we can worry about what and how much our child is eating. It’s often out of concern we look for ways to help our child eat. But playing games like these can interfere with parent and child feeding jobs. It’s a parent’s job to decide when and what to offer, and it’s the child’s job to decide from this what to eat and how much. Often games and tricks come into play when a child is not doing what you want. This may be not finishing their meal, or they are avoiding certain foods on offer, usually the ones you want them to eat. Read more about parent and child roles in feeding

Let your child focus on eating

Things that distract a baby or young child from the task of eating or apply pressure can affect how they recognise their own appetite cues. They may eat it as they want to please you or enjoy the game but if offered without the theatrics, they won’t eat it. Pressure affects how they develop independence around eating and food preferences. These are the same reasons we do not encourage rewarding or bribing a child with food.

For babies and young children being able to touch, smell and taste food using their hands helps them learn about food. It lets them interact with the food in front of them on their own terms. It’s good to get comfortable with mess. This can be a useful strategy to help your child gain confidence around food and eating.

Feeding tip: put a mat down under the highchair, this catches spills and makes cleaning up easier.

Learn to understand how your baby is communicating with you

When feeding your baby, it’s important to be responsive to their feeding cues. This may be opening their mouth for food, turning away or pushing food away. This tells you how interested they are or if they are ready for the next spoonful. This helps them stay in touch with their hunger and fullness cues. Talking to your baby and making eye contact allows them to communicate with you the best way they can.  This continues to be important as they grow up and can join in more with the family meal conversation.

Learning to eat is a skill and takes time

You are your child’s role model and they learn from observing you and other family members. This is how they develop their eating skills over time. This is how they learn how to follow your family mealtime expectations. This includes sitting to eat and learning how to use utensils. Ideally mealtimes are relaxing and enjoyable experiences. Children learn from those around them and the food that they are offered. Over time they develop their eating skills and gradually expand the variety they eat. Playing feeding games can distract the parent or carer from this important role.

We all respond better to food when it looks enticing to eat. But what looks good to us as adults is much different for a child. Children go through a naturally cautious phase as toddlers. This may play out as not liking food touching on the plate or preferring raw vegetables over cooked or liking food on a familiar plate. This can continue for many years. Things that may help:

  • Self-serve style meals - when children can serve themselves. For younger children you help them serve a plate from what you offer. Be relaxed about what and how much they choose and how they plate it. It can be surprising what combinations they prefer. Read more about self-serve style meals
  • Make food developmentally appropriate for your child, by mashing, cutting and maybe simpler flavours. This makes task of eating easier.

Some children take longer to eat than others and this is okay. We also should not expect a child to eat everything on their plate. Allow your child time to eat and permission to leave when they are full.

It's Ok to have some fun

Serving food in fun ways or investing in cutters to make sandwiches into shapes is fine, as long as it is not to ‘make your child’ eat. Remember if you invest extra time and effort into making food “extra special” for your child and they don’t want it you may become frustrated. This may lead to applying pressure. A good time to have fun with food in this way is parties and celebrations.

Our top messages

  • It’s OK to make food look fun as long as you’re not doing it for the wrong reasons (i.e. to pressure your child to eat a certain food)
  • Eating is a learned skill as part of development. Children will differ in how long it takes them to eat a wide variety of foods.
  • Games can take your child away from their own hunger cues. It also stops them from communicating back to you if they’re full or don’t want a particular food.
  • The most effective way to support your child to learn to eat is to make enjoyable and relaxed eating experiences.