Eleven-year-old Patrick was excited. He’d found a recipe online for a homemade shrub — a “drinking vinegar” popular during the Colonial Era — using rhubarb and fresh mint, both things he was growing in his backyard garden. Over the 3 days it took to make the drink, Patrick delighted in the snapping sound of the rhubarb stalks when he plucked them from the garden; the sourness of the rhubarb and vinegar; the feel of the soft mint leaves between his fingers; the fresh smell of the mint when he muddled it with sugar; the ruby-red color of the rhubarb juice; and the tangy finished drink, topped off with the fizz of seltzer.
Patrick’s experience is the perfect example of how our relationship to food changes when we engage all our senses. If you handed a glass to most kids and said “Here’s some vinegar and rhubarb juice,” they probably wouldn’t be excited to taste it. But because he was totally engaged in the process — and stopped to notice and appreciate each sensory moment, like the crunchy noises of the rhubarb or the smell of the mint — Patrick was not only willing to try his unusual drink, he was excited to serve it to the rest of his family and hear their reactions.
Most of us are so used to the sensory aspects of mealtimes that we hardly notice them anymore, but they’re crucial to the way we relate to food and eating. Sensory input is especially important to younger children and to kids and adults with various types of special needs, for whom everything from dealing with the tastes and textures of different foods to managing social expectations and behavior during meals can be challenging. Research shows that letting kids play with their food — the kind of touching, smearing, licking and arranging that most parents discourage in favor of table manners — can increase their willingness to try a wider variety of foods in the long run. So we know that sensory play at meals is actually important, but how can we encourage it without turning every dinner into a mannerless food fight?
Here are some tips and ideas:
Real families with kids of all ages have been learning a lot while in quarantine. Our Assistant Executive Director, Cindil, shares her experiences with her 1-year-old daughter’s early family dinners in lockdown.
Things I’ve Learned About Family Dinner With a Toddler (While Sheltering in Place)
With the weather warming up, easy hand-held dinners are on the menu! This Chicken Souvlaki can be made with marinated, grilled chicken or the leftovers of a rotisserie chicken to cut down on prep and cleanup.
Play Dough is the ultimate sensory activity. Make your own from pantry ingredients and have a family art night! Try a sculpture guessing game, where you have to guess what others have made, or make a themed museum together.
We can’t close this newsletter without an acknowledgement of the current times. As families continue to navigate life with different degrees of social distancing, feelings of disappointment and loss can be overwhelming. Open up a conversation about those emotions with our latest conversation starters.
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