Thursday, October 24, 2013

The pleasures of alfresco dining with young children



I recall sitting in a popular cafe and patisserie chain, a flat white, a pain au chocolat, the warmth of the sun on my face, the sound of birds and distant chatter, the background hum of city traffic,  groups of tourists, couples young and old, backpackers, students, families.......

As i sat enjoying breakfast in the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral I noticed a typical scene, a young mother trying to feed her child whilst on a family outing.

Although I could empathise fully with the practicalities of this situation. Potentially wobbly metal garden chairs and not a highchair in sight, necessitated the child being fed whilst strapped in the buggy. Of course feeding the child in this way provided the benefit of containment but made me wonder about this mealtime experience from the child's view point.

Mother leaning over the child whose field of vision is limited to the impending arrival of a spoon of food. After only a few spoonfuls the child starts protesting, loudly, Grandfather begins his role as distractor as mother continues to take the opportunity to get the spoon in an open mouth, resulting in even louder cries, the two adults becoming increasingly more uncomfortable and conscious of the quiet observers. Eventually they give up as the child continues to cry, quickly finish their coffee, neither knowing what to do next as they walk away, the tension between them palpable, they disappear into the distance.

I was left hoping that this experience was a one off for this family but realizing that many families with young children dread or avoid eating out together.

Eating in restaurants and cafes is one of life's pleasures, it is a social experience as well as an opportunity to spend time enjoying food, it is a great learning opportunity for children and a time for quality interactions. However it can become a nightmare for many parents and children, not to mention the other diners. 

How could the experience for this family have been different? 

One of my thoughts about this situation was the priority given to getting food into the child at the detriment of the social aspects of this mealtime experience. Although this child may have been hungry, the tension created by this situation may have reduced the child's desire to eat. 

Of course, I totally understand this maternal anxiety to ensure your child is fed when hungry, it's a natural and instinctive feeling, however we must not lose sight of the importance and pleasure of the overall mealtime experience whether dining out or eating at home.

Here are some ideas that might help transform the experience of eating out with young children:

  • Settle your child at the table at an equal level to the adults, if a high chair is not available, sitting on an adult's lap is a possibility.
  • Talk about the food that is going to be eaten and discuss the options and choices.
  • Notice things about the environment and share this with your child
  • If you need to wait for food to arrive at the table you can play simple observation games as appropriate to your child's age, look at a picture book together, draw pictures etc
  • Distract your child from any attempts to get down from the table and run around, using the above ideas. Parents are often surprised at how easy this can be if they have previously feared how their child would react if refused this 'freedom' 
  • Talk about the food, draw the child's attention to what you are going to eat, name foods, describe foods using senses, show your own enjoyment of the tastes and textures.

For further advice or ideas please contact me shonaccp@yahoo.co.uk

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