3 Areas of Children’s Emotional Development Improved by Mealtime
No doubt, mealtimes represent a period in the day for your family to gather and consume delicious and nutritious food. As a parent, you know that you are required to provide adequate meals that fuel your child’s body and mind however, you might be unaware of the fact that mealtime also significantly influences 3 key aspects of emotional development: autonomy, identity and self-esteem. These 3 components of emotional growth are predictors of your child’s ability to set and achieve goals, as well as how your child will perceive, care for and revere his or her own body in the future. Mealtime is an opportunity to nurture these key emotional areas to promote a capable, distinct and positive sense of self in your child that will endure into adulthood.
Autonomy is your child’s ability to be independent based on age and level of functioning. The development of autonomy as it relates to mealtime begins early on in life when an infant learns to hold a bottle. This skill becomes a natural segue for the next goals which are learning to drink independently from a cup and then moving towards more complex dexterities such as using fingers and utensils to eat solid foods. These seemingly insignificant milestones are actually building blocks for future accomplishments as your child develops a sense of competence and mastery over his world.
Your role during mealtime is not just to prepare 3 squares with snacks in between, but to ensure that the area of autonomy is also stimulated and growing at an age appropriate rate. Persistent behaviors like getting up and down from the table, throwing food on the floor and being a picky eater are clear indications that expectations are too low. Your child was born with an instinctive desire to thrive independently, so require him to sit at the table when eating, enforce rules that communicate that mealtime is over when food is thrown on the floor and require your child to help with preparation and cleanup of mealtime in ways that he is capable. In doing so, you are instilling early lessons about responsibility and taking ownership of one’s life.
Your child’s level of self-awareness or identity is primarily shaped by the beliefs and values practiced in the home. Mealtime is one of the most commonly observed customs in households across the country. Consciously or unconsciously, the type of food that is prepared, served and shared under your roof functions to define heritage, religion, and culture, in addition to beliefs about physical health, attractiveness and even likability in the eyes of your child. When you maintain and model healthy eating habits, you are sending a direct message to your child that taking care of his body and feeling good is a priority. Children who are raised in households where nutrition is emphasized and at the forefront are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors and more likely to align themselves with healthy-minded individuals later on in life.
Without question, diet heavily influences the size, shape and overall wellbeing of your child’s body. Serving boxed, canned, processed and fast foods on a consistent basis negatively impacts your child’s metabolism, can lead to unwanted weight gain and other health problems down the road. Conversely, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins provides the necessary energy for your child’s body to function at optimal levels. With the adoption of healthy eating habits, your child will naturally feel better and possess a more positive attitude about his body. Your child’s body image or perception of his body will also correlate primarily with the types of foods consumed on a daily basis. A self-assured body image makes your child feel more attractive and deserving of environments, people and activities that support that mindset.