Tasty lessons for tots

Try using food to enhance your toddler’s developmental skills and nutrition quotient several notches

Kids playing with food items

Among the various habits we teach our children, food habits are often taken for granted. Many parents complain about their children being fussy eaters, especially if they are toddlers and find feeding their children the most difficult task. Food habits can actually be made fun for kids to learn.

One technique is to utilise various foods as a means to develop your child’s motor, sensory and cognitive skills. This way, kids not only learn and explore various foods, know their benefits, develop various skills but also build good nutritional habits that will last them for their life.

An early start

Research says that healthy food habits lay the foundation for healthy living. It is thus important to introduce your child to varied healthy foods early in life. Remember, kids are active learners and love to copy us. For that reason, it is significant that we become aware about our own habits as well as attitude towards things, especially food.

Here are a few experiments that I developed through trial and error that your child might enjoy.

Sensory Skills

The sensory skills [sight, hear, touch, taste, and smell] develop in younger years and can be stimulated through various objects, toys and activities.

  • Take your child to the vegetable market and show her different coloured fruits and vegetables. Introduce each one with their colours…red apples, yellow bananas, green grapes, white radish, purple brinjal, orange carrots and so on. While doing this, talk about their benefits too—apple is good for your skin, bananas make you strong and carrots make your eyes bright.
  • Enlist your child’s help in sorting out coloured vegetables and fruits. This gives children an opportunity to touch each food and learn about different textures, shapes and sizes. For instance, they learn that a bitter gourd has rough skin and is green in colour, whereas a tomato is red and smooth to touch. Bottle gourd is longer than a cucumber or a lemon is smaller than an orange. This kind of learning is much more effective than teaching them with the aid of books and flashcards, which renders lesser practical opportunities.
  • Pick a few round, square or triangle biscuits or cookies. Arrange each different shaped biscuit on a plate and ask your child to pick a particular shape while eating. For instance, first pick a square, then a circle, and last triangle. This way your child tastes healthy snacks and also learns about shapes. The next time she asks for a biscuit, she will automatically refer to the shape—“Give me a square biscuit” or “I want a triangle crispy”. Once your child is familiar with this activity, you could blindfold him/her and ask him to identify the shape by touching foods. You can use this method to identify taste as well.
  • Familiarise your children with various sounds by allowing them to pour milk in their glass, or by letting them bite into crispy khakras or biscuits. Help them understand the difference between crisp and soft by first giving them a bite of a crispy toast, then a bite of soft toast dipped in milk. Occasionally, you could sprinkle some crunchy chips, butterscotch or nuts over an ice-cream, pudding or jelly. This helps them understand the concepts of hard and soft while enjoying the crisp sound of biting the nuts.
  • Add different flavours such as vanilla, butterscotch, rose or turmeric powder to your child’s milk every day to make it smell good as smell is an important aspect for acceptance of food. Ask her to smell the milk before relishing it. She will soon be able to distinguish between different flavours simply by smelling them and develop a liking for food that smell good to her.

Cognitive skills

Kid checking out various food itemsThese skills include learning, problem solving, logical thinking, reasoning and memory. You can teach these rather complex skills via simple daily food chores in the following ways…

  • Place different dry fruits like cashew nuts, raisins, and walnuts in a bowl and ask her to sort each in different bowls with a help of a straw or spoon. Later ask her to mix it all and relish a healthy snack [Be around during this activity taking care to avoid any choking].
  • Whip up an interesting healthy snack while teaching her cognition, cut whole wheat or multi-grain bread slices and cheese slices in 4 – 5 different shapes using cookie cutters or moulds. Arrange the bread and cheese pieces on different plates, ask them to match the pairs. For instance, a cheese triangle with a triangle bread piece. Then top it with some tomatoes and let them relish these tiny nutritious nibblets.
  • Use pretend play in which the child is a vegetable vendor or a grocer and you are a customer. This teaches them to count money and understand the concept of measurements.
  • Treat her to her favourite dessert, like an ice-cream or pudding with hot butterscotch sauce over it or serve hot paneer or vegetable parathas with cold curds. This teaches her the concept of hot and cold.
  • Arrange a sandwich/pizza party for children in which they are allowed to assemble sandwiches for themselves or arrange their own pizza toppings. This helps them understand the importance of presentation, the concept of how much is enough, design skills, and decision-making.
  • Take your child to parks, picnics or social dinners. This helps them understand food in another context.

Motor skills

Kid trying out rolling a pancakeThese skills are classified as gross and fine. Gross motor skills include large movements made with arms, legs or the child’s entire body, line jumping, climbing or running while fine motor skills include activities that involve precision such as picking up a pencil, drawing, zipping and unzipping.

  • Organise a potato race for your child and her friends.
  • Get her to help you in laying the dinner table. Assign her to carry some of the food you’ve prepared to the table like a bowl of rice or salad or a plate of chapatti. To further enhance her motor skills, you can even allow them to serve themselves under your supervision.
  • Allow her to stir protein powder, powdered dry fruits or bread croutons in her beverages gently with her favourite spoon or straw. Encourage her to try stirring in different directions such as round and round and back and forth. This is one of my daughter’s favourite activities, this way her milk cools down to room temperature perfect for drinking and she also enjoys the swirls and movements in the milk. Fine motor skills develop as they learn to hold things and work alongside correctly without spilling.
  • Engage your child in washing vegetables, sorting and cleaning them, shelling peas or cleaning leafy vegetables.
  • Cut fruits into medium-sized pieces and allow your child to eat them on her own with a plastic fruit fork. Tots usually enjoy doing things independently. You can even ask your child to serve fruits one by one using a fork. This enhances their fine motor skills and gives them the sense of happiness of doing an important job.
  • To open your child’s mind to vegetables that she doesn’t like, engage her in fun activities using that vegetable as a medium. So if your child hates eating lady’s finger, cut and dip it into different colours to make a floral design. This breeds familiarity with the vegetable and changes her approach to it.
  • Make eating rotis and parathas exciting by asking her to cut each into different shapes and sizes with a plastic knife or moulds and then eating each shape.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Sapna Kamdar
Sapna Kamdar, MSc, is a nutritionist, food researcher and lecturer. She has spent almost a decade unravelling the mystery of food and its effect on health. With this knowledge, she recognises the concept of nutrition as a necessity for the wellbeing of every person.


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