“Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are” (J. A. Savarin, 1825). How many times have we heard this famous phrase and smiled? But are we really what we eat? Are we aware of the nature of the food we eat, of how and where we consume it? We are living in the age of fast food, snacks and precooked meals, the era of television programmes showing us how to cook and prepare a five-minute meal. But are we aware of the important meanings contained in these few words?
Meals should be seen as an important time: they provide key moments of spontaneous socialisation and learning opportunities. At the table, children learn the social rules of sitting down and using cutlery; they ask for food and water, with gestures first and then words; and they learn the names of different kinds of food, observing the colour and appearance of each and discovering what it smells and tastes like.
Starting from early childhood, it is important to provide children a food education model, taking into account the complexity of the variables involved.
Are you still hungry???
Children are not all the same: there are some who never feel like eating and some who would never stop! The general advice is not to force children to eat, so as to avoid inhibiting their body's appetite control system and prevent the parent’s anxiety from being passed on to the child. But, of course, we can encourage children to taste and experience the food they find on their plate.
It is important to teach children healthy eating habits from an early age, not just through the meals we offer them but also through other food-related activities, such as food shopping, growing vegetables in a kitchen garden, and preparing and tasting food together with their parents, grandparents and friends.
It is vitally important to talk to children about food, helping them to learn about it through activities that, as far as possible, involve play, and to appreciate the kinds of food that they tend to leave on the plate, like fruit and vegetables for instance (often in favour of foods that are too high in calories and sugars but low in nutrients). Snack time is the perfect opportunity to do this!
Why snack time?
Snack comes from the Middle English term “snap”, meaning "to bite". As in “having a bite to eat”, a snack is defined as a supplementary meal, but in actual fact it is essential to provide the extra energy that children need for their activities.
What is the ideal snack?
It should be varied, well-balanced creative and fun, just like the games they play!
Varied: it’s a good thing for children to become used to different flavours.
Well-balanced: in terms of nutrition properties, we should offer young children light but nutritious foods, avoiding heavy to digest, high-fat snacks.
Creative: set the table and turn snack time into a shared experience by engaging the child right from the start in carefully preparing the “snack time corner” (not necessarily the dining table, we can use a coffee table or a picnic blanket), ideally with colourful table mats and cutlery (attention to presentation), giving each person their own (attention to relationships);
Fun: a sandwich can become a little mouse or a teddy bear; pieces of fruit can turn into little cars or funny faces!
That’s because play is a serious matter!
It can be a tool to guide children light-heartedly through food education, helping them to discover food and its benefits for the body, the mind and the heart.
Though each in their own different and individual way, leading educationalists like Piaget, Vygotsky and Winnicott all regard play as a crucial part of learning as it helps children to differentiate between the self and the external world and to explore and experiment for themselves spontaneously.
Imagination and creativity, a sense of wonder and marvel, love and care: these are the secret ingredients for the perfect snack!