This is the way my daughter eats most of her meals:
Monkey platters. I was first introduced to the idea through unschooling groups and forums online. At first I had doubts about the idea. It just spelled wasted food in my eyes. And it didn’t really seem necessary or practical with a house full of pets and a toddler who is a rather picky eater.
However, over time the “little picnic”, as Nookie calls it, has proved popular and invaluable in introducing new foods and getting Nookie to eat a more balanced diet.
Here’s how they work for us (and I know other parents do it differently). I take a platter and fill it with five foods I know Nookie likes. I usually include one sweet (chocolate, a cupcake, a biscuit, etc), one piece of fruit or vegetables (pretty much the only fruits and vegetables Nookie will eat are bananas, apples, carrot sticks and frozen peas… occasionally raisins or dates), one piece of carbohydrate (toast slices, pieces of sandwich, crackers, etc), and whatever else I have laying around or that she requests. And then I occasionally add a sixth item that she’s never tried before and leave it there, no pressure. Sometimes she asks what it is and tries it; often she leaves it. No matter. She eats whatever she likes, in whatever order she likes. If she wants more of one thing I’ll refill. And when she’s done I put things away for next time.
You’d think, given the choice like this, a small child would choose to eat all the sweets and leave everything else, knowing they can have as many sweets as they like. Sometimes Nookie does exactly that. But usually she has a little bit of everything. The beauty of having her meals like this is that meal times are so informal. She usually eats while she watches TV or plays, picking bits here and there. She gets to eat what she likes, and to learn for herself when she’s had enough of something. There’s no pressure to finish what’s on her plate (how many of us carry this over-eating, plate-finishing even if you’re full, baggage into adulthood?!). She is free to try new things, or not.
The benefits for her have been quite startling. It used to be that I would give her a plate of food, she’d usually leave it, and would then snack on crisps and chocolate because she was still hungry, they were quick and she likes them the best. (This is still the case on those occasions that she sits down to a meal with us – a less and less frequent occurrence). But with a monkey platter she tends to eat a much healthier, more balanced diet, and is genuinely full when she’s done so she isn’t moaning about being hungry and then I have to constantly find things she’ll eat that will fill her up. She’s also hugely expanded the repertoire of things she’ll eat and is more willing to try new foods.
I want Nookie to grow up with a much healthier attitude to food than what I have. No foods are special or treats to her. If she wants chocolate, she can have chocolate. We never tell her she can’t have sweets before dinner or that she has to eat what’s on her plate before she can be allowed dessert. These sorts of messages create unhealthy food issues and teach children to stop listening to their bodies telling them what they need, and start listening to that niggling inner voice about some foods being forbidden. Food is just food. She’ll learn for herself that some foods, if over-eaten, make her feel a bit sick or sluggish. And she’ll learn to recognise when she is getting full and not keep eating anyway (like I, and I guess most of us, do) just because it’s a treat or it’s on our plate and we have this unnecessary feeling that we should finish it all whether we’re hungry or not.
Also, let’s face it… eating like this is much more fun when you’re three!