Jul 24, 2023

Learning Through Mealtimes - Physical Development

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
Learning Through Mealtimes - Physical Development

Mealtimes are a significant time of the day and are full of learning opportunities! These special times will help stimulate your little one's overall development. 

At all stages of your little one's feeding development, the mealtime tasks are shared between the two of you, creating a feeding relationship that relies on mutual trust. As a result, your little one becomes an equal partner in the feeding relationship.

  • Mealtimes are perfect for family bonding, teaching sharing skills, and for social interaction. 

  • Talking together at mealtimes can help your little one's brain develop crucial communication, language, and social skills.

  • The conversations over meals are great for helping them build their vocabulary.

  • In addition, the sensory experiences mealtimes bring to the table are equally valuable in developing their sense of touch, smell, and taste and teaching them about the world surrounding them.

How do children develop their physical skills during mealtime?

Developing motor skills

Fine motor skills are the capacity to use the smaller muscles in our hands and wrists to complete a task. Now, our gross motor skills are those skills that involve the whole body — your core muscles (think belly and back) and the muscles of your arms and legs. Such abilities are crucial for our success in the classroom, the workplace, and daily life!

Most of us don't think about these motions since they naturally occur. However, developing fine motor abilities is complex and requires daily exploration and practice. In addition, coordination between the brain and the muscles is needed.

Fine motor skills examples:

  • Holding a toothbrush, pencil or a spoon

  • Drawing pictures and writing 

  • Using a keyboard, or a guitar

  • Using scissors, rulers, and other tools

  • During daily tasks such as getting dressed and brushing their teeth.

Gross motor skills examples:

  • Sitting

  • Standing

  • Walking

  • Running

  • Jumping

  • Lifting (a spoon, a hairbrush, a barbell — they all count!)

  • Kicking

Sitting Down

One of the most obvious ways children develop their core muscles is by practising sitting down! The sitting position is essential to improve mobility and prevent falls. As your child sits on the chair, they must bend their knees and ankles, straightening their thighs and hips to build muscle and flexibility.

Now, the best position for your little one should be sitting with their hips, knees, and ankles all bent at 90 degrees. 

It is essential to choose a highchair or a booster seat that will provide the best support possible for your little one and allow their feet to be securely placed on a firm surface. Dangling feet not only distract children from the task of eating, but more importantly, it restrains them from building muscle tone.

Toddler eating

Exploring tools and materials

During mealtimes, your little one explores and practises using different textures, shapes, materials and tools when eating. 

Introduce some cutlery each mealtime; even if you have chosen to spoon-feed your baby, take turns dipping the spoon in the food!

  • Your little one may attempt to put their spoon in their mouths, upside down or the wrong way round at first.

  • You may want to hold their hand with the spoon to model and support learning, but don't do this all the time, as your little one needs time to practise and explore independently.

  • Keep the experience positive!

As your little one plays with the cutlery and cup, they explore and learn how to hold and use it, strengthening their muscles. As they age, they will begin to practice their fine motor skills as they utilise their fingers in a pincer hold, resulting in improved control. 

Don't forget your little one also learns by exploring and watching your actions, motions, movements and expressions. This is why we need to make mealtimes a family occasion; this way, your little one learns from you and the rest of the family!

Mealtimes are an excellent opportunity for children to practise and enhance their gross motor skills because they allow them to self-serve their food. 

  • Letting children serve themselves is a good idea, as this will help them establish independence and control over their bigger movements.

  • You can begin introducing this method from an early age. 

  • For example, offer a small water jug to serve their drink and large spoons for the food. Begin by providing an empty cup (even if it is a Sippy cup) and a plate. 

  • Use a small jug to carefully pour some water into the cup and close it for them.

  • Your baby might not be able to pour their drink yet, but they are learning the process of filling and pouring.

  • Then, let them watch you scoop some food into their plates with the large spoon. Why don't you hold their hand and try doing it together next time?

  • As your little one grows, they will begin attempting to pour their drink and serve their food, building confidence and independence!

Baby holding spoon

Sensory explosion!

As your baby grows and explores different foods, they experience many other sensations—everything from the texture of the fruit skin to the juiciness when eating it. Not only is exposing them to new flavours and textures crucial for a healthy lifestyle, but it also helps them to figure out their likes and dislikes. 

Talk to your little one about what they're seeing, touching, hearing, smelling and experiencing!

  • For example, if your baby has a slice of orange, you could talk about its shape, colour and taste.

  • Then, as they eat it, add some keywords or sounds describing their texture or flavour. For instance, create slurping sounds, "Slurp slurp, the orange is juicy!". "Mmm yum, yum!" smile and rub your tummy to demonstrate to your little one positive relationships with food.

Toddler eating a carrot


Encourage your child to feel the texture of their food; it might turn into a messy business but don't get discouraged by this; your little one will love using their hands and fingers, making this time enjoyable and memorable.

Food sensory experiences teach your child about what they are eating and encourage them to feed themselves, fostering independence and confidence. Furthermore, investigating their food encourages children to fall in love with it and become less picky eaters as they get older.

  • Set out a few bites at a time instead of a huge helping to help minimise the mess, and rather than giving a big bowl of yoghurt, put a few spoonfuls in a cup. When they finish it, offer them more.

  • Explore the textures together; for example, orange skin may be rough, smooth, or cold, whereas other foods may be mushy, crunchy, hard or soft. 

  • Finally, allowing them to investigate their food is an excellent way to develop their sense of touch. 


Your little one needs to understand the importance of hygiene early on, so make it a part of your routine!

  • Make sure your little one washes their hands before and after eating.

  • If they have just started weaning, you can still take them to the sink to wash their hands or if more manageable, use a wet cloth.

  • Explain why we must wash our hands, "We have been playing; our hands are now dirty and yucky", and "There are germs in our hands that might give us a tummy ache."

Oral hygiene

Children must begin learning about their oral hygiene from the moment their first tooth appears through their gums!

  • Introduce a toothbrush and get them used to brush their teeth or tooth!

  • Explain to them that the food gets stuck in their teeth and that to keep them clean and healthy, we need to look after them by brushing them twice a day. 

  • You could make up a song as they brush their teeth to describe their actions, such as "Brush brush, brush your teeth, up and down, up and down" and "Splash, splash, splash!" as the water splashes into the sink.

Washing hands

Healthy choices

It is essential to make healthy choices as an adult and child. And is important to get them excited about their nutritional choices from the start! Here are a few ideas to help your little one develop a healthy attitude to food:

  • Use mealtimes as opportunities to talk about what is on your plate.

  • Name and describe what you are eating, the shapes, textures colours to encourage your little one to do the same and get interested in their food.

  • Talk about the superpower that is inside our foods, vitamins!

  • Explain that vitamins in food help us get big and strong; for instance, "the vitamin in milk and cheese is called calcium; it allows our bones and teeth to stay strong"; invite them to feel their bones and teeth, describe their texture and how they help us stand tall, run, and eat.

  • Discuss what would happen if we didn't have strong bones or if we didn't have any bones at all! 

  • Use this opportunity to talk about the body and how important it is to keep it healthy.


Fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy, balanced diet and can help you stay healthy. So, we must eat enough of them!

  • Describe the 5-a-day campaign and the significant health benefits of getting at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables daily.

  • Why not make it a game to see who eats 5 different portions of fruits and vegetables during the day; you can make it into a friendly competition! 

Book Library

Reading to your child is an excellent method to introduce new words and improve their listening, memory, and vocabulary skills. Furthermore, it improves their communication abilities and introduces new ideas, letters, colours, and shapes in a fun and engaging manner. 

  • 'Brush, brush, brush' by Scholastic

This book promotes healthy habits. This rhythmic text will inspire your little one to brush their teeth. The big, bold artwork, photos, and illustrations make this book visually appealing. At the end of each book is a parent note with suggested activities linked to the story and its theme.

  • 'Let’s wash our hands' by Campbell Books

In Let's Wash Our Hands, we meet two toddlers who learn all about washing their hands and bath time! Follow the ups and downs of their journey, brought to life with fun flaps and mechanisms.


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