Making Conversation at Meal Times

“I’m so relieved to know that I don’t have to entertain my toddler every minute of the day to be a good parent!”

A co-worker I was chatting with about speech and language development confided in me that she used to believe her two-year-old daughter needed to hear singing, be moving, or be entertained during her every waking moment. But her child doesn’t need to be engaged every moment of the day. In fact, it’s good for children to have moments of quiet exploration and even boredom. As adults, we calendar in moments of calm, and even buy meditation apps that help us tune out all of the noise and chaos around us. Yes, speaking with your child throughout the day is great, but this doesn't mean every waking moment needs to be dedicated to you entertaining or educating them. They don’t need to be playing with fancy toys either. You can build their language during your daily routines and set aside some moments of play too. And, If you’re raising your child to be bilingual, speaking in your heritage language during your daily routines is a very easy way for your child to learn words, sounds, and phrases in your home language.

Encourage your child to be an active participant as you go throughout your day, so long as you have the time to go at their pace. If you’re in a rush, then do what you gotta do to get out the door, but if there are moments when you can slow down and let your child be independent, it will benefit the both of you so much in the long run. Today, let’s talk about my favorite subject: food! I'm going to give you some easy peasy ways to build language and speech into your daily mealtime routines.

Activities to work on Listening:

With younger children, you can describe the food you’re eating: Mmmmm, this oatmeal is warm. The cinnamon that I sprinkled on top is delicious. Using the same words over and over again helps to build in repetition so that they learn the new words and new ways to put those words together.

I spy. You can play a game of describing something you see at the table and have your child guess what you’re talking about. “I’m looking at something that’s in a bowl, it’s made of many different vegetables, and it has olive oil on top.” What am I looking at? Is it the salad or the rolls! The salad! Hurrah!

Ask your child to help set the table with lighter items (i.e. things they can drop, step on, and then drop again) such as napkins or lighter, blunt silverware like spoons.

Older children can follow instructions: first put the spoons on the table and then come back for the cups

When it comes to hearing new words, you can go beyond just naming the colors of food or counting how many peas you have on the plate. Can you talk about the food that is soft or the food that is crunchy. What about the food that’s sweet or the food that is chewy? Sometimes we get stuck in a numbers and colors rut but, there’s so much language happening beyond those colors and numbers!

Activities to work on Speaking:

If you can, give them a choice in what’s on the menu: Do you want bananas on your oatmeal or strawberries? If they can use their words to say what they want, then give them time to use their words.

Add one word to what they’ve said about the food-- or anything else at the table. If they say yummy banana, you can reply, Yes, the banana is yummy!

For older children, model more complex words and sentences: Should we put a pinch of cinnamon on your oatmeal or a small scoop of it? Do you want a dash of salt on your potatoes. Do you like your potatoes slightly warmed or piping hot?

Talk about what your child is seeing and tasting throughout the meal. You don’t have to do this the whole meal, by the way. Like I said before, balancing some language interaction with some silence and exploration is a great approach. So, if your child is looking at the potatoes on his plate, talk about the potatoes- talk about what they look like or smell like.

Speech Sounds:

Younger children can listen to and sometimes imitate the speech sounds we’re making. You can talk about what sounds each of the foods start with-- although you as the parent will have to take the lead on this rather than expecting your child to know what the sounds are. So, if you have potatoes and pickles on your plate, emphasize the “p” sound and see if your child wants to repeat along with you. “Oh, I notice we have potatoes and pickles on our plate. Potato starts with “p” and so does “pickle.”

Older children can find other words that start with that same sound. Pickles and potatoes and peaches and pears.

Rhyme words you’re seeing around you, “bread” and “head” and see if your child can find words that rhyme too. What rhymes with beans? Greens or tomatoes?

Mealtimes are great daily routines that we can use to practice language. Again, you don’t have to be speaking every moment of the meal. And your child doesn’t have to be entertained every moment of the meal- this includes entertainment from i-pads or other devices. If your child is used to a device, it might be time to slowly wean them off and get used to being present as a family. It’s not easy. It’s not overnight. It’s just moving in the direction of more communication!

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