Feeding a young child sometimes feels like Groundhog Day. They want the same food day after day.

If you have a pasta-every-night eater than you know what I mean. Here’s a solution you may not have thought about before: Tap into the power of pretend. It capitalizes on children’s natural desire for repetition.

Obviously I’m not talking about waiting to see if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, though I have to admit that knowing if we’re ending our child’s eating “winter” would be a great thing. I’m talking about the Bill Murray movie where he repeats the same day over and over. I’m talking about the Bill Murray movie where he repeats the same day over and over. (Get it?)

Some kids do a repeat with pasta. Some do it with nuggets or pizza. Others consistently reach for milk.

Pretend is a way for kids to practice—again and again— the parts of eating that are difficult for them. Eventually they become ready for the real deal.

Kids can learn to be more adventurous. They can learn to eat the right amount of food. To behave at the table. To curtail sweets and treats.

I know, you probably think I’m delusional. That I’m pretending.  I don’t blame anyone who thinks that. After all, most children engage in pretend all the time and it doesn’t change a damn thing.

To use pretend effectively, you have to jump into your children’s imagination and play along. It’s not enough to be responsive to the game, though. You have to add a little direction.

You know the game play where kids pretend to cook something and offer you a taste? Most parents (including me) respond by taking a pretend bite and saying, “yum.” That’s a good response to start playing, but it’s not enough.

How about following up with a question?
What dish is this? Why did you make it? What’s in it? Did you have to chop the ingredients? What color is it? What does it taste like to you?

You could also follow up with questions like these: Those brownies look delicious. How big a portion should I have? Or, I had a doughnut this morning. I’ll save my brownie for later. Or, Why do you like brownies? Are there other foods like brownies that you like?

In a way, it doesn’t matter what the actual question is. What matters is that you are using pretend to help your children learn the right eating lessons. Click here to read about the three habits.

Pretend is a great way to explore how to handle visits from grandparents, managing treats, dealing with food that is unappealing.

The more children pretend their way through different scenarios the more tools they have to get through those actual scenarios.

Here are many of the lessons you can teach children using pretend cooking.

You can do this with or without a toy kitchen and with or without toy food. You also don’t have to do all these steps with every pretend session. I’m laying them out here as food for thought (pun intended).

Go through the real steps of cooking by selecting food items, chopping or otherwise preparing the food, cooking, presenting, dishing up.

While selecting food:

Ask children why they are choosing certain items. Have a discussion about what the individual items look like, smell like, feel like. Probe about what those foods taste like. It doesn’t matter if the children have had previous experience with these items. If they don’t know the answers, ask them to imagine the answers. This will tell you a lot about their preconceived notions. If it seems like it would fit into the game and you have the real version of the pretend food, consider bringing it out for some comparisons. If it seems like it would ruin the game, introduce the comparison at a later time but remind your child about her pretend thoughts. Don’t stress tasting unless your children want to go that far. Rather, talk about color, feel or smell, etc.

While chopping or preparing the food:

Ask children why they’re doing this. Ask how food prep will contribute to the cooked food. Does it make the food lumpy, for instance. How does this relate to the food they really eat?

While cooking the food:

Ask children what they think is happening in the pan or the oven. Discuss how cooking changes what things look or feel like. It can change how something tastes. Ask them to imagine the cooking and think about what steps come next. (Sounds like a lesson in hot ovens to me.)

When presenting the food:

Talk about whether the children are serving family style or plating. Ask why they choose the method. What does it look like? Which do they prefer, or which does Mommy prefer and why?

When dishing up the food:

Ask children to pretend how hungry or full they are, and then talk about how this relates to portion size, which they then pretend serve.

You can practice proportion—eating healthy foods more frequently than treats. Practice variety—eating different foods from meal-to-meal. Practice moderation—eating when hungry, stopping when full and not eating because they’re bored, sad or lonely. Or practice anything else you want your children to learn.  The Rotation Rule perhaps?

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~