Blog-osity Guest Blogger and Child Psychotherapist Joanna Fortune takes a look at the Dublin Diner at Imaginosity, exploring its benefits for children and for families in terms of healthy eating, happy meal-times and children's confidence around food.

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 Involving children in food play and in actual food preparation at home are a great way to introduce them to a range of different foods and to help them grow to make healthy food choices. Involving children with food preparation is also an excellent sensory play experience for young children (up to the age of 8 years) who need a lot of sensory-based engagement to support their general development at this age.Situated on Level One, the Imaginosity child-sized The Dublin Diner is a great way for children to explore, investigate and experience all aspects of food and dining out. Here your child will get the opportunity to play at finding food in the fridge, cooking up the food and clearing their plates away afterwards. It will further help your child if you continue this experience at home by asking them to fetch something for you from the fridge, have them stand beside you at the sink and wash the vegetables before you chop them and involve them in clearing the table afterwards.

Imaginosity's Diner also encourages children to discover the sounds of a busy kitchen, push buttons on a drinks dispenser and familiarise themselves with the different textures of a variety of foods and from here to experience and imagine being the chef or wait-staff in a busy restaurant rushing to serve customers or being a customer and sitting to decide what they want to order. It is very good for children's confidence and self-esteem if they are encouraged to interact with wait-staff themselves and place their own order, making a choice for themselves as to what they would like to request.I meet with a lot of parents who are struggling with fussy and/or picky eaters at home and at a loss as to how to get their children open to a range of healthy food. We have all either been the family or seen the family struggling to manage young children in a busy restaurant with children finding it too hard to stay seated at the table.

There are a couple of points I want to raise about these issues. We all would like our children to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with their appetite and food, so we do not want to place an emotional charge around food for this end avoid using food as a reward or punishment, for example: "if you do this for me you can have a chocolate bar" or "oh you cut your knee, don't cry have a biscuit that will cheer you up" or "your behaviour has been bad today, no desert for you". Placing an emotional value on food (and it's always sweet sugary food, we never incentivise with broccoli do we?!) teaches children to eat or not eat in accordance with how they feel emotionally as opposed to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, which is much more about self regulation and which ultimately, is far better for them.

We also want our children to eat a range of (mostly) healthy food and one way to ensure this happens is to give them a child sized portion of what you are eating each day as opposed to cooking a separate child meal for them. You can have a rule of "you don't have to eat it all but you do have to try a bit of everything on your plate" and if your child pushes their plate away and says they don't want to eat, avoid the battle and simply state "ok you don't have to eat it but you do have to sit at the table until everyone else is done because in our family everyone sits together at mealtimes". This way they will stay seated at the table and are more likely to inadvertently eat more from their plate the longer they sit there but also you are establishing social rules around eating that everyone stays seated at the table and this will help you as a family when eating out at a restaurant. You cannot expect your young children to integrate two conflicting set of rules around eating if they can leave the table as they wish at home but you expect them to stay seated at the table in a restaurant when running around is not allowed. Keep it simple for both you and them and establish positive social eating skills at home that you can continue when eating outside of home.

Supporting all of this is when you can involve your child in the food preparation and cooking at home. If you encourage them to help you prepare the dinner they are more likely to eat what they cooked themselves, and you can make a fuss with everyone that this is a meal your child cooked so everyone has to try how deliciously they have made it! Even young children can help with selecting, washing, preparing food while you talk to them about why our bodies need this healthy food to grow and become stronger so that they can play and run and learn.Even young children can help to set and clear the table. While you have everyone seated around the table take turns telling the best bit of your day and the bit you would like to change (not the worst bit, be solution focused) and each person (including parents) does this. You can all celebrate the highs and help each other work out solutions to the bit each would like to change. This encourages good conversation skills around mealtimes; they will eat more while talking about something else and again, this keeps everyone around the table.On a final note here, be aware of your own behaviour around food and mealtimes. Do you eat healthy food? Do you sit at the table or eat standing up/on the go? Do you leave the table multiple times when dinner is sitting there to answer door/phone etc? Are you an emotional eater or do you talk about diets and weight gain/loss a lot in front of children? By bringing the answers to these questions into your mind you can start making positive changes where you need to now and change mealtimes for you and your family.

Check out the Dublin Diner in Imaginosity to start introducing this process at home with your own family.