Using Mealtimes to Support Language Development in Children

Parents can acquire and apply evidence-based language strategies that are effective in supporting the language development of young children with language delays. SPD’s speech therapist, Michelle Sim, shares some language [...]

Everyday routines such as mealtime, bath time, play time and story time provide opportunities for communication and language development. Routines are a great way for children’s learning as they provide repeated opportunities for learning in a natural, relaxed, and enjoyable way. Using routines also helps your child participate meaningfully in your family’s typical activities of the day.

Research has shown that parents play an important role in young children’s language development1. Higher parent responsiveness and high-quality parent-child interactions have been found to promote children’s language development2,4. Parents can acquire and apply evidence-based language strategies that are effective in supporting the language development of young children with language delays3. In this article, SPD’s speech therapist, Michelle Sim, shares some language strategies that parents could leverage during mealtime and benefit from these social and language opportunities.

1. Offering choices  

Offer your child a choice during mealtimes. For example, you can present your child with two choices of drinks and ask, “Do you want juice or milk?”, holding the items out as you say its name. Aside from food and drinks, you could also let your child choose between their preferred cutlery in terms of colour (e.g., blue cup or pink cup), size (e.g., big spoon or small spoon) or style (e.g., dinosaur plate or bear plate). 

Offering your child a choice allows them to learn the vocabulary and use language to make a request. This is particularly important for children who have yet to develop expressive vocabulary to independently provide a response, or for children who have just started using words to communicate. For children who are not ready to use words, this will provide them an opportunity to use gestures to communicate through pointing or reaching out to their preferred item. Additionally, providing choices empowers children to make a decision, giving them a sense of control. 

2. Create communication temptations 

Communication temptation is a strategy where you structure the environment in a way that entices or creates opportunities for your child to initiate communication5.Your child does not need to use language to communicate if everything is placed within easy reach for them or if things go as planned. Instead, what you can do is make little tweaks during mealtimes that will motivate your child to initiate interaction with you to request, ask for more and/or ask for help. For example, you can create communication temptations by placing your child’s favourite snack items on a higher shelf that is out of reach or by offering a smaller portion of food. You can also give them a plate of food (e.g., bowl of cereal with milk) but “forgetting” to give them a spoon or providing them an empty cup without a drink. 

The amount of language to expect from your child is dependent on your child’s current skills. Encourage your child to use slightly more language than they are spontaneously using. You can do so by modelling and expanding your child’s utterances. For example, if your child says “milk”, you can help your child use a two-word phrase by repeating what your child said and adding a word (e.g., “want milk”).  

For children who are using phrases, you can get them to say a full sentence, such as “I want chocolate milk”. If your child has yet to use words or is minimally verbal, start off by using the first strategy of offering choices or you can teach them to use gestures, signs, pictures, or your child’s communication device to communicate.  

3. Talk with your child and narrate what you and your child are doing during mealtime 

Help your child learn the meaning of words by using simple language to talk about what you and your child are doing during mealtimes. When you use the same words and phrases with your child during everyday activities, they will be exposed to familiar, repetitive vocabulary daily, which helps to build your child’s understanding of language. A child must understand words and hear them used in context before they begin to use those words meaningfully. As you eat together, you can talk and comment about how the food looks, feels and tastes.  As you are setting the table, serving or having a meal, you can name utensils, food and drink items.

For children who are speaking in phrases or sentences, you may model and use a wider range of new vocabulary to describe the food you are eating. For example, you can model descriptive words such asThe biscuit is crunchy”,The orange is juicy and sweet. 

4. Involve your child in meal preparation 

Involving your child in meal preparation encourages independence and teaches them concepts and skills that are meaningful to your child’s daily living. You can assign your child a role depending on your child’s skills, such as spreading jam on their bread or mashing potatoes.

Narrate activities of what you and your child are doing as you both prepare a meal. For example, talk about how you’re preparing it such as “I’m slicing the bread”, “We are spreading jam”.

This will help your child learn vocabulary that is meaningful to their daily living. Additionally, preparing meals together provide great opportunities for them to practise following directions (e.g., “First, peel the banana”) and to learn and practise fine motor skills such as using a knife to spread jam on a bread.

5. Involve your child to set and clean up the dining area 

Following instructions, remembering what to do, learning the vocabulary and having responsibility for something allow children to function effectively across different environments.  

Give simple 1-step instructions such as “wipe the table” or “put your plate in the sink”. For children who can follow 1-step routine instructions, you can embed concepts in your instructions such as: size (e.g., “Bring the big plate”), quantity (e.g., “Take out three spoons”) and prepositions (e.g., “Put a spoon next to the plate”, “Pull out the chair”).  

Show your child what they need to do before expecting them to follow the instruction independently. For children who are learning to follow 1-step instruction, present each direction separately and pause to allow time for your child to respond.  For children who can follow 1-step instruction, you may get them to follow multi-step directions. For example, “Wipe the dining table before taking out the plates”.   

Conclusion

Parents’ participation in supporting young children’s language development are indispensable as you are the constant in your child’s everyday environment. Small changes you make to your mealtime routine can have a big impact on your child’s language development. Have fun as you make positive changes in your child’s language outcomes!

References:

1Heidlage, J., Cunningham, J., Kaiser, A., Trivette, C., Barton, E., Frey, J., & Roberts, M. (2020). The effects of parent-implemented language interventions on child linguistic outcomes: A meta-analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly50, 6-23. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.12.006

2Karrass, J., & Braungart-Rieker, J. (2003). Parenting and Temperament as Interacting Agents in Early Language Development. Parenting, 3(3), 235-259. doi: 10.1207/s15327922par0303_03 

3Roberts, M., & Kaiser, A. (2011). The Effectiveness of Parent-Implemented Language Interventions: A Meta-Analysis. American Journal Of Speech-Language Pathology, 20(3), 180-199. doi: 10.1044/1058-0360(2011/10-0055) 

4Tamis-LeMonda, C., Kuchirko, Y., & Song, L. (2014). Why Is Infant Language Learning Facilitated by Parental Responsiveness?. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 23(2), 121-126. doi: 10.1177/0963721414522813 

5Wetherby, A., & Prizant, B. (1989). The Expression of Communicative Intent: Assessment Guidelines. Seminars In Speech And Language, 10(01), 77-91. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1082491

Cover photo: Shutterstock

Other photos: Canva

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