Increasing Your Visually Impaired Preschooler's Independence in the Kitchen and at Meals

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young boy cutting celery with a sharp knife

Once your child is no longer a toddler, her world and her activities will expand. Now that she may begin eating snacks with other children in preschool or going out to eat with you in restaurants, she needs to know not only how to feed herself, but also how to eat neatly using regular utensils. This is also a good time to introduce her to simple ways of preparing food, so she begins to understand how her meals are prepared and get to the table.

Learning Table Skills

Since your child may not be motivated to learn to eat "like a big girl" by observing and imitating the way you and other family members eat, she may need a little more time and focused attention than her sighted siblings or friends do to learn table skills. Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Continue to put your child's bowl, plate, cup, and utensils in the same place so that she can always find them. Tell her where each item on her plate is located. You may want to use a plate divided into sections for different items to make it easier for her to find them.
  • It's helpful to use hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand technique when you demonstrate how to use a knife for spreading or a fork for stabbing. Try working from behind your child so that your hands and hers are moving in the same direction.
  • Show your child how to use a "pusher," such as a piece of bread or her knife, when trying to get food onto her fork or to hold it in place to stab it. This is more acceptable when out in public than using her fingers, so it's a good idea for her to get used to doing that at home.
  • If your child isn't eager to try something new—say, learning to stab meat with her fork—introduce the new skill at the beginning of the meal when she's most hungry. Start the meal by putting just a few pieces of meat on her plate and encourage her to eat all the meat with her fork before serving her some of the mashed potatoes you know she enjoys.
  • Show your child how to open containers such as juice and cereal boxes, and milk cartons. Once she starts grade school she'll need to know how to do that in order to eat her snack or lunch by herself.
  • If your child has low vision, look for bowls, cups, and utensils that have high contrast. It's easier to scoop macaroni and cheese from a black bowl than a yellow one. The black surface provides a stronger contrast to help your child see what's in the bowl.

Helping to Prepare Simple Snacks and Meals

Now that your child will soon be in kindergarten, you may want to find ways to involve her in preparing simple meals or snacks. Not only does this give her a chance to learn new skills and concepts—such as cooperating, pouring, and measuring—but it also helps her to understand where food comes from and the transformations it undergoes from its precooked state to the finished meal. Helping you prepare her grandmother's birthday cake, or making her own popcorn in the microwave, are good ways to start—of course, with your supervision in the kitchen.

Tips for Good Kitchen Habits

  • Let her pick a cabinet or drawer where she can keep things she needs for "cooking." These tools may include plastic plates, cups, and bowls; a medium size mixing bowl; wooden spoon; and measuring cups and spoons with high contrast colors or tactile markings.
  • You might want to suggest making a book of recipes with your child—simple things such as peanut butter and jelly or melted cheese sandwiches in the toaster oven, popcorn in the microwave, or hard boiled eggs cooked on top of the stove for egg salad. If your child has some vision, the recipes could be written in large print, or in braille if that's easier for her. You and she might even add illustrations.
  • Show your child how to organize her work space. A tray with a raised edge may be helpful so things don't roll away from her. If she has some vision, be sure she has enough light to see all her ingredients and the recipe.
  • When showing your child how to do something—for example, breaking an egg and pouring it into the brownie mix—use hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand technique.
  • Involve your child in all aspects of the task, including gathering the things she needs to make her snack and doing the dishes afterward.
  • At this stage your child will be using knives that aren't sharp or pointed, but she needs to understand that some knives are sharp, and could do damage if not handled with great care. If you want to introduce her to chopping or slicing, use the sharp knife together.
  • All young children have to learn oven and stove top safety. When the oven is cold, let your child explore it. Show her how to open it, where the racks are, and how to close the oven door. Let her feel the buttons or knobs and explain what each one does. Do the same thing with the stove top. Be sure she understands that a stove isn't something to be played with. Point out that when the oven is on, she'll feel the warmth when she's near it, and shouldn't go closer. As with knives, help her to understand proper precautions and that she'll be able to use the oven safely when she's older.

Teaching your child how to eat and start preparing her own snacks teaches her about more than just food. It opens up new experiences and ideas and helps her take steps toward independence.

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