Join us as we travel into a deep dark wood. We meet a mouse with a nut that looks good. We step into the turned-out toes of the gruffalo and see what foods he can learn about. This is a bit of a “behind the scenes” look at one of my popular lesson plans for fussy eaters (picky eaters). I’m hoping it encapsulates the essence of “what I do” – why fun, sensory systems, learning and feeding research/theory really can go hand-in-hand.

For the past 4.5 years I’ve been running fruit and vegetable inspired food experiences for kids. It started off in hired halls at community venues. It progressed to extending my food science and nutrition qualifications into feeding therapy. I starting this blog. And now I work mostly in the clinical environment with problem feeders, write the blog and produce content for parents to access at any time they need to help their fussy eaters. The journey has had bends and twists. However, one thing is for sure – including the “fun” element into my lessons has always been my favourite part. And today I’m walking you through my “What’s a Gruffalo?” lesson and throwing in a good mix of additional resources to get your creative juices flowing. I hope you love it and see the fun in providing food learning opportunities to your kids.

Pre-Mealtime Routine for a Little Gruffalo

A pre-mealtime routine is something that we practice in feeding therapy due to the substantial evidence behind it AND I definitely know it makes a massive difference. I usually start a “What’s a Gruffalo?” class by reading the infamous kid picture book “The Gruffalo” by Julia Donaldson.

This routine also helps the children get to know me AND to make it more engaging, I add a bit of theatrical flair to the book by presenting some veggies strategically into the story to touch and add some movement/exercises.

After reading the book, we will often do some extra exercises like big Gruffalo stomping, some little mouse tip-toeing, some owl flying, some snake slithering and some fox crawling. All of these movements are easy to do no matter what space you have. The crawling and slithering in particular are great for getting some proprioceptive system input – this (put very simply) means getting some push/pull feelings into the body. Proprioceptive system input helps form feedback loops about our actions and reactions to pressure and get us all ready to take on a new task.

Sensory Food Time Based on the Gruffalo

I will often introduce some foods during the book visually. I then follow this up with some closer learning opportunities by providing them in see through containers to explore. Importantly, this is still a no-pressure to eat environment and this is the time I get to explain the food and start opening up conversations about what we can expect from it. For example, slices of fresh fennel can look a bit like the Gruffalo’s terrible claws “…but do they sound loud like claws??? Or do you think they are more like the terrible tusks or terrible teeth in his terrible jaws?” With prompts that engage them to use their sense of sound we are starting to make them curious and open up their learning opportunities via one sensory system at a time. Eyes. Ears.

Gruffalo Food Play Ideas to Help Picky Eaters | Simone Emery | Play with Food

Setting the table for a Gruffalo meal

We continue the momentum (so we don’t loose all that proprioceptive system engagement benefit) by now transitioning to the table (eating area – sometimes we have a picnic in some classes). Some children need a range of tools to help with transitions. I keep my eyes peeled for initial (often non-verbal) cues for anxiety/stress. Depending on the environment, the feeding history and root cause of the feeding concerns, the prospect of sitting down to food can be quite overwhelming. So, I am super sensitive to making this transition fun but purposeful with kids “on board”.

At the table we lay out our plates, learning area (usually a learning bowl), damp washer (wash cloth / flannel) cutlery and start to present the foods.

A Gruffalo Plays with his/her Food!

I reiterate to the children that we start out by learning with our eyes first. We explain the rules around the learning bowl / learning area. We climb the steps to eating hierarchy. Stop. Sense check. We introduce something else. We can remove overwhelm with a safe opt-out strategy. Take a dive into root causes. We address anxiety. Sometimes we lick, sometimes we smell, sometimes we touch it, sometimes we watch and sometimes we eat new foods. Whatever the outcome is – we learn. Eating isn’t pass fail, it’s a learning journey.

It’s important that self-cleaning is encouraged by providing a washer and not done to the child at the meal table. (#embracemess). This is also a time for specific reinforcement of what happens at the mealtime…. eg. how we sit like a staircase, how we clean our own hands, how we can learn, how we can change our mind. That is, the time at the meal table is not a time for me say what we DON’T do or use lots of negative-vibe-filled-No’s.  Eating is never about making a child feel negative or bad. (Have a look at my video for a comprehensive chat about “the how’s” of talking about food with kids with supportive tools to help.)

Foods that the Gruffalo Can Learn About

I’ve used some phrases from the book as a prompt for food ideas I have been known to include in Gruffalo meals. It’s important to have some “easy foods” and some “hard foods” – nobody can sit and learn hard stuff all the time. Taking a break with an easy food keeps it fun:

Claws/tusks/teeth – sliced raw fennel, celery, sliced apple, battons of pear, grated cheese

Knobbly knees – an apple, a kiwi fruit, an <insert all manner of circular fruits>, boiled baby potato, water cracker

Orange eyes – carrot circles, steamed sweet potato, turmeric sweet potato crackers made into circle shapes, these pumpkin and honey baked donuts.

Black tongue – blackberries / mulberries to paint on their tongue (or paint on a piece of bread if the tongue is too hard for them to do at this stage), licorice strap

Prickles (I have to admit purple is pretty hard!)- sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, rice bubbles, dried cranberries

To extend on the prickles concept, we have teamed it with a slice of steamed sweet potato (or for an easier option try buttered english muffin) to stick the prickles into.

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Clean Up Time in the Gruffalo’s Deep Dark Wood

Clean-up time is when I always have the child re-look at the foods we’ve learnt about. It’s an important closing opportunity. A final chance for another lick, another smell, another look, another listen, another high 5 … another learn.

You see? Everyone has fun with me. But now my tummy’s beginning to rumble and my favourite food is – gruffalo crumble

I hope this Gruffalo inspired Play with Food lesson plan has helped re-frame some food experiences that you have with your kids by walking in my turned-out toes!

But before I go….

Here are some more Gruffalo inspired meal ideas:

This Gruffalo sandwich by The Strong Collection on Instagram is wow:

Check out this recipe for mango & banana nice cream  as a healthy take on “owl ice cream”

If you’ve used some fennel, carrot and apple (as mentioned above), you can always use the leftovers for this roasted apple, carrot and fennel soup.

And of course there’s CRUMBLE – Check out Mandy’s video on making little individual pear crumbles designed so that kids can follow along too!


Do you have a Gruffalo fan?



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