Mealtime Experiences in the Early Years

With both of us coming from nursery backgrounds and both having our own journeys personally and professionally with food, mealtimes and feeding experiences, positive attitudes towards food and creating unpressured, slow-paced, meal time environments was something of increased importance to us both when creating Pebbles Childcare.

In a larger nursery type of environment, mealtimes can be the most stressful times of the day with lots of children to feed at one given time, particularly when these mealtimes come prior to key times of the day like sleep and home time. Due to this, many practitioners within a nursery environment can feel and then cascade this to not only other staff but the children too, that mealtimes are a time of day to rush through, rather than being a calm, enjoyable social occasion.

Sometimes one member of staff is required to feed 3-4 babies in high chairs, in some form of line and order rather than use this as a calm 1:1 period to role model positive language and traditions and to encourage and support self-feeding and the invaluable experience of exploring foods, tastes and textures in their own time. Similarly, with the older children; large tables are provided to enable pre-school aged children to sit at and eat, often meaning there is no space for an adult to sit and role model positive eating and enjoy the sociable aspect of mealtimes with the children.

More often than not, practitioners responsible for lunch cover and supporting with mealtimes are under increased pressure to ensure all children are fed and lunch rooms are cleaned and set-up at break-neck speed in time for the next session/end of the day. With a rushed, chaotic atmosphere like this the norm in so many settings, practitioners are missing key opportunities to not only spend time and chat with their key children, but to observe and support vital skills and role-model positive eating, language and attitudes around food.

The food provided in larger, private nursery settings can vary greatly; some have become so budget driven that meals are made using processed packets and ready meals with hardly any fresh produce and no thought into the children’s dietary needs. Alternatively, some settings choose to order food in via a catering service, and whilst this saves time for the kitchen staff, the children are unable to participate in the food preparation process which again, is a sadly missed learning opportunity and experience. In some settings, staff are charged if they want a meal prepared for them to eat alongside the children during lunchtimes, and  so most staff don’t opt for this and so eating with the children and role-modelling in this way is not an option for many as staff can also be restricted in regards to eating their own food with or in front of the children due to allergies.

As a smaller, home-based setting we are keen to take ample time over each meal, whether it be morning snack, lunch or tea. We may be a smaller setting with less children but we still have time restraints in place but we do not allow these to take precedence over the children’s eating experiences.

Instead, the children sit together with us at the kitchen table, either in booster seats or highchairs. They help set the table, knowing which type of cutlery to give each child (plastic bowls and spoons for the children under 18 months and China crockery and metal knives and forks for the older ones). They have serviettes, a centre piece (flowers or fruit bowl) and a plastic tablecloth. We use mealtimes to review and reflect on our day, open discussions about the food that is served, discuss likes and dislikes and also start to talk about the next meal. Bridgit provides food for us both as we don’t get a lunch break as childminders, and by doing this we are able to role model positive eating and attitudes as well as getting lunch ourselves!

The children (and parents) help plan our menus.We have a winter and summer menu and the children (including our after school children) will go through cookery books; talking about the food they like the look of, and we try and factor their ideas (as well as family favourites that parents put forward) into the 3 week menu.Although the menu is extremely flexible, in that if we have a celebration such as a birthday or a theme, we’ll adapt the meal for that day. We also provide our parents and children with a weaning menu to support our younger babies first tastes as they start the weaning process. Naturally, there are always dishes that aren’t as well received but we encourage and support the children to try the dish, talk about what it is they do or don’t like, and try the dish again in a few weeks time.

We’ve supported numerous ‘fussy eaters’ over the last couple of years; working with their parents to provide daily menu updates, involving the child in the food preparation and meal choices, and quite simply being patient with the child as they tackle their meals and overcome this stage. Hard work and patience has definitely paid off as our children will now try any new dish and eat almost everything we provide for them!Pudding is not used as a bribe or reward; all children receive a pudding regardless whether hey’ve eaten or not (although fruit is normally offered if it’s a high value pudding such as a homemade shortbread or yoghurt.)

Sometimes our mealtimes are over in 20 mins, other times they can last for up to 40-60 mins.We’ve learned that each meal time is a massive learning opportunity and so we follow the children’s lead as we support them through their meal.It is important to apply your knowledge of the individual child even to their mealtimes; not all families have a dinner table so sitting at a table can be an alien concept for some children and so it is important to remember that for some children, a sit down mealtime may take some time to adjust to.

Similarly, some children are particularly energetic who do not sit still for long and sometimes it can feel like mealtimes are over before they even start. At this stage, where mealtimes for these children can become disruptive for the other children, the child begins to resist mealtimes and the routine, discussions with parents will allow you to discover things about the family routine that can then be adapted into your routine in order to support these children more effectively.

Most of our evening meals are finished by the time our parents start picking up, but it has been known if we’re still eating, for parents to sit down and join the children around the table, finishing off any leftovers!

Wherever possible for the children to be involved in growing, preparing, cutting, cooking and serving their own meals; this should be embraced and encouraged until this becomes part of every day practice. Whilst this may increase the time mealtimes take to complete; the learning opportunities, social skills, positive attitudes and healthy eating practices that allowing children to fully own their food and mealtimes provides, are unrivalled.

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