Wholesome Child’s top 7 strategies for successful ECEC meal times
At Wholesome Child we believe that shared meals between respected carers and children are the cornerstone of healthy eating. Studies show that eating regular meals with a trusted adult, such as an educator or family member can improve a child’s vocabulary, mood, academic success, and outlook on the future.
Sitting down to meals with children is the ideal opportunity for them to benefit from positive role modelling, and educators should not only sit together with children during meals, but also share the same meals wherever possible.
More than anything, meal times should be about enjoying quality time together. This helps children to relax, and when they do, their sensory systems calm down. This is a necessary ingredient in creating an atmosphere for children to explore new foods and be in tune with their appetites.
In our experience, shared meals with engaged educators leads to less food wastage and greater nutritional outcomes for the children. Children leave the table more relaxed and satiated, setting them up for success in the next part of their day.
It takes a village to feed children
While parents are responsible for feeding children in the home, there is a huge opportunity for early childhood settings to positively contribute to the development of healthy eating habits and creating resilient feeders during the week.
It is our firm belief that it takes a village to feed children, and childcare chefs and educators are a critical part of this first village. Successful meal times are about so much more than the food. The atmosphere, conversation and role modelling are all essential ingredients in setting up successful meals where children get maximum nourishment while also learning positive eating behaviours.
My shared belief of feeding expert Ellyn Satter, pioneer of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model, is that carers decide what, when and where children will eat. In this model,children learn to regulate their own appetite by being responsible for how much they eat.
A moment of mindfulness
Your state of mind and your attitude can help the children in your care self-regulate their emotions. If you find yourself feeling frustrated or in need of a break, children can feed off this energy. Educators should take a short break or a few deep breaths before mealtimes where possible and view mealtimes as an important part of their remit.
Did you know?
Careful studies of human twins and of young animals suggest early exposures and social interactions outweigh genetics when it comes to food preferences.
Wholesome Child’s top 7 strategies for successful meal times
Cooking with kids
If it’s possible in your centre, encourage a ‘Cooking With Kids’ lesson each week to help familiarise children with new meals. This also helps children from different cultures to become familiar with foods which may not be offered in the home. Involving children on prepping food which they can then enjoy is a wonderful opportunity and learning process.
During mealtimes, allow children to explore food with their hands and don’t limit their choices to “appropriate finger foods” only. For example, pasta can be offered in different shapes so that they can be picked up and explored or porridge can be served with a thicker texture, allowing younger children to eat it with their hands.
As hard as it can be for some adults, we must resist the urge to be constantly cleaning, worrying or commenting about the mess. For some children, having their mouths repeatedly cleaned is really uncomfortable and can bring unpleasant associations with food.
Messy play can also take place away from mealtimes, ensuring there is no pressure to eat the food which is being explored. For example, encourage children to roll plain wholemeal dough or make thickened oatmeal and allow them to squish it through their fingers. Cut up a sample of fruits and vegetables to be explored. Be creative and remember that enjoying food is a sensory experience. Children who are allowed to get messy with their food through exploration have a tendency to be less fussy later on.
Educator and Child Shared Mealtimes
Make it a goal for educators to eat together with the children in their care as often as possible and use this time to model genuine appreciation of healthy and nutritious food. Support your staff to ensure that meals are carried out in a fun, warm and relaxed manner so the anxieties of the fussiest members of the classroom are eased.
Educate Children Daily with Interesting and Fun Facts
Help the children in your centre make the connection between what they eat and how it makes them feel strong and healthy (or makes them run faster or jump higher). For younger children, show images of carrots and let them know that carrots help us to see better. If they have a cold, give them an orange and let them know that it has vitamin C to help fight off nasty bugs. Reading books together about the benefits of health and vitamins is a creative way to encourage acceptance of healthy and nutritious foods.
Offer reasonable choices
Children like to feel like they have some control when it comes to mealtimes. If you have a particularly fussy child, allow them to decide where they want to sit, which plates should be used, where the educator should sit.
Avoid Showing Frustration
If a child simply refuses to eat a particular food, don’t let them see your frustration. Simply remove the food and continue to try another day. Little ones can often use food as a control mechanism if they see that you’re getting annoyed.
Praise and Encouragement
Children thrive off praise and encouragement. Constantly remind the children how well they are doing, even if that simply means saying, “Wow, Marie, that’s excellent sitting!” Fussy eaters are used to receiving attention for negative eating behaviours, so it’s important to turn this around and focus on the positive things they are managing to achieve – even if it’s sitting without fussing. If educators praise a child during mealtimes it can have a positive effect on their overall relationship to food and mealtimes in general, what a wonderful gift for life!
We cover these topics and more in our Nourish Program.