The dining environment and mealtimes within early years settings are fantastic opportunities for learning. They provide an ideal time to involve children and model positive behaviours around food, which have the potential for lifelong impact. Beyond the food that is eaten, the social experience, table manners, habits of good digestion and involvement in the meal planning can all contribute to establishing healthy eating habits.
Eating is an incredibly social ritual during which time a great deal of learning takes place. Ideally children should sit together in small groups with an adult to help encourage conversation. Children can observe others eating, can listen, talk, share and practice turn taking when passing round food and water. As they also naturally copy each other this can be an invaluable opportunity to support those more reluctant eaters to try new foods.
Eating in a relaxed manner is key for optimal digestion alongside chewing food adequately. Children should be encouraged to chew well and put down their food or knife and fork between mouthfuls. They can begin to understand that their bodies will be fuelled by what they eat and this will also support their body’s natural signals of fullness, which they will begin to understand.
Establishing table manners is also integral to the social experience and modelling good manners is essential. Not stretching across people, getting out of your seat and pushing your plate away can all be demonstrated and explaining why good manners is important can be built into the experience. This needs to be balanced by understanding your children and providing opportunities to foster their enjoyment of mealtimes and food. If children are particularly selective eaters too much structure around mealtimes at a young age may be damaging so encouraging children to pick food up and embellish the multi-sensory aspect of food also has a place.
Making the dining experience as child friendly as possible helps to make mealtimes fun and positive experiences. Many early years settings use brightly coloured cups, plates and cutlery. Providing child-friendly serving spoons can also encourage children to help themselves and also serve others.
Within early years settings children can become involved in meal planning and preparation either as part of role-play or for a planned event. Some great opportunities could include planning the feast for a fairy tale/book character or a state banquet for the queen. Children can practice laying the table, serving each other food and wiping the tables and cleaning the crockery afterwards. This also provides a great talking point about food choices, favourite foods, what foods other might enjoy, how someone can eat a rainbow of foods and cooking.
Make the most of mealtimes as a valuable learning opportunity for children embedding skills they will carry with them through life.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, is an award winning nutritional therapist, teacher, mum, and entrepreneur who has over 20 years experience working with children and schools in the UK, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. She has founded The Food Teacher brand that combines her passion for education and nutrition to deliver a healthy childhood, focusing on promoting family health through food and lifestyle.