Creating positive mealtimes

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone shares her insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest. 

Mealtimes at education and care services offer many rich opportunities to promote positive outcomes for children. Positive mealtimes are not only about nutritional requirements – they can shape children’s learning, development, health and wellbeing.

They involve every child enjoying nutritious and culturally appropriate food and snacks in a social, responsive, pleasurable, safe and educative environment. They also demonstrate outcomes from each National Quality Standard (NQS) quality area.

I encourage you to view your current mealtimes with a positive mealtime ‘lens’ and use these reflective questions to inspire conversations with your team.

1. Does your physical environment promote positive mealtimes?

The physical environment (NQS Quality Area 3) influences quality practice and has a significant impact on mealtimes and the potential for social interaction, learning, inclusion, safety, and wellbeing. The change in mood when we eat outdoors is a perfect example of this impact.

The components of this physical environment are broad, including everything from table and chair arrangements and table settings to noise levels and serving utensils.

Each service has a unique environment, and few have access to purpose-built, family-style dining areas. Food may also be brought from home to be eaten at the service. In outside-school-hours care services, food may be eaten on a bench or in a hall that requires daily transformation.

Whatever the environment, consider these questions:

  • Mealtime location: Does it promote a sense of belonging? Does it support mealtimes being social and relaxed occasions where children have time to eat, choose and interact, or does it uphold mealtimes as a rushed routine?
  • Is the environment child-centred? Do furniture and utensils suit different ages and sizes of children? Does the space accommodate children’s developing skills and independence and the inherent ‘mess’ that can sometime come with it?
  • Inclusion: Can each child access, participate and engage in mealtimes? Does the environment reflect and respect children’s needs?
  • Table settings: Do table and chair arrangements promote social interaction and engagement between children and between educators and children? Do table settings support mealtimes as an occasion?
  • Agency: Does the environment promote children’s agency and self-help skills? E.g. setting tables; finding their place; sharing food; serving food; processing waste.
  • Connection to the broader food environment: Is there a connection between mealtime and other food environments? This connection could be physical (e.g. the dining area is next to the kitchen; garden produce is used in meals); social (e.g. the cook has a relationship with children and educators; garden produce is shared with families); or through the educational program (e.g. the kitchen, garden, mealtimes or composting are used for learning experiences).
  • Transitions: Are transitions to and from mealtime environments respectful to children and calm?

2. Do mealtimes nurture relationships?

Secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships are fundamental principles of the approved learning frameworks, and relationships between children and with children are integral to NQS Quality Area 5.

Connections with others support the development of children’s identity and social and emotional competence. Research has confirmed the nature, quality and consistency of interactions between educators and children is one of the most important influences on quality education and care.

Mealtimes are intrinsically social and offer regular opportunities to have positive interactions, build secure relationships, learn from one another, provide emotional support, promote language and inspire learning.

You could also consider:

  • Positive interactions: Educators who consistently model positive interactions and mealtime skills will support children’s development.
  • Relationship building opportunities: Are educators able to sit with children at mealtimes or is attention focused on simultaneously serving, cleaning, supervising, setting up environments or doing paperwork? Quality interactions and relationships need quality time and attention.

3. Do mealtimes promote holistic health?

Healthy eating is integral to promoting children’s health (NQS Quality Area 2), with physical, social and emotional health all being nurtured by positive meals times.  A healthy menu (or healthy food brought from home) provides a firm foundation for health.

For holistic health, the healthy menu needs to be provided safely and in a health-promoting environment that also considers social and emotional health and wellbeing. The mealtime environment, relationships and staffing are important influences.

Beyond the firm foundation of a healthy menu, you could promote positive social and emotional health and wellbeing by:

  • Creating positive mealtimes that are social, relaxed and calm
  • Actively involving children in mealtimes
  • Never using food as a punishment or reward
  • Not discussing food in relation to a child’s weight or size
  • Not labelling foods as good/bad/clean/junk; instead, talk about ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes/treat’ foods
  • Respecting children’s appetites and preferences and never forcing children to eat
  • Respecting children’s cultural diversity and the values and beliefs of families (NQS Quality Area 6)
  • Being respectful of children and families when food choices or food brought from home are inconsistent with food and nutrition policies
  • Ensuring the menu reflects the needs of the children and community.

4. Are mealtimes a part of the educational program?

Positive mealtimes offer immense opportunity for each child’s learning and development to be enhanced and extended (NQS Quality Area 1).

Mealtimes allow children to learn about:

  • their identity (I prefer certain foods. My family celebrates our culture with food.)
  • relationships (When we sit for lunch, we share the milk. I like to sit next to my friend so I can talk to them.)
  • their community (We grow mint in our garden. Our cook’s name is Sam.)
  • literacy (My name card has an ‘A’. I can explain how to chop fruit.)
  • numeracy (There are six people at our table. I can make a pattern with my peas.), and
  • their world (Pancakes are made from wheat. When I have food in my mouth I don’t try and talk at the same time).

Connecting the mealtime environment to the kitchen, garden and waste processing also supports learning and development.

5. Does staffing organisation and leadership promote positive mealtimes?

Positive mealtimes require supportive staffing arrangements (NQS Quality Area 4) and effective leadership (NQS Quality Area 7).

For mealtimes to be social, responsive, pleasurable, safe and educative, educators need to be seen as an important part of them. Staffing at mealtimes can be challenging as staff responsibilities and meal breaks are juggled.

Positive mealtimes that are embedded in practice are visible in policies, procedures and programs, and guided by the service philosophy.

Further reading and resources

ACECQA – Information Sheet – Relationships with children

ACECQA – Information Sheet – Supporting agency: Involving children in decision-making

ACECQA – Information Sheet – The environment as “The Third Teacher’

Department of Health – Resources – Get up and Grow: Healthy eating and physical activity

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – Resources – Pleasurable food education

 

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