Creating a positive mealtime environment within your nursery setting can make a huge different to how children view meals and food and to how the process of mealtimes goes each day too. Children have opportunities at nursery to learn about food and to understand the importance of food and a balanced diet.
In my blog today, I’m sharing some of my top tips for childcare settings around creating a positive and enjoyable mealtime experience for children at nursery or kindergarten or other early years settings.
Get the atmosphere right
It’s a good idea to consider the area in which children are eating. Ensure the environment is clean, engaging and (importantly), free from distractions. Distractions can really inhibit children eating at mealtimes, so having a really good “clear away” time and ensure that mealtimes are about food and not play is key! Use colourful tablecloths if you can to add some excitement or even placemats with the children’s names on them (you can even make them at nursery yourselves) to help them get a bit excited for mealtimes. It’s best if the tables and chairs you’re using are suitable for the age and size of the children, so that they can sit and eat comfortably and not be inclined to fiddle around so much at mealtimes. Using appropriate cutlery can really help too to make the mealtime experience a little easier for them. Smaller cutlery and soft or plastic options can help, including bowls and plates too. You might like to read more in my blog about cutlery for babies and toddlers.
Get the STAFF involved
As staff, you are role models to the children in your setting. They will look up to you and copy you. So it’s important to realise and notice that your language and reactions to food really do matter. If you can try to use positive or neutral language around food, it may be really helpful to allow little ones to make up their own mind about a dish or what’s on their plate. Additionally, staff sitting and eating the same food (ideal but not essential) with the children at mealtimes can be such a brilliant opportunity to model conviviality and enjoyment of food and the social aspect of eating. Remember you’re role models, so if they watch you eating and enjoying food, they’re more likely to follow suit.
I love to talk about conviviality and commensality – essentially the sociable aspect of mealtimes and eating together and enjoying shared meals. It’s a big reason many of us like eating and is also a big part of the proposed benefits of Mediterranean-style eating. Often, when young children eat together, they enjoy more foods than they might at home. So at nursery it’s good to encourage meals to be a sociable occasion, encouraging conversation and engaging with them yourselves.
It’s also a great time to talk about food cultures and the kinds of food we enjoy at different times of the year.
Stick to a mealtime structure or routine
Ideally, it’s best to offer plenty of opportunities for young children to eat. For example, offering three meals a day and around two snacking occasions. A pudding can be helpful to offer with lunch and tea as it offers more opportunity for children to get energy and nutrients throughout the day (important to make these puddings “healthy options” and not just sugary options). Children like routine and like to know when to expect foods so that they can understand their own hunger and fullness cues a little more.
Leave a nice gap between meals and snacks to help build up an appetite for the children and give plenty of time outside of meals for running around and exploring elsewhere.
Mealtimes should last around 30 minutes, so that children have enough time to eat, without feeling rushed¹. Have set meal and snack times to help children get into a routine¹.
Encourage “Responsive Feeding”
One thing that can be really key for little ones to learn is about their own hunger and fullness cues. For generations, it’s almost been the opposite with recommendations, guidelines, opinions and parents often dictating how much should be eaten by any individual child. But if you think about it, all children (just like us as adults) are likely to have different appetites. Moreover, their appetites are likely to be affected day to day by many, many things.
From a young age children can be very intuitive about HOW MUCH they need to eat and so it’s generally recommended by nutritionists and dietitians to follow the rule whereby the parent/adult/nursery staff decides what is on offer, but lets a child dictate how much they want to eat (within reason, obviously, as in a nursery setting there is always going to be limitations on portions.) Seconds are fine if they are available and also if a child DOESN’T want their meal, it’s not a good idea to coax or bribe or force them to eat. Punishments around how much is eaten (if you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have any pudding) are also not recommended either. Especially if the pudding is going to offer a healthy dose of extra calories and nutrients that are needed for growing kids!
I’ll write about this more soon, but you could always check my “portion sizes” factsheet for more information on responsive feeding and following a child’s individual appetite as much as you can.
Giving plenty of time for children to eat at their own pace can also help, too.
Offer Food Variety
Introducing a variety of foods at an early age can help children develop a taste for different flavours and learn to accept a wider variety as they get older. Nursery is the perfect place to experiment with this as kids will be offered the same foods on rotation (often) for a few weeks and this can help build familiarity, especially if there is plenty of variety on the menu in the first place. Encourage children to try new foods but don’t force them – role modelling or using other role models to sit with them (without comment or pressures) can really help! It can take up to 15 tries for a child to like a new food in some instances.
Involving Children in Meal Preparation
Involving children in meal preparation can make them more interested in the food they eat. They can help with simple tasks like washing vegetables or setting the table. Or be the “food helper” that day. Getting them involved is often something they love to do, but it also helps them to learn more about food and the skills needed around food prep too.
Nutritious and Balanced Meals
Providing nutritious, balanced and varied meals is so important for children’s growth and development throughout the early years and beyond. This means it’s so important for nursery settings to be offering delicious and healthy meals to children in their settings – regardless of whether or not they are checked regularly by any authority. Children are growing and developing at a fast pace and this blog on the First 1000 days of life really shows why these early years are important for establishing health and also healthy behaviours around foods.
Ensure meals include a variety of foods from the four main food groups: fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, protein foods, and dairy or dairy alternatives. And follow the Government guidelines on Food Served in Early Years Settings.
Keep them hydrated with milk and/or water
Milk and water are all the fluids that your little ones need in a nursery setting, so stick to these for their drinks and allow them to drink as much water as they’d like to throughout the day. You can help set little reminders or give someone a task of topping up their friends water throughout the day if it helps. Keeping children hydrated is just as important as feeding them nutritious meals.
Allergies and Dietary Requirements
Be aware of any allergies or dietary requirements children may have. It’s ideal to have a Food Policy at your nursery and take details and plans from any children who have Special Dietary Requirements. Communication with parents at sign on is so important to help get this right. Always check with parents or carers before introducing new food and it’s always a good idea to send home the menus.
Helping with Food Refusal in Nursery Settings
Another common thing that nursery staff may have to figure out is Fussy Eating and Food Refusal and this can be REALLY challenging when you have multiple children to feed and offer multiple meals each day!
Fussy eating is a common phase that many children go through, but there are several strategies that nursery settings can employ to help support fussy eaters.
- Give them time – they may build familiarity with the menus as they see the same foods over and over again
- Communicate with parents and find out what does or doesn’t work at home
- Avoid pressuring them to eat foods
- Sit them with kids who tend to enjoy their foods
- Role model where you can and avoid commenting too much on their foods or what they are or aren’t eating
- Offer smaller portions and allow “seconds” of any parts of the meal they do enjoy – if available
- Try and ensure everyone in the setting responds in the same way – consistency matters
- See if you can get them involved more with food prep or learning about food outside of the mealtimes
- Allow them to follow their own appetites but communicate with parents if and when you’re worried.
Remember, every child is unique and what works for one might not work for another. It’s important to be patient, persistent, and positive. For more advice see my Fussy Eating Factsheet or try out my Fussy Eating crash Course for parents.
Lastly, creating a positive mealtime environment is not just about the food. It’s about creating a space where children feel comfortable, safe, and happy. It’s about teaching them about nutrition and healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.