Children thrive on routine, but when it comes to mealtimes, a fixed approach to food isn’t always appetising.
Little ones might not be hungry or interested when set mealtimes roll around, and some early childhood education and care (ECEC) services remove the time pressure by offering progressive mealtimes, which allow children to eat when they’re hungry and choose when they’d like to join the table.
Today, we learn how progressive mealtimes work in practice, and explore their possible benefits for children.
How do different ECEC services approach progressive mealtimes?
Good food is a vital part of every ECEC day. It powers young children through fun and educational activities, helps them focus, hones physical and social skills, and delivers the nutrients that growing bodies need.
In support of this, Quality Area 2 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) highlights the importance of healthy eating being ‘promoted and appropriate for each child’ attending ECEC.
When it comes to the timing of snacks and main meals, though, services can be flexible, and although plenty of providers stick to scheduled mealtimes, Community Early Learning Australia (CELA) says the idea of progressive mealtimes, ‘Is becoming more common in early learning environments.’
This unstructured approach to meals gives children a long window of time to eat and allows little ones to be guided by their tummy, not the clock.
Different services approach progressive mealtimes in different ways, and CELA explains that, ‘Some centres offer a set morning and afternoon teatime, with the progressive component happening only at lunchtime. Others offer a progressive morning and afternoon tea and a more structured lunch, which can be good for children who have arrived late or leave early.’
Children might graze on food brought from home, or select from some options laid out by their educators, but the main thing is that littlies get to choose when they’d like to come, sit down and eat during the flexible mealtime (e.g., this could be any time between 9am and 11am for a progressive morning tea).
Instead of interrupting all children’s activities for a set mealtime, small groups gather to enjoy meals when it suits them. They’re supervised by educators as they chew and chat and are supported to access food and water whenever they need it through the day.
For parents who worry that their child will eat all their food first thing, and go hungry later on, an afternoon tea can be set aside. And CELA says educators can also remind children to eat, if they’re so busy playing, that they forget.
Educators can also announce that the progressive mealtime is about to end to give children a last chance to decide whether they’re hungry or not.
What are the benefits of progressive mealtimes?
Progressive mealtimes move the focus from adult-led timetables to child-led choices, and supporters of the approach see these key benefits for youngsters:
- Progressive mealtimes encourage children’s autonomy and independence, and help to build trusting relationships with educators
Instead of being told when they must eat a meal, children are free to make decisions based on their own needs (i.e., their hunger levels or immersion in a play activity), and are recognised as ‘active participants’ in their own education and care.
Educators make sure children feel welcome at the dining table, but youngsters can choose whether to join at that time or not.
New Zealand-based child care cook, Anya Bell says children are more engaged in their food and eating when this autonomy is encouraged, and she explains that trust relationships between educators and children can also grow. Specifically, she says children learn to trust that ‘When they have finished eating, they can return to their play, refuelled and replenished.’
- Progressive mealtimes can also have a positive effect on the ECEC atmosphere and interactions
These meals involve smaller groups of willing participants, rather than large groups of disinterested or disruptive ones, and there are great opportunities for children and educators to communicate and connect in an enjoyable and engaged way.
At Our World for Children, progressive morning and afternoon teas allow small groups of children to enjoy food, ‘Without interrupting the needs and play of others,’ and they say a progressive approach encourages, ‘Quieter, more social and meaningful interactions at [mealtimes] and allows for a smoother flow throughout the day.’
Meanwhile, at Springvale Service for Children, ‘magical moments’ have emerged from the service’s communal, progressive dining approach; and Karla Wintle tells CELA that, ‘It’s heartwarming to see children of all ages eating together with their siblings and extended family – children showing a sense of empowerment and resilience as they go about their day.’
She explains that Springvale’s educators now ‘move with the children,’ instead of being ruled by routine, and follow the ebb and flow of learning.
- Progressive mealtimes can also help children develop a ‘healthy, mindful relationship with their bodies and food’
It’s important for young children to learn to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full; and author, Tanya Valentin, says that progressive mealtimes cater for children’s individual body rhythms and needs.
She says, ‘Some children like to eat a substantial amount of food in a sitting and some children prefer to graze throughout the day. When we allow children choice as to when and how much they would like to eat, we are helping them tune in to what their body needs.’
The idea is that by the time a child gets to big school, they’ll know when their body needs food, and what hunger feels like if they don’t eat when given the chance.
What can we take away from all this?
The Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) says, ‘Mealtimes at education and care services offer many rich opportunities to promote positive outcomes for children,’ and when we think about a child-led approach to eating, it seems that progressive mealtimes:
- Promote a sense of belonging and inclusivity
- Promote children’s agency and self-help skills, e.g., when they choose when to eat, or practice using cutlery
- Ensure calm transitions to and from mealtime environments
- Nurture relationships
- Nourish children’s physical, social and emotional health, e.g., when children eat nutritious food and practice sharing, patience and turn-taking, and
- Support children’s learning and development, e.g., when children learn about their identity, relationships, community, literacy, numeracy and world.
All of the above points are hallmarks of a positive mealtime, according to ACECQA, and although each ECEC service has its own way of running the day, there’s a growing sense that some level of food flexibility brings benefits for children.
It’s true that progressive mealtimes might not be suitable for every ECEC service, and it may be challenging to implement them at first (e.g., educators might need to work out ways to keep track of what children have eaten or not eaten). It’s also crucial that children’s individual health and nutritional needs are taken into account when planning mealtimes (e.g., if a child is diabetic).
However, there is food for thought in the idea of routine meals being transformed into enjoyable rituals, and a growing number of services are navigating any initial challenges, successfully rolling out progressive mealtimes, and empowering, educating and nourishing their children along the way.