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Mealtimes that support eating with relish!

Mealtimes that support eating with relish! blog quote 1

One of the critical aspects of early childhood education is to support young children’s capacity to self-regulate. This aspect of development has far-reaching effects for children in terms of the ability to be autonomous, productive, healthy and successful learners. Learning to self-regulate behaviour, impulses, physical needs, and social interactions is a huge task for our very youngest citizens, and one that must be supported and nurtured over time by interested and invested adults. In this blog, I would like to focus on one aspect of self-regulation: eating, and how we at Mother Duck have evolved in this space over the last 5 years.

Unfortunately, in many early childhood settings, the ability for young children to begin to self-regulate is made problematic by the way in which these contexts control time. If we think about a typical long daycare program, it has been my experience that children are often ‘herded’ to all eat and rest at the same time – and often this task is all done and dusted by 11.30am – and is repeated across the entire centre, so that staff can begin to take their allocated lunch breaks. Now, I understand the pragmatics and practicalities of managing staff and their mandated right to rest pauses, but I wondered in who’s best interest we are serving when we approach mealtimes and rest times with such regimented task orientations.

Mealtimes that support eating with relish! - teatime at Bracken Ridge

To step away for just a moment, I will explain why I began to take such a strong interest in this aspect of early childhood education. For several personal reasons, I had been investigating the prevalence of eating disorders. To my absolute horror, I discovered that it is quite common for 13- and 14-year-old (predominantly) girls to present with diagnosed eating disorders in our public health care system AND it is not unusual for very young children, at 7 and 8 years of age, to be on the verge of a similar diagnosis. When we are speaking of eating disorders, I also want to include the onset on obesity, alongside the more commonly identified eating disorders of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. This should be a shocking revelation to the early childhood community – as it was to our team at Mother Duck.


So, we began to think about the way in which an association with food is built for young children who attend our early childhood settings. We asked ourselves: Do we offer children a fast-food version of an eating experience (think formica tables, less than friendly service, lots of plastic, an in-and-out attitude of the diner) or do we offer children our favourite restaurant experience (a table prepared for eating, time with family and friends, real plates and cutlery, the pleasure of eating the food)?

We discovered that it was, unfortunately, much more the former than the latter. Meals times (including snack times) were usually by the clock, dictated by the adults. Children were told when they will have morning tea, when they will have lunch and when they will have afternoon snacks. Some believed that this was in preparation for when they are at school, but I would ask: “How do we support young children knowing what your body actually feels like to be hungry and thirsty, and then be able to respond to this by eating and drinking appropriate amounts?  How do we build the fundamental knowledge in children of what is the right amount of food to eat, when you should have a drink, and when your energy levels are low? How do we build a culture – right from the earliest years – of an appropriate and healthy attitude to food?” This is a much better ‘preparation’ for eating and drinking at school than a regimented routine.

Mealtimes that support eating with relish! blog quote 6

Think of a typical lunchtime scenario in an early childhood setting. Again, if I draw on my experience as a consultant, I had observed children almost every day eating on tables that just a few minutes prior held the drawing or playdough or puzzles. A child was then expected (after a wipe over) to sit at the same table, lunch box in hand, and have their lunch in the quickest time possible to get ready to rest. Or, if lunch is provided by the centre, a plate/bowl (generally plastic) is put in front of the child where the food is placed by the attending adult. Adults rarely sat and had their lunch (or a snack) with the children, rather they hovered over the children with instructions on how to eat, how to sit and how to interact – in other words, the adult imposed rules of engagement for lunchtime.

Eating with relish

At Mother Duck we asked, “What if we re-thought the possibilities for meals and snacks? What if we began to look at children’s association with food as not just fuel for the body, but fuel for the soul as well? What if we borrowed from our colleagues in Reggio Emilia Italy, the city recognised for its high-quality early childhood contexts, and transformed the surfaces that children experience their meals on? “

Mealtimes that support eating with relish!

Not very many of our settings had the luxury of a dedicated dining space, so we began to construct spaces and places where children could enjoy the experience of sharing their mealtimes with others. You can see by the photos above, that the children and adults at our Mother Duck Lawnton centre have been viewing meals time differently – day by day. The 3–5 year old children are now engaged in setting the table (one to one correspondence), placing flowers or found objects as a centre-piece (aesthetics) and lighting candles (understanding risk) to promote discussion (communication) and assisting each other with self-serving their meal and pouring water from the teapots (empathy and kindness). In addition, small groups of children come together to share a meal (conviviality), rather than the whole group – which is an especially enticing idea when you might have up to 60 children sharing a space!

The photo below is drawn from the book by Reggio Children (2008) The languages of food which explores the possibility of an ‘educational intervention’ in young children’s relationship with food. The educators in Reggio would contend that “it is no longer possible to sit at the table without paying attention to the quality of the food – wholesomeness; safety; provenance of products; quantity of fats and sugars; variety” (p.10) and the possibility for a bond to develop between children and food.


In the other Mother Duck settings who don’t have a kitchen prepared meal, the children are invited to select enough food (self-regulation) from their lunch boxes to match ‘how hungry their tummy feels’ and place this on a ceramic plate on the outdoor tables that the children have prepared. Fresh flowers or herbs are used to adorn the tables and tablecloths or placemats are used to ‘transform the surface’ for eating. As you can see below at our Mother Duck Eatons Hill setting, all centres now have little glasses where children can get their own glass of water from the dispenser in the cafe. At our Mother Duck Wynnum centre, a bowl of fruit is always available for children to eat with a friend – sharing an apple or having a whole piece of fruit to yourself – if your tummy tells you that’s what it needs!

Mealtimes that support eating with relish! (2)

Professional development

It is highly possible, that with a renewed lens on the place of food in the life of an early childhood setting, we have begun a professional cultural journey for educators at Mother Duck … and by cultural, I am speaking about the ability to create rituals and traditions around food and eating. Our Educators have considered the value they place on a sense of community, the meaning of friendships, how young children can be welcomed to a dining space, and as our colleagues in Reggio Emilia suggest, be the provocateurs who “act as an antidote to the mundaneness” of eating in a school environment (Reggio Children, 2008, p. 26). Our educators seriously consider the long-term impacts on the way eating, and other routines, are ‘managed’ in their settings and I believe we have started a revolution called “Eating with relish!”

Food for thought!

Deborah Harcourt signoff


Quality Child Care at 10 Centres in The Greater Brisbane Region

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