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How Early Years Settings Can Create a Positive Eating Ethos

Ensuring meal and snack-times are respected and looked forward to will help children develop a positive relationship with food, explains Jo Cormack…

  • How Early Years Settings Can Create a Positive Eating Ethos

A low-stimulation, relaxed and positive eating environment is the ideal that we are striving for. Real life sometimes gets in the way; children may be upset or tired, and staff are only human too.

But if you can make a concerted effort to make eating a positive experience for everyone, this will become a ‘virtuous circle’: the nicer the environment, the better the children will eat and the more relaxed everyone will feel.

The problem with conflict

Research shows that conflict is extremely unhelpful in terms of children’s eating. In particular, it makes picky eating worse.

Conflict can come in many forms. Perhaps the children are bickering with one another. Perhaps staff are responding negatively to children’s challenging behaviour at the table.

Without a commitment to avoiding controlling feeding practices, there could potentially even be conflict or tension about what and how much the children are eating.

Make sure language is kept positive; instead of talking about the behaviour you don’t want to see, home in on the behaviour you want to nurture. Children’s table manners can often become a source of negativity.

There is a very fine line between helping children develop appropriate mealtime skills and behaviours, and being excessively critical of how they are eating.

In order to maintain a conflict-free environment, make sure any intervention is gentle and calm, and focus on supporting lots of positive social interaction during meals.

Sensory stimulation

Sensory sensitivity has been linked to picky eating in children, although some research points to certain types of sense data being more significant than others.

I find that children who struggle with sensory processing often benefit from a low level of sensory stimulation during mealtimes.

Let’s think about the sense data generated by a plate of food: we see it, we smell it – ultimately, we taste it. We have a tactile experience of its texture, temperature and shape. This can be hard work for a little brain!

Often, communal dining rooms are very tricky for children with sensory sensitivity because they are full of sights, sounds and strong smells.

In order to help these children cope with the sense data their brains will receive when they are confronted by their food, it can be very helpful to minimise the level of stimulation in the eating environment.

Calm music can work well. Plain walls in the eating area are good too, or displays which are relatively muted and not too busy or colourful. If it is possible to have children eating far from the kitchen, the levels of cooking smells can be reduced.

Of course, this needs to be balanced with practical considerations like carrying the food from the kitchen to the eating area, but changes as small as simply keeping the kitchen door shut can make a difference.

Don’t rush it!

You probably have a lot to cram into your day and may have more than one sitting for meals. Time pressure is a very real constraint, but it is vital to ensure that meals and snacks don’t feel rushed.

If you are feeling stressed and keen to get children in and out, the children in your care will pick this up and their stress levels may also rise. This is not conducive to their eating well.

Researchers have suggested that in young children, increased stress levels reduce appetite because of the associated reduction in gut activity.

Try as hard as you can to make meals relaxed and stress-free. Maybe this could mean making some small changes to your plans for the day, so that you don’t feel so much time pressure.

If you can eat with the children, this will make it easier to create a relaxed atmosphere. You can stop and enjoy your food with them.

It is a good idea to have a set amount of time for snacks and meals, and to have a visual indicator of timings which children can see or hear. Maybe you could use a sand timer.

I suggest allowing approximately 15 minutes for snacks and 30 minutes for main meals. Choose a timing that feels right for your setting and include it in your food policy. Be ready to review your timings if you feel meals or snacks are either rushed or dragged out.

The benefits of clear timings are that children become aware (if they are mature enough) of how long they have to eat their food. This means that you don’t have to hurry them along; they will simply understand that if they choose not to eat within the allotted timeframe, the food will be taken away because the meal is over.

For most children, if they have left a lot of food despite being at the table for half an hour, the chances are, they don’t want it. Pressuring children to hurry up can quickly become a controlling feeding practice and brings stress and negativity into the eating environment.

The environment

If your staff numbers allow, try to have children seated at small tables with maybe six to eight children and an adult. Your ratios will obviously depend on the age of the children in your care.

Small tables are generally calmer and an adult can easily maintain a positive atmosphere if they can be heard by all the children at their table.

With small tables, there is no need for voices to be raised and it is easy for the adult to notice if an individual child is struggling. Small tables replicate a family environment and are an ideal context for teaching and demonstrating social skills.

When you decide where the children are going to sit, it is a good idea to mix up children with different levels of eating skills so that children who lack skills or are picky eaters can benefit from the positive influence of their peers.

Remember never to articulate this, as comparing children to one another is not only shaming but also a form of controlling feeding practice. It is appropriate to praise a child for their behaviour but not for their eating decisions.


Sensory sensitivity and SEND

There is one group of children who are particularly likely to be sensory sensitive, and that is autistic children – anything you can do to make your eating environment as relaxed and low-stimulation as possible will be especially beneficial for this vulnerable group.

Research also points to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) having trouble with sensory processing, beyond the core symptoms of ADHD. Fostering a calm, low-stimulation eating environment will enable you to better support some of those children in your care who have special educational needs or a disability (SEND).


Five ways to make mealtimes special

The more you can communicate that meals are a positive, social experience, the more children will develop positive associations with eating…

  1. Give children special jobs to do.
  2. Help the children make their own individual placemats.
  3. Make the table visually attractive with a nice wipeable tablecloth, for example.
  4. Encourage the children to make place names for one another.
  5. Have special music to go with pre-meal routines such as handwashing.

Jo Cormack is a therapist, writer and paediatric feeding consultant. This article is an edited extract from Jo Cormack’s Helping Children Develop a Positive Relationship with Food (£14.99, Jessica Kingsley Publishers), which earned a three-star prize in this year’s Teach Early Years Awards. Visit jkp.com.

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