Theory and practice

How to create the perfect early years mealtime environment

Creating a relaxed eating atmosphere for children.
A pale blue cartoon image of an early years educator and two children making food
February 20, 2018
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • We’re pretty sure that you’re already putting a lot of time into the play environments at your setting. But have you ever considered the importance of your mealtime environment?
  • Getting the right mealtime environment at your setting can be crucial to making sure that the children in your care develop healthy attitudes towards food. What’s more, it’s a great opportunity to develop many skills that fit in nicely with the EYFS too.
  • We’re not going to talk about allergies, the perfect sanitary conditions, or how to prepare a healthy meal. You know that stuff already. Instead, this is all about how to create a relaxed, supportive, engaging mealtime environment at your setting and why that matters.

Enabling eating environments matter

The environments elsewhere in your settings are something that all staff take great care over. Meticulously planned to create engaging spaces for the children, you know that the content and context of a great learning environment is crucial for a child’s development and learning.

And yet, many settings have a less than ideal mealtime environment for their little ones. This means things like:

  • A hectic environment
  • Not enough room for everyone
  • A stressful setup and preparation time
  • Limited choice for the children or a lack of autonomy over how much they eat

It means that many children are missing an important opportunity to develop social skills with the other children around them. What’s more, it can be potentially damaging to their wider attitudes towards food…

A toddler eats an apple in a nursery garden

Attitudes towards food in the early years

How children engage with food throughout the early years of their life plays an important role in their development.

How much food they try when they’re younger will affect their fussiness as adults. Learning how to identify when they’re hungry and full is also a crucial tool to combat obesity and eating disorders that can occur later in life.

That’s why having a positive mealtime environment at a young age is a crucial stepping stone in their development.

How to develop your mealtime environment

With all that in mind, we’ve got some great ideas to make your mealtime environment more relaxed, comfortable, and engaging. You’ll learn how to get children to try new things, have positive associations with food, and much more.

1. Encourage children with ‘intuitive’ eating

One crucial skill that children need to develop in the early years is the ability to recognise and respect their instincts on when they are hungry and when they are full.

This is important for healthy eating and to prevent the whole spectrum of eating disorders. Some things to focus on include:

  • Not forcing children to eat when they don’t want to
  • Not denying children more food when they’re hungry
  • Giving plenty of time for children to eat at their own pace
  • Stopping the use of food as a reward or punishment (more on this later)

You can also empower children to make the decision to stop eating or continue eating by making sure there is enough food available and plenty of choices for them too.

An early years child eats some dessert in a nursery

2. Distraction-free mealtimes at nursery

Making sure that the food is the focus at mealtimes is important. There shouldn’t be too much else going on.

This allows children to really focus on what’s at hand, the eating, as well as the kind of open and engaging conversations you can have at mealtime. It’s a wonderful opportunity for children of all ages to practice their listening and speaking.

Some things you should avoid in your mealtime environment:

  • Background noise like music or other children playing loudly nearby
  • Adults moving up and down between the tables all the time
  • Constant traffic of children coming to and fro
  • Overly stimulating or engaging resources nearby
  • Poor layout, meaning that every departure from the table disrupts other children

3. Encourage children to try new foods

Getting children to try new foods is a crucial part of the role you play at mealtimes in the early years, expanding their interest in food and opening up certain healthy choices.

When you do introduce new food, make sure it’s mixed in with more familiar choices so that the children can still choose what seems normal to them. You also should make sure you have a variety at most mealtimes of:

  • Taste
  • Texture
  • Temperature
  • Size
  • Colour

One important thing is that you keep on offering up the choice even if they don’t try it the first time. This isn’t about forcing them to try something they don’t want to. As the food becomes more familiar the chances are that it’ll also become a lot less scary too.

A selection of fruit to be served to children in an early years setting

4. Model behaviour for younger children

Anyone who has ever had a child repeat a bad word they said knows that children take cues from the adults around them.

The thing is, children are naturally adverse to trying new foods because they are naturally neophobic. This comes from survival instincts, but all children can be coaxed out of it by seeing adults engage with these new foods too.

That’s why you need to make sure that the adults are trying things too and not showing any sort of fearful behaviour to the new food themselves. Wherever possible, adults should be eating amongst the children in general. Not only can you model eating behaviours and table manners, but the lunch table is a great place for discussion and Sustained Shared Thinking.

5. Never use food as a punishment or reward

Using food as a reward or a punishment is widely understood to be a pretty bad move. Whether you’re letting children have sweet treats because they’ve eaten something new, or praising them for eating everything all up, it all goes back to the first point we made.

By using punishment and reward, you’re stopping children from learning how to self-regulate their own food consumption or understand when they’re hungry and full.

By doing so, the children can learn to ignore when they are full, which can lead directly to overeating later in life. It also sets the little ones on the path to emotional eating, where you associate eating with feeling good to a damaging extent.

An early years child looks at a slice of cake being served in their nursery.

6. Make mealtimes warm, bright, and comforting

Hygiene makes things tricky in mealtime environments, but you should do whatever you can to make sure yours is as cosy as it can be.

Sterile plastic sheets everywhere can make children feel uncomfortable while being overly concerned about mess can stop children from engaging with their food. It can make them feel awkward about the entire eating experience.

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How to navigate the EYFS

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7. Support the children to be independent and help

By getting the children involved in the preparation and serving you’re actively involving them in the process of the meal. What’s more, it gives you the time to get everything set up, as the children are already learning and playing as part of getting prepared.

The process of laying out plates and cutlery is a great opportunity for discussion about numbers and colours, and some child-sized utensils with different colours can help encourage children to serve themselves too.

The children can:

  • Help to plate up the food (this also supports them to exercise autonomy over their portions)
  • Help to prepare some of the cold food
  • Set the tables up
  • Take everything over to the table

8. Allow for playful eating

Food is a sensory experience for children, and while using cutlery is good for motor control, you shouldn’t be afraid to let the kids get stuck in with their fingers sometimes too.

Rushing to clean up every spill can lead to a stressful sterilised space where the children are discouraged from being adventurous with their food, and can specifically cause some sensory issues such as creating an aversion to slimy foods.

Most of all, sometimes kids just need to get messy. The more familiar they are with the food, the more likely they are to enjoy it.

A young baby mouths a wooden block in their early years setting.

9. Create an inclusive seating arrangement for the children and adults

When thinking about the layout of your mealtime environment, try to create small groups where all children can take part and be heard. If you can, have one adult per group so that they can help to lead the conversation, answer questions, and model behaviour.

The babies shouldn’t be left out either! Have the highchairs facing one another so that the children can look at and engage with one another.

10. A relaxed nursery mealtime environment

Overall, it’s about creating a more relaxing, engaging mealtime environment in your setting. Putting everything out and then away again, spillages, and concerns over fussy eaters can be stressful. It’s not easy! But do what you can to try and make the whole experience more relaxing and you’ll provide a much better environment for children to learn about healthy eating and food in general.

If this means taking a little more time, then so be it. Involving the children in the process can help with this, and gives the children the time and space to understand their own instincts on food.

Being a part of it yourself, and not using those extra lunch hours to catch up on paperwork is crucial too. Being there as a model and as someone to engage the children in lively conversation is absolutely essential to create a mealtime environment that works.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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