Bringing intention back to meal times

I often find myself visiting services where I have the privilege to witness educators and children as they interact over meals. Often though, I witness educators who have shackled themselves to the conveyor belt routines of meal times, and all of the joy and wonder of intention, connection and community has somehow been lost.

(Actual early childhood program)
“It’s 11.30, time to wash your hands!” someone calls from the door way. Children are herded in to go to the toilets and wash their hands. They run to the tables where bowls of food or lunch boxes are dumped in front of them. Educators uninterestingly have monotonous conversations about their meals.
“What colour is your watermelon, Suki?”
“Johnny, maybe you should tell your mum that muesli bars aren’t a healthy lunch box choice!”
 (exasperated sigh and over dramatic eye rolling).
“Manny, sit down! Eat your own food!”
“Sue, Linh has fried rice again. Now we have to warm that up! Why can’t you just have a sandwich, Linh? Tell mummy you want a sandwich.”
“Can you count how many pieces of banana you have there Joey?”
“Manny, I thought I told you to sit down … Sue, can you start putting kids to bed?”

I get it, you’re busy and there is lots to do. But, are YOU enjoying this time? Are these really quality moments with meaningful interactions? Have your mealtimes lost their potential?

If we could just take a moment to jump off the conveyor belt of meal time routines, we might be able to bring some of the joy back to this regular daily activity – for US and for children.

Meal times provide many regular, wonderful opportunities for connecting and learning, but these are missed when we become bogged down on the conveyor belt of strict structured routines.

Now let’s think about logistics.

Children usually partake in at least 3 or more meals a day in a service. Surely at least one of these meals could be dedicated to fostering independence, interdependence, providing choice and agency, and creating cultures of community over a shared meal. It’s not hard to recreate, but it does require stepping off the conveyor belt.

Take the time at your next meal with children to step back, observe, and critically reflect on the quality of ‘breaking bread’ together and educators’ interactions.

Think about:

* How is the meal presented to the children?
* What’s the ‘vibe’ and ‘feel’ of the experience?
* We know that environments ‘speak’ to us – what does your environment say?
* What opportunities are there for developing independence?
* What opportunities are there for developing interdependence and growing relationships?
* Does everyone eating at exactly the same time really allow you to effectively cater to all children’s differing needs? What if someone wants to eat earlier or later? How are their needs catered to?
* What is the quality of the conversation that you are having with children? Are you really present and engaged?
* When does cleaning and bed/rest time have to happen? Has it taken precedence over being connected and having meaningful conversations?

(Actual early childhood program)
Music plays quietly in the back ground, a table is beautifully set for a group of 6 children and an adult. There’s a table cloth with a vase of fresh flowers that the children picked from their garden earlier on in the day, a small jar of milk and water sits in the middle, there’s ceramic crockery, real cutlery, and glass cups. The Educators in this service have trusted children with real crockery since the toddlers’ room. There is rarely breakage as the children know how to handle them. A trolley is rolled in and the room becomes filled with the beautiful smell of a cooked meal. An educator rings a small bell to indicate that lunch is available. The bell will ring again in about 20 minutes to remind the children that lunch is available and then once more to indicate that lunch will be winding up soon. Some of the children (2 – 3 year olds) look up from their play and the educator invites the children to join them at the table. Through excited chatter the children wash their hands, then come back to find their names on the name rocks, drop their names into the basket indicating that they will be having their meal, then pull out their chairs and sit down. As the time progresses an educator will check to make sure every child has had a meal.

“Mmmm! This smell’s divine!” The educator exclaims “Spaghetti bolognese! My favourite! Would you like some Chrissy? Simra, perhaps you can help pass around the garlic bread and see who would like some?”

The educator serves up the spaghetti; children are trusted to pour their drinks and they do this skilfully, no spills. This didn’t happen immediately: it took a few weeks of practice, not just at the meal table but also at other times within the program when children are given opportunities to play, develop and practice the fine and gross motor skills needed at meal times. Everyone eats together here, including the educators who have a serve with the children.

The conversation at the table is about many things. This is an opportunity to connect meaningfully with each child, to touch base, see how their day has been, talk about the things that interested them, explore ideas for future investigations, and share stories. All contributions are significant and the children genuinely love this moment in the day when time is taken to hold conversations with each other as a meal is shared.

“Do you know what I’m doing on the weekend? I’m so excited – we’re going mountain climbing…!” shared one educator, providing the start of a wonderfully complex and rich (in language) conversation with the group around the table.

When the children are finished, they put their dirty dishes away, wash their hands and clean their faces with warm washers before returning to their play experiences. Four more children have now joined the educator at the table for their meal. There is minimal clean up required but the children enjoy being able to help wipe down their spot on the table if it’s needed. It takes an hour but over this hour all children have had a meal, the children eat at a pace that suits them, there is no pressure to ‘Hurry up, we need to clean up and get you to bed!’. Children have had opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with each other and their educators – nourishing not just their bodies but their emotions, minds, hearts and community as well. The educators focus is upon building a community where relationships are the priority, and everyone’s rights are respected and promoted.

Points for reflection:
* What is the intent of your meal times? (Your intent could be on ensuring children have healthy food, or in fostering language and communication skills, or in developing relationships….)
* Observe your meal time from beginning to end. Notice individual children within this time. What is their experience?
* Who is this mealtime serving? Is it meeting educators needs, children’s, operations/schedules or even the cooks…?
* Consider when you share a meal with others…what do you value about these times?
* Even though ‘roving’ mealtimes are the new *thing*, there is value in bringing children together at different points in the day to build relationships and the sense of community and belonging. How do you build community?
* Are all of your team clear on their roles in meal times. If your intent is, for example, to build belonging, is talking about healthy food choices enough to meet this goal?

Contact us today and let our team of early years specialists work their magic.