Mealtimes and food are a huge part of our routine here at Pebbles Childcare as is children’s nutrition and weaning.
Children’s early experiences of food are an essential part of their development and will shape their attitudes, tastes and relationships with food thereafter and so it is important we support and encourage a positive outlook to food, mealtimes and their overall eating experience.
However, for some children this isn’t always possible and they arrive to us or grow up with sensitivities around food and meal times.
This is becoming ever more prominent within the Early Years and so many children are finding mealtimes and food particularly distressing.
In a timely move, the Government have released a new document in collaboration with TasteEd highlighting how practitioners can best support children with food sensitivities.
You can read the document here – https://help-for-early-years-providers.education.gov.uk/get-help-to-improve-your-practice/sensory-food-education
This document is incredibly timely and a welcome focus on practitioners’ practice in relation to food and mealtimes.
For many settings, mealtimes are a busy and stressful time as staff try and navigate feeding large numbers of children at the same time whilst ensuring other members of staff access their lunch break too – on this, mealtimes in most settings are often supported and managed by support staff to enable key workers to take their lunch break at a ‘quieter’ period of the day.
Upon reflection and considering how many children experience food sensitivities, is this best practice? Should our mealtimes be supported by keyworkers and more experienced practitioners to give the best support to children who find these times difficult?
For us, mealtimes are a complete experience for all children, very much attempting to recognise a traditional family meal time.
Mealtimes for us are a social experience in addition to being an invaluable learning experience too.
We try and involve the children in the process of preparing their own meals and snacks wherever possible as we truly believe their input allows them to feel significantly more confident and at ease around new foods and ingredients.
For us, food, food preparation and meals are a complete process in which children can and should be involved in; from foraging for ingredients, to a trip to the supermarket to choose and buy ingredients – children can have autonomy from the outset which subsequently provides them with a much safer environment to explore food within.
Something this new document highlighted to us and enabled us to critically reflect on in our own practice was the two rules of the TasteEd resources:
“No-one has to try it” and “no-one has to like it.”
For us, we’ve always encouraged children to try new foods or ingredients where possible, but this new information has allowed us to reflect and instead shift the focus on the mealtime process as a whole as we have been; involving children and allowing them to explore the food from a sensory perspective; holding, smelling, chopping/crushing and listening to the sounds it makes when it’s manipulated and noticing how the appearance changes rather than placing undue pressure on actually trying and tasting the food.
For some children, the sensory exploration of food and ingredients may take precedence over physically tasting/eating food for the most part and as practitioners we must be respectful and understanding of this and respect children’s participation in any form during mealtimes without pressuring them into eating or trying foods in order to ensure that we don’t add stress to an already emotionally heightened experience for so many children.
You can find more activity ideas to support children with food sensitivities here.