By CELA on 22 Jan, 2021

Do you offer progressive meal times at your service? The idea is becoming more common in early learning environments, but some families and educators find the concept hard to digest. We look at the pros and cons of progressive mealtimes, and Pedagogical Leader Karla Wintle shares how a reflection on meal times led to the adoption of this concept in her service.

Mealtimes are an important part of each day. They offer plenty of opportunities for positive experiences and learning, including nurturing relationships, promotion of health and wellness, and a chance for children to practice social, language and self-help skills.

“Good nutrition is essential to healthy living and enables children to be active participants in play. Early childhood settings provide many opportunities for children to experience a range of healthy foods and to learn about food choices from educators and other children.” (EYLF, p.33)

What are progressive mealtimes?

Progressive mealtimes are more flexible. They allow children to eat gradually throughout the day, or when they are hungry, rather than at set times. Children can choose when they wish to eat over a longer scheduled period of time without interrupting the learning and engagement of those who don’t feel hungry, and without having to stop what they are doing to sit at a table.

How does the idea align with school readiness?

Opponents of progressive mealtimes argue that allowing children to eat whenever they are hungry is not preparing them for school because they will be expected to eat at prescribed times when they go to school.

Supporters argue that the opportunity teaches them to get to know when their body needs food and to know how they will feel if they don’t eat when the opportunity arises.

What if they go hungry?

Parents and carers may worry that their child will eat through their entire lunch box in the morning, leaving them hungry in the afternoon, while others may be concerned that their child will be so involved in play that they won’t eat all day.

Proponents of progressive meal times have solutions for these concerns, which include asking parents to put afternoon tea in a separate container which is kept aside for later or having educators give reminders or prompts to children who are engrossed in play and may have forgotten about their meal.

Some centres offer a set morning and afternoon tea time, with the progressive component happening only at lunchtime. Others offer a progressive morning and afternoon tea and a more structured lunch, which can be good for children who have arrived late or leave early.

Whatever you choose to do at your service, it’s important to ensure that mealtimes are considered, inclusive and in line with your centre’s philosophy.

Karla Wintle reflects:

The notion of progressive mealtimes can either evoke positive pedagogical thinking or negative connotations linked to lack of time or organisational structure. The word progressive means something that happens gradually, for mealtimes this can be problematic for many reasons, however, the benefits of progressive mealtimes in early childhood are clearly defined in the Early Years Learning Framework (Outcome 3 – Children have a strong sense of wellbeing).

Adult led vs child-led meal times

I’ve worked in a variety of settings whereby mealtimes have looked very different. The clear delineation for me has been whether they were either adult-led or child-led.

I remember a while back walking into a toddler room where around 20 children were sitting waiting for their lunch to arrive and the educators were wondering why some of the children were banging on the table or crying.

My response was “maybe they’re not hungry.”

The educators, in this case, were just being prepared because they knew that lunch arrived at a certain time. When the trolley was rolled in, some of the children cheered, while others continued to cry.

We subsequently reflected on the mealtime routine as a service and changed our practices to meet the needs of all children.

A change to meet the needs of all children

Sometimes the dominance of our role as the educators can silence children’s agency and identity. My experience of mealtimes today is one of flexibility and empowerment.

At Springvale Service for Children, we are fortunate to have a communal dining area, which is situated in our corridor. Our classrooms open into the corridor creating one large space, where children can choose where they play and when they eat.

I see our mealtimes as more of a natural occurrence than a progression, however, it took some reflection to get to this point.

 Using reflection as a tool for change in practice we asked ourselves a number of questions, which led us to where we are today:

  • Why should children be interrupted in their play and learning?
  • Why should the classroom environment and experiences change to cater for mealtimes?
  • Who would be disadvantaged/advantaged due to this change?
  • How would families and children feel about the change in routine?
  • How are children going to adapt to a more structured day, when they start school?

We considered these questions carefully and on reflection, we came to the conclusion that the benefits of changing this aspect of the program outweighed any reservations we may have had.

And so we took the plunge and a deep breath and gave it a go.

Sometimes taking a step inside change can bring about many emotions, especially for educators who ‘have always done it this way’. However, with support and guidance, it seems to be working. We also realised that change could also bring with it ‘magical moments’.

It’s heartwarming to see children of all ages eating together with their siblings and extended family – children showing a sense of empowerment and resilience as they go about their day.

Teachers have had to be more explicit in their approach to teaching preschoolers about mealtimes. While they enjoy progressive mealtimes at our centre, we make sure to discuss how the rhythm of the day is different at primary school, which has evoked new conversations about their feelings about the transition to school.

Making this change in practice has enabled us to shift our thinking, we are not governed by time or routine, we now move with the children. The ebb and flow of learning happens naturally and children intrinsically go and eat when they are hungry, whatever time that may be.

The rhythm of the day may look different for others in ECE, and that’s ok, but if you think mealtimes are chaotic or adult-led, think about taking a leap of faith and reflect on what you can do to change practice. You never know it could lead to some new magical moments.

Further reading:

CELA’s expert child care and early education service consultants have helped many new and existing providers across Sydney and Australia-wide to achieve success.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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