I was recently contacted by a concerned teacher for some readings to support her and her team’s practice around mealtimes for the toddlers in her setting. Her concern was that infants and toddlers were being forced to eat at mealtimes and only given a biscuit or a cracker if they ate their fruit. This did not sit well with her, as she did not feel that was respectful to the tamariki in her setting.
I responded to her with some readings on respectful mealtimes and I have reflected on this greatly over the past few weeks. I always come back to the same thing… The saying by Dr Emmi Pikler, “Food should always be a pleasure”.
Now you might be thinking about your settings mealtime practice. Perhaps “pleasure” is not an adjective that you would use to describe kai time in your place. In fact, mealtimes can fill us teachers with dread. For some it can conjure up images of chaos, noise, mess and power struggles between adult and child.
What we sometimes forget is that as the adults; our attitude, our approach and our preparation, or lack thereof, can make mealtimes stress-filled or pleasure-filled.
Building trust and your relationship during mealtimes
One of the key principles of Dr Emmi Pikler’s approach was to build trust and the relationship between adult and child during the caring moment.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, human beings need to have their basic needs met first – such as food, water, sleep and shelter. How responsive we are to meeting the needs of our pepe (reading their cues) will determine their trust in the world and those around them.
If we are walking the talk of being a respectful teacher, we need to follow the cues of the child and allow them to lead. To do this “with” our children and not “to” them.
We need to trust that children (even young babies) can decide and indicate to us their body needs. For our young children this takes time and requires a one to one relationship with a sensitive, patient, in-tuned adult to become self-aware of their body’s cues and needs.
All too often we make all the decisions for children when it comes to meal-times with-out consulting them. We decide where, when, what and how much they eat.
Dr Emmi Pikler once said:
When a baby turns her head away when you offer her another spoon of veggies – she is quite clearly saying, “I have had enough”. Why then do perfectly sensible grown-ups offer another spoonful and say, “Just one spoonful for Mummy” or “Open the tunnel for the train – here it comes!” The message that we are sending to our baby is, “I know that you have a message that you are communicating to me, but I am ignoring it”.
This is teaching the baby that not only that we do not respect or value their communication to us, but we are also teaching them to go against their body’s natural urges and cues.
“Your response to your baby’s messages to you, decides whether your baby will end up ﬁghting you around food … or not”. Pennie Brownlee
Creating a meal-time ritual
We have the opportunity to fill not only a child’s belly but a child’s soul through the ritual of eating together. Children get to experience at a very primal level the feeling of being fed and nourished with love and care. However your meal times are orchestrated is entirely up to the team BUT if children are not feeling rich love through the sharing of food then sadly it is a mere routine. A routine does not nourish the soul it is a mere task and it is with the intent of ” getting children fed” – Kimberley Crisp
The difference between a routine and a ritual is not necessarily the action, but the attitude behind the action. On the face of it a mealtime routine and ritual have the same physical outcome – the child gets fed. However, on a deep human, spiritual and emotional level it couldn’t be more different.
A routine has little interaction and can often be tedious and meaningless. It is externally motivated and is something that “has to be done” it focuses on the “what”. A routine does little to install a feeling of belonging and is focused on the completion of tasks – ticking the box.
A ritual on the other had is all about engagement and connection. It is meaningful and internally motivated. As opposed to routines, rituals focus on the intent behind the tasks, the “why” and “how” they are performed. There is thought, preparation and care put into every part of the ritual. A ritual is a celebration of life and tells the story of the culture of the place and the people in it. Rituals install a feeling of belonging in all that participate in it – a good ritual makes everyone feel loved and special.
When we turn our mealtime routine into a ritual, instead of feeling like it is something that “just needs to get done,” it serves to add value and joy to yourself and the others around you. It becomes something you may even enjoy doing and look forward to.
Rituals require thought, preparation, connection and reflection. As teachers our rituals should be underpinned by the fundamental question: “who is this for?” Our mealtime rituals require a “Yes” environment.
Yes and No environments
You might have heard the statistic: A toddler hears the word “No” an average of 300 times. When we as teachers feel that we have to say “No” all the time it is stressful for everyone. Think how you would feel if someone was constantly telling you “No” all the time? Think about how frustrating and discouraging it would be? Yet children in many early childhood settings hear a constant stream of “Nos” through-out their day.
According to Te Whariki, our infants, toddlers and young children should experience an empowering environment that respects, values and enhances their mana.
Te Whāriki can be viewed as a framework to explore infants’ and toddlers’ rights to high quality care and the right to be taken seriously as active and competent members of society. This view of quality from an enrichment perspective values the child as a citizen with rights in the present. These are:
- the right to be
- the right to become
- the right to enjoy
- the right to choose.
(Ministry of Education, 2017)
In other words, an environment where they have the right to be respected as a unique human beings with their own personalities, likes and dislikes. The right to choose – an empowered environment – a “Yes” environment.
A “Yes” environment where children viewed as unique human being with rights and worthy of our respect and consultation.
A “Yes” environment takes into account the age and stage of the children and their natural urges.
A “Yes” teacher uses her ‘teacher vision’ – her powers of observation to know the child well. To know their individual cues, personalities and can see the need at the core of the behaviour.
A “Yes” teacher is prepared in his heart, mind, body and spirit and uses strategies to skilfully adapt the environment, his way of being and doing with the best outcomes for the children in mind.
A “Yes” teacher knows that no child or day is the same and that she needs to be flexible in her strategies and approach.
A “Yes” teacher is comfortable with change.
“Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love, or we spend time dealing with the behaviours caused by their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time”. Pam Leo
Unfortunately, mealtimes can be an extremely dis-empowering time of the day. Mealtimes with children can often become “No” times.
Picture this scenario:
A large group of toddlers are “herded” to the table whether they are hungry or not. Children are expected to keep quiet and their bodies still while teachers dish up all the children’s food into plates. While the food is being dished up the children are “playing up”. The children are not given a choice of what is being dished up to them, or how much. The plates are put in front of the children and the teachers “patrol” the perimeter of the dining table while chatting to each other about what they did the night before over the heads of the children. The children are crying, throwing plates and food, smacking or snatching food from the child next to them. The teachers are yelling across the room, saying things like “No”, “Stop that”, “Keep your hands to your own body”, “Put that plate down!”, “Don’t climb on the table”, “Don’t take her food!”
Sounds awful right…
Or there is perhaps a power struggle going on: A toddler doesn’t want to eat their veggies but wants more rice. The teacher, out of concern for the child’s well-being (veggies are good for the child’s health) or perhaps feeling the pressure from parents (they want their toddler to eat their veggies) tries to negotiate, cajole and enforce that the toddler will not be having anymore rice unless they have their veggies.
Are these examples of “Yes” environments? Would you as an adult feel comfortable eating under these circumstances? Are we showing respect to the child? What are we teaching them?
Are you are having to say “No” or variations of “No” during mealtimes and play “police officer” during meals?
Are you are speaking louder and in a higher pitched voice than you would like to? Are meal-times chaotic, stressful and unenjoyable in your setting?
If you are answering yes to even one of these questions, then chances are that you have a mealtime routine that needs to be reviewed.
Food should always be a pleasure
There is an important question that we should ask ourselves when we are reviewing our mealtimes.
Ask yourself….”How would I feel?”
Often, we tend to see children as a group, a herd of children, and we take on the one way fits all approach. We choose the path of what is the most convenient for the teachers to get the job done. We stop seeing children as individuals with an individual need for connection and nourishment that supersedes the need of physical hunger.
I invite you to ask yourself, every time you make a decision that effects a child. “How would I feel…” closely followed with “I am I doing this because it is easy, or am I doing this because it feels like the right thing to do – for the children.” When we go with our heart feeling, we won’t go wrong.
So, what can we do to inject pleasure back into our mealtimes?
- Make mealtimes special – consider your setting. How do you like to set the table when eating with your family and friends? How can you create wonder and beauty in your meal-time environments? Adorn the tables with table cloths, flowers, candles and play soft music to set the “mood”.
- Use real things – As the adult we are charged with providing our children with authentic life experiences. Do you enjoy eating your food off of a plastic or paper plate? Or in some instances as I have observed, a paper towel or on the bare table? My bet is that you do not. Then why do we think that this is okay for children? When we use “real” crockery, cutlery and glasses we are not only showing our respect and consideration to our tamariki, but we are communicating that we trust them.
- Consider rolling mealtimes – Do you enjoy being forced to eat food when you are not hungry? Neither do our tamariki. We all have our own natural body rhythms and needs. Some children might have slept in and had a late breakfast and come to your setting late. Another child might have woken at 6 am and had breakfast on the way to the centre. Some children like to eat a substantial amount of food in a sitting and some children prefer to graze through-out the day. When we allow children choice as to when and how much they would like to eat, we are helping them tune into what their body needs. We are helping them to develop a healthy, mindful relationship with their bodies and food.
- Consider the group size – You don’t need a person with superhero powers of sight and perception to know that herding 20 toddlers around a kai table is a recipe for disaster. How have you felt when you have been seated at a dinner table with 19 other dinner guests? How has this compared with the experience of having an intimate meal with a few others? Were the conversations different? How did the quality of the experience differ? Instead consider setting small tables that limit the group size to no more than 4 to 5 children at a time.
- What are the teachers doing at mealtimes? Mealtimes are a time for connection, it is a time to not only nourish the body, but it is also a time to nourish the spirit of our pepe. To check-in and fill their emotional tanks – to build trust and the relationship. Mealtimes are also a social time to learn about the art of conversation, dining etiquette and it is an opportunity for children to develop their likes and dislikes. We cannot hope to achieve this if we are “hovering” around the edges. We need to be seated at the table with the children, fully present in the moment.
- Prepare mealtimes together – mealtimes are about community and relationships. Even very young children feel empowered by helping to tend a veggie garden, picking flowers, preparing food and doing little jobs such as setting the table. This creates a feeling of belonging as well as helping children to make valuable connections about where their food comes from and taking care of themselves and others.
- Empower children with healthy choices – Do you as an adult enjoy being forced to eat something that you dislike? I often hear teachers say, “You can only have the biscuits/cracker” after your fruit.” Then the classic power struggle between the adult and child ensues. I would like to challenge you on your thinking behind that. Quite often we want the child to eat the perceived “healthy” food before the treat. Can I play the devil’s advocate in this situation and ask; shouldn’t all food we are offering children be nutritious and beneficial for their health and well-being? If you are the doubting the nutritional benefit of the biscuit or cracker, then why is it even on offer? Why not just offer a range of foods that you know are healthy and nourishing for children and allow them to choose and help themselves, developing their likes and dislikes according to their personal tastes. It is okay not to like all foods, I am sure that as an adult there are foods that you dislike, but you still manage to sustain your health and well-being from the range of foods that are on your “likes” list. Children’s preferences develop over time, sometimes they need several goes at seeing and trying a food before they develop a preference for it. If we remove the power struggle dynamic from the equation, we eliminate stress – your stress and the child’s stress. This stress could eventually be associated with the food at the centre of the struggle and cause children to reject it because of the memory it evokes and the way it makes them feel when eating it. It also stops us from labelling or implying that some foods as “good” and some foods as “bad”.
- Get to know your parents – One of the stress factors behind meal-times are parent expectations. It is important for us to get to know our parents and form relationships of trust with them. To know what is is important to them but also to know why it is important to them. For example: it is not uncommon for a baby or toddler new to a setting to not want to eat or drink their bottle when they first start care. This can be extremely upsetting for a parent, wracked with guilt and emotion about placing their child in care for the first time. Parents are often, understandably worried about their child and their well-being. This behaviour is often about the child’s need for security and connection. An intuitive teacher sensing that the child might need more security, could work with the parent and put strategies into place to ease the stress. Such as more settling visits, shorter hours and more one to one connection time with a primary caregiver.
Remember that with anything new things take time. If you are reviewing your mealtimes, it will take time to get everyone in the team “paddling in the same direction”. Preparation, commitment, a good sense of humour and a willingness to try, evaluate and give it another go is key. But if it means less stress, and deeper connections then the journey will be worth it.
Food should always be a pleasure – Pennie Brownlee, 2011.
Te Whariki – The Early Childhood Curriculum – Ministry of Education, 2017.
Rituals – Making the everyday extraordinary in early childhood – Memory Loader and Toni Christie, 2017
A Heart For Toddlers – The Heart School, 2018
Respectful Mealtimes – Dorothy Marlen, 2015
If you would like to learn more about Connecting with Toddlers and A Curriculum of Care and Respect for Infants
be sure to check out these online courses at Arohanui Collective.