Recently at Sustainable Play Preschool, we had the opportunity to learn from Valerie Gent from ‘Let’s Eat! Feeding Therapy’ and Mandy dos Santos from ‘Little People Nutrition’ who shared their insight and experience with our staff and educators. We highly recommend collaborating with these nutrition professionals!
The in-centre training we conducted with Mandy from Little People Nutrition provided our educators with knowledge and research on why food experiences are so important for a child’s learning and development. The supporting scientific documentation for her suggested methods was especially powerful and gave us confidence as we approach meal time challenges. We learned new strategies and better language to scaffold our preschoolers during meal times. Below we share what we gleaned from Little People Nutrition and ‘Let’s Eat! Feeding Therapy‘!
When planning for meal times, our goal is to create a positive dining space and to establish developmentally appropriate routines for children. Our educators agreed that meal times would be conducted in a ‘progressive’ sequence, meaning that we welcome small groups of children to eat at any one time. Small group interactions, rather than large group, provide more opportunities for meaningful conversations and relationship building, not only between children and their peers, but also between children and their educators.
You may ask, ‘Why choose progressive dining when children thrive on predictability and routine?”
At Sustainable Play we aim to cultivate the perfect combination of structure and flexibility. Visual, auditory and olfactory cues like the sight of the meal trolley heading down the mural ramp, the sound of the metal cart moving its way down, and the smell of the food – all signal the start time for a snack or meal.
We hang visual signage with velcro ‘stick on’ food images of what will be served at each meal to help children prepare their expectations (see photo). Our Preschool Cook prepares and serves meals in progressive sessions for groups of 10-15, until each child and educator have eaten their fill.
During meal times, the responsibility of set up and clean up is shared among the children and educators. Children assist the educators and our chef by:
Setting up servery before the meal
Serving themselves their own dish from the separated meal components
Composting leftover food scraps into the worm bins after the meal
Washing their dishes in our dish station adjacent to the dining area – dishes are then sent back to the kitchen to be sanitised
The plant-based menu we serve at Sustainable Play might be a little different to the meals and snacks our preschoolers are served at home or at other child care centres. We acknowledge that the preschool age of 3-6 is often ripe for fussy eating to start even if a child was not previously fussy.
To encourage our preschoolers to make the most of every meal and snack, we choose to serve our meals deconstructed, allowing children to select foods they are familiar with or would like to eat and leave out foods that they are not ready to try. It is also why we love, encourage and support children in their use of learning bowls, a bowl they can choose to add unfamiliar or new foods to. Children can choose to look at, talk about and maybe one day, try a food they might still be learning about and considering, yet not ready to taste.
Division of Responsibility
Before our in-centre training with Mandy we had unknowingly implemented components of the “Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding” (sDOR) method.
“When you follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR), your child will become and remain capable with eating. sDOR encourages you to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide. sDOR applies at every stage in your child’s growing-up years, from infancy through the early years through adolescence.”
For us at Sustainable Play we view children as capable learners and know that they have or will be able to learn the skills and ability to regulate their own bodily needs. They will begin to understand and to feel what it’s like to be hungry, full and maybe even what it feels like to have eaten too much food.
The implementation of sDOR theory at Sustainable Play not only provides children with independence and control but is also a great way to establish trusting relationships between the educator’s and children.
While it can be hard for adults to let go of the reins and remove controlling emotions over the child during meal times, we need to trust a child’s decisions throughout their food experience and believe that children know what is right for their bodies at that time.
Our open outdoor dining area creates a sense of community and supports social interactions as the children and educators sit together in small groups to eat their meals. It’s a space where educators are able to role model positive eating habits, table manners and language when dining at the table.
Research shows that children whose parents eat more fruits and vegetables typically eat more of these foods themselves, in the preschool setting, the educators play the role of parents in these situations.
The implementation of sDOR theory at Sustainable Play not only provides children with independence and control, but is also a great way to establish trusting relationships between the educators and children.
When dining with children, educators dine free of judgement over the children’s choices and refrain from speaking negatively about foods. However, educators do state factual descriptions or positive comments about food colours, textures, flavours and temperatures. For example, “this apple is sweet” or “the cauliflower nugget is crunchy on the outside.”
Repeated exposure to the same food is key to a child becoming ready to taste that particular morsel. Just because a child didn’t like a fruit, vegetable, or preparation the first time, doesn’t mean they will continue to dislike that food every time it is presented. Children will see educators and other children eating foods that they believe they dislike – let the child learn more about it, familiarise themselves with it and even play with it.
Providing hands-on food related experiences gives children the opportunity to grow in their food vocabulary, to be exposed a wide variety of foods and to practise gardening and culinary techniques. At Sustainable Play children grow, care for and harvest fruits and vegetables. We organise garden-to-kitchen experiences where the preschoolers are included in food preparations, such as washing and chopping vegetables. We read stories, sing sings and engage in art experiences relating to food. All of this helps strengthen a child’s connection to where food comes from – our preschoolers don’t say that food comes from “the grocery store”!
- Create a meal space that is positive, accessible, predictable and child friendly
- Choose what, when and where a child will eat, but let the child choose how much and whether they will eat
- Serve the food you want the child to eat and repeat a child’s exposure to disliked foods
- Exposure such as food play and preparation often lead to a child tasting or eating
- Make food and food-related activities fun and enjoyable
- Never force a child to try or eat food
- Never punish or bribe a child to get them to eat
- Most importantly, eat together
When to Seek Help
If meal times are frustrating at your home, consider asking yourself the following questions that Mandy at ‘Little People Nutrition’ shared with us. If the answer to any or many of them is yes, it may be time to seek professional assistance with meal times:
- Is your child not yet meeting feeding milestones?
- Is your child struggling in their transition from purees to solids?
- Has your child dropped entire food groups?
- Is your child eating less than 20 individual foods? (different brands or types of food are counted as individual foods)
- Do meal times cause stress in your home?
- Is your child refusing to try new foods and becomes anxious during meal times? (gagging, vomiting and crying)?
For help, reach out to our friend Valerie Gent and her team at ‘Let’s Eat! Feeding Therapy’.