Meal and snack times provide an opportunity for children to develop good eating behaviours, enjoy eating and learn about nutrition and different varieties of foods. They are also a good time for social interaction. Staff and carers should use these times to talk with children, to encourage them to talk with each other, and to share information about nutrition and healthy eating. Children can also develop language and communication skills through talking with adults and peers.

Set the scene for a positive mealtime. Children should always sit down to eat at meal and snack times. Encourage children to help pack away play materials and set the table. Using tablecloths or placemats can also make mealtimes more special.

A little mess is to be expected at meal and snack times, and the younger the children the more likely the mess. Staff and carers should not react negatively to the inevitable mess that comes with children’s exploration of food. However, playing with food, for example throwing or spitting it, should not be allowed. Young children should be allowed to eat with their fingers, especially if they are still learning to use utensils.

Some children refuse particular foods, or sometimes many foods. This should not be a cause of stress or concern at mealtimes. Children can be encouraged to try foods in a positive manner, but should never be forced or pressured to eat. Some help with feeding may be needed for younger children, but only if they are clearly still hungry.

Appropriate use of food

At no time should staff or carers use food as a reward or deny it as a punishment for behaviour. Praise and encouragement are what children need from adults. Also, using food to comfort a child can contribute to unhealthy eating habits and a reliance on food for comfort.

Children and body image

Children should learn to see food as important for a healthy body and growth, and not focus too much on weight or body shape. Staff and carers can make sure that discussions about food are positive and focus on the health benefits of nutritious foods as well as the taste, shape, colour and variety. It is important to avoid labelling particular foods as ‘good food’ or ‘bad food’.

Talking about diets, dieting and restricting food is not helpful. It is not appropriate for children to diet or to have their food intake restricted, unless parents have indicated that this is under the supervision of a health professional.

Early childhood staff and carers can help children have a positive body image by encouraging and praising them for what they can do, refraining from making comments about their weight and not relating weight to a child’s worth. This point also applies to carers, who should refrain from talking about their own body shape or weight in a negative manner.

Healthy Eating Guideline 7

Encourage children to try different food types and textures in a positive eating environment.

The early childhood years are a critical time for experiencing different foods and developing eating behaviours and food preferences. The greater the variety of foods that children are exposed to in their early years, the greater the likelihood that they will eat a wide range of foods as an adult. Adults who include a wide variety of foods in their diet are more likely to be healthy, and increase their defence against lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.