An inclusive approach to meal times

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Project summary:

Action research and reflection on leadership from a Froebelian perspective in an early earning and childcare community Socially engaging children in mealtimes to create a nurturing and inclusive environment.



Across our authority, food provision had recently been revisited and new nutritionally chosen menus had been introduced. With 2 year old’s now all accessing their 1140 hours of funded ELC, this meant that all entitled children were now accessing lunch during their session and this meant that we had to be creative and strategical in how we planned these meal times to ensure that we are providing high quality experiences which are nurturing and socially engaging.  Throughout this process, I sought to visit how my leadership skills could support the rest of the staff team to go on to lead the vision for our lunch provision.  


We have been exploring the principles of Fredrich Froebel throughout our practice with several members of staff undertaking the Childhood in Practice and Froebel Futures over the past few years. When discussing meal times and food provision, I wanted to underpin the principle and values of freedom with guidance. Meal times provide children with opportunities to promote independence and make choices and Froebel seen freedom as being about supporting children to think for themselves, make choices and problem solve. (Tovey, H). The government has set  out to ensure that all children accessing their entitlement at ELC are provided with a nutritional meal daily, meaning that policy and legislation now drive the school meal provision programme. It is our duty as practitioners and managers to embed the principles of working together to ensure a holistic approach to each child is upheld, and is in line with UNCRC rights of the child and national care standards as well as our own visions, values and aims.  


There was a lot to be considered in the role of the adult in supporting children to build their independence skills and their confidence in making choices. The role of the educator needs to be supportive and underpinned by the principles of freedom with guidance. We also had to consider the physical environment and time offered to children and lunches to support these properly. Helen Tovey emphasises the need to organise time as the way that we do this is significant in enabling children to be connected to their environment and to do things for themselves.  

For the process of carrying out this project, we used strategies shared by the Care Inspectorate improvement programme to support us. These focus on the wider aim of an improvement project, with bite size aims to support the wider one. It questions the what? who? and by when? For us these were the staff supporting children to independently make choices and serve their own lunch, leading the environment to do this, and collecting information necessary to ensure that it has improved outcomes for children. It was suggested that we test change ideas on a small scale and a framework was devised by Care Inspectorate to support this. (PDSA model) Plan, Do, Study, Act. 

The staff team came together collegiately during this process to discuss successes and any tweaks needed to the environment, times etc. We used guidance documents to support this process such as Realising the Ambition, Setting the Table, Food Matters and HGIOELC. We also revisited our visions, values and aims which had been revisited and devised recently with parents, children and stakeholders. It was felt that we had to involve parents and families in the project as much as to educate and support them in terms of nutrition and the guidance and research behind meal times and food. Jackie Musgraves states that although the routine of providing meals for children are important for their nourishment & to optimise their physical health, that meal times are however important social events and provide children with a sense of belonging and the ability to adapt. (Musgrave, J. 2017) Cathy Nutbrown also suggests that to make most of opportunities for children to learn and develop their needs to be a recognition of parents’ roles in their children’s learning. (Nutbrown, C. 1994) 

 We introduced ‘Family Service’ to the 3-5 year old’s initially, this is the process where all food is on the table for children to see and they were then encouraged to choose what they would like to eat and to try new things. We decided to do 2 sittings to allow adequate space in the lunch room and children could choose where they sit. This then led to the children serving themselves from the dishes on the table and for milk or water. This was modelled and supported by the adult at the table where required and children then went on to recycle any leftovers in appropriate bins and put their plates, cups and cutlery into appropriate basins. The children were also encouraged to set their place at the table when seated for lunch and social discussions took place at the table throughout the meal time. The role of the educator was supportive and their interactions with each child were underpinned by the Frobelian idea of freedom with guidance. Staff supported children to make choices and share their knowledge and experiences of food with each other. We used tally marking to keep a record of how many children were accessing the service and observations and photographs in children’s learner journals celebrated and evidenced the children’s individual successes.  

 Parents and carers were given a questionnaire which asked them how meal times are offered at home as we had to consider children’s knowledge and prior experiences of meal times to ensure expectations and aims were realistically set. The views of our families are important to us and it was equally important to keep the families informed of how we planned to offer mealtimes and the reasons as to why we would do so in this way.  

This process was then offered to 2-3 year old’s at lunch times and as the process had been discussed and revisited at collegiate meets with staff, this equipped our own confidence, knowledge and expectations of what would work, and what had worked and went well already. Considering the age and stage of individual children and their support needs was at the heart of all educators throughout this process and nurturing calming environments and interactions were observed.  

Project outcomes 

It was evident through the collection of data, observations and collegiate discussions that family service meal times had supported social engagement with children and staff and has allowed children to become confident in making choices and being independent individuals. Meal times have been visibly enjoyable and children can discuss the role they play at lunchtime in being independent, they have been observed supporting each other and new children to be part of our new lunch time routine.  

When concluding outcomes for this project, it was evidenced that over 90% of children could independently choose and serve their own meal, set their table and recycle their food. A small percentage of children required support to carry this out but were observed to be more secure and happy during the lunchtime routine with transitions being supported by visuals and targeted support plans. Setting the table practice guidance states that ‘It is important that the food is offered in a caring way and that eating patterns to which children are exposed-both at home and outside of the home-are those which promote positive attitudes and enjoyment of food’ (Setting the Table:8) 

Moving further into the project, once children has tried the food on the new menu, they were then able to make a choice of what lunch they would like to order that day from the kitchen> They done this using visual photographs of the meal choices on a flannel board and placing the choice beside their name. This further encouraged their independence skills and confidence in making choices.  


Leading this project has allowed me to reflect on how important it is to carry out improvements as a whole team and community, with the children and parents/users of the service. Coming together regularly supported the process and ensured all parties were involved. The team all had the same vision and were willing to participate and try a variety of things to improve children’s meal time experiences. It has been a joy to observe and celebrate the successes of this together and I feel the management and staff team have a deeper knowledge of the methodologies used for improvement projects and the importance of a shared vision in achieving improved outcomes for children. We have together utilised and understand the importance of using measurement, standardisation, resources, socialisation, training and documentation to support our practice and embed the principles of nurture and connectedness to real life opportunities.  

Looking ahead, we are planning to implement lunch as a rolling lunch theme to further offer the children freedom of choice of when to eat and who to eat with. We plan to continue to observe and reflect on how meal provision is offered, and invite the parents and carers in to enjoy a lunch experience with their child in their setting to involve them. I will continue to support staff roles within this and other improvement projects as part of my leadership commitment.  


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