Making the most of Mealtimes in the nursery and at home through a joint approach

Thanks to Equity and Excellence Leads and Peep practitioners Heather Shorrock and Natalie Mackay, and Peep co-ordinator Gillian Forbes

As an Early Years setting (Newton Park Nursery, Wick, Highlands), self-evaluation happens on a daily basis as we work to ensure the opportunities we provide for the children offer high levels of wellbeing and involvement. As Equity and Excellence Leads* we are fortunate to have the opportunity to observe, work with our team to implement changes and network across Scotland with other Equity and Excellence Leads to share good practice. 

Mealtimes – creating an opportunity from a challenge

Through consultation with staff and our own observations it became clear that lunchtime was a stressful experience for all. Staff often felt that the process was rushed, and our own observations showed that the average time the children spent at the table was less than 10 minutes. 
We reached out to Gemma Paterson and her team in Falkirk who had embedded the Marvellous Meals approach into a number of Falkirk settings. Their lunch times had a huge emphasis on a nurturing family approach, sitting together, rich conversation and promoting self-help skills.  

Linking mealtimes to learning

As we began to implement the changes within our setting we quickly realised the huge potential for learning meal times held in regard to speech and language, social development, self help and fine motor skills, as well as the opportunities it opened up for areas of the curriculum such as numeracy and literacy. 

We began to think - if we as practitioners had not been fully aware of the potential meal times held then maybe our families were not either. Being recently Peep-trained (Peep Learning Together Programme), we were in a great position to reach out to our families to share our exciting project and talk to them about the benefits of a nurturing family mealtime. 

We wanted to break the Marvellous meals project in to smaller more manageable chunks focusing on the different areas of learning that family meals times provide. The Peep topics ‘Making the most of mealtimes’, ‘Maths in everyday routines’ and 'Becoming a writer’ linked clearly with the learning that we were now seeing during nursery snack and lunches.

Inviting parents and carers to 3 Peep Marvellous Mealtime sessions

For many of our families this was the first opportunity to visit the setting and get an insight into nursery life in over a year, due to Covid 19. After putting out the invitations and using our ClassDojo as a platform to reach families, we received over 20 families signing up for the 3 planned sessions, a third of our current nursery intake.

Taking this on board we felt that the best way to show our families the potential meal times hold for learning and development was to participate in sharing a meal exactly how we do in nursery. 

We began the session by welcoming the families with a good morning song and a look at our visual time line. First, we sing good morning, then a special activity and last a story.  We included ‘sit together for snack’ as our activity within the Peep ‘Making the most of meal times’ session plan, to give the families an insight into some of the wonderful skills the children were developing as part of the Marvellous meals approach.

Sharing ideas through activities and talk time

As the children washed their hands we introduced our message for the session: ‘Sharing and preparing meals together supports a child’s overall development.’ The families then sat and enjoyed a healthy snack together as the children demonstrated skills such as cleaning the table, washing hands, using real utensils to cut and spread, counting food as they served themselves and of course the rich conversation that happens so naturally at the dinner table.  
During the activity as a group we discussed many of the skills we were seeing from the children and how they linked to the early years curriculum or supported the different areas of  child development.

Sharing ideas through songs and storytime

Following the discussion we encouraged the group to come back together for a story and a song. We chose the story I don’t like peas which tells the story of a little girl refusing her peas and her mother’s attempts to bribe her. In the end of the story the little girl notices that her mum hasn’t eaten hers either! The moral of the story….  As parents and practitioners, meal times offer the opportunity for us to model many skills while developing children's language and communication. 

Feedback and follow-up

At the end of each session we quickly chatted about the topic for the following week, allowing families time to reflect and bring forward any comments and suggestions to the next session. We also provided them with the corresponding PEEP handouts for reading at home, along with other relevant links such as the Highland Emerging literacy website to support and extend the activities within our session into the home environment.
Following the sessions, we asked for family feedback and how they had used the information from sessions in their home environment:

“It was an eye opener to see what my child was capable of at meal time.”

“I really enjoyed the Marvellous meals PEEP sessions, it was really interesting to see that everyday tasks such as chopping their own food and pouring their own drink held so much learning.”

“I had never really thought about how maths and writing skills can be taught at meal times.”

Child comment:  “Is Mum coming to nursery again? I will show my brothers what I can do all by myself.”

Following each session we began to receive lovely photos via our ClassDojo app of the children at home developing their independence and helping prepare for meal times at home.

[ * The role of Equity and Excellence Leads is primarily focused on closing the attainment gap in nursery settings in Scotland’s most deprived areas. The EE Leads are teachers or early years graduates, working with the children (but not in the adult-child ratio) and their families, and helping to upskill fellow practitioners.  Find out more in the Care Inspectorate findings report focusing on Equity and Excellence Leads (March 2021), including an example of Peep being used in a Dumfries and Galloway nursery.]