Not Just Lunch- Mealtime as Curriculum

A female-presenting child in a light purple shirt passes a serving dish to a child in a floral shirt with brown hair. Both children are sitting at a set table. Text saying "Treehouse Learning Mealtime- more than lunch" is written across the photo to obscure a child's face.

In a quality early childhood education program, mealtime is in itself a curriculum that supports our objective of whole-person development. While the quality and nutritional value of the food itself is one essential component to children’s well-being, so too is the bigger-picture experience of a communal meal.

At Treehouse Learning, professional chefs prepare a hot lunch and two snacks daily featuring real food, often grown locally and organically. But this meal-time blog post isn’t actually about the menu!

Breaking Bread Together

Our older children all eat together in the Big Room, and all classrooms (outside of our youngest infants) share meals together, family style, with teachers and their classmates sitting together at community tables. Children participate in preparing for mealtime by setting the table and preparing to eat, including the physical work of moving chairs. 

Children stretch their brains to practice patience in waiting for a meal to be served and begin each meal with songs, including a song of gratitude sharing thanks for the food we eat.

As children become developmentally able, they practice serving themselves by pouring milk or water into their cups and serving some of each dish onto their plate before passing the dish to the next person. The communal setting of a shared meal creates a natural environment for both intuitive, child-led feeding, as well as adventurousness in trying new foods. 

At Treehouse Learning, we follow a philosophy associated by Dr. Ellen Satter called Division of Responsibility, where the adults determine the menu and eating times, and the child determines whether, and how much, they choose to eat. The end result is that children are guided by their own bodies to feed themselves in a safe and relaxed group setting where children are empowered by making their own food choices, which also largely eliminates many of the common mealtime power struggles we often experience at home with our children.

Working Lunch?

For young children, eating a meal is learning time

For adults, a “working lunch” might involve keeping crumbs off of our computer keyboard without an intentional pause away from our “important work”. But for children, all lunches are “work periods” embedded with learning experiences, and the shared meal is the “work” of intentional child development itself. Serving and eating food isn’t just about physical nourishment either- mealtime also builds language, literacy, and math skills! 

It takes a tremendous amount of hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity to transport an entire spoonful of green peas onto a plate and then to a mouth via a utensil!  Our classroom play centers include sensory tables and other guided, play-based activities to practice the skills of scooping, pouring, and carrying small objects in a developmentally appropriate way in order to build the fine and gross motor skills necessary for self-feeding.

Mealtime involves complex whole-body movement as well, not just hands and mouths! Even toddlers move and carry wooden chairs, developing their core and upper-body strength through purposeful movement in preparation for a shared group objective. They also practice the skills of sweeping up the food that fell on the floor with a dustpan and brush (squatting), and wiping down their eating area with a rag (big-body arm motions). 

Children practice letter recognition and finding their own names by locating their names on a placemat. Counting cups, forks, and plates are a natural opportunity to practice both counting and 1:1 correspondence, a math concept directly relating the number of children to the number of chairs and spoons. 

At the end of mealtime, children are responsible for clearing their own plates, based on developmental readiness. They put leftover food scraps and napkins into the compost bin and their dishes, cup, and utensils into a dish bin, which develops skills of categorization and sorting. They cooperate and participate socially, encouraging and teaching one another through their own participation and modeling. Teachers participate alongside children, scaffolding and supporting children’s eventual mastery of meal-related skills, and children readily learn from each other. All of these activities build physical coordination, cognitive discernment skills, and community participation consistent with thriving at life.

Children practice respectful asking words, and they build spatial awareness of their body in relation to their own body sitting in a chair at a table, the bodies of others sitting around them, and the things they are responsible for taking care of around them. They practice taking turns in conversation, and occasionally, practice solving conflicts or small disagreements. 

As adults and children alike experience, a shared meal is a community activity characterized by conversation. Teachers engage younger toddlers in conversation and exploratory learning through descriptive language around the aspects and objects related to the meal. Older children tend to only need the opportunity to converse about their day, share their ideas, or engage with a prompt or question posed by a teacher. 

In addition to the community, social-learning, and pre-academic skills, shared mealtime experiences build life skills and self-competency.  Children love participating in the daily ritual of sharing mealtime together because it feeds and nourishes their body, brain, and soul alike! 

And we haven’t even gotten to the menu yet! 

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