As a childcare educator, spending so much time with little people is an opportunity to observe eating behaviours close-up. Most centres will have regular timing for meals and snacks or perhaps a more relaxed eating schedule. Either way, during these times you’ve probably witnessed children trying to swap or share food, or sneak something from their neighbour’s lunchbox or plate! So how can you and should you intervene? And what if a child doesn’t seem to want to eat at all?

I don’t want to eat

There are many reasons why children may choose not to eat. In most cases, break times are for kids to eat and play. More time playing is often far more appealing than sitting and eating!

Other reasons a child might not want to eat:

  • Feeling unwell
  • Big emotions – Upset/scared/angry/worried/anxious
  • Bored of the same food each day
  • Don’t feel like eating what’s on offer
  • Teething
  • Not hungry
  • Distracted
  • Too engaged in another activity
  • Over or under-stimulated
  • Tired/Sleepy
  • Nutritional deficiency e.g. children with low iron or anaemia can present with poor appetite, which corrects when iron status is improved

Not eating or eating little at certain times isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. We expect that kids’ appetites will fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day and week to week. They can be eating you out of the house one moment and surviving on air the next. But what do we do if a child is regularly leaving food uneaten? This then calls for a more in-depth discussion with parents.

Helpful questions you might ask of parents are:

How well does “Joseph” eat at home?

What are “Sienna’s” best and worst times of the day for eating?

Together, you and parents might be able ot figure out whether any of the above factors are at play.

Parents, kids, educators – keep talking, keep communicating

What do parents expect their children to eat while at childcare? Usually, their own lunch or what is provided to them. Each family has their own food rules which may reflect religious beliefs, food allergy or intolerance, cultural practices or personal preferences. It is important that childcare educators understand each child’s eating habits, rituals and needs. These must always be respected even if they’re different to yours. In some cases, eating someone else’s food can have severe consequences. This is the reason that high-risk allergy foods such as peanuts are excluded in childcare settings. Children may need to be reminded of their family’s food rules or food needs e.g. “Remember, Charlie, you get a sore tummy when you eat cheese.”

I’d rather eat someone else’s lunch

Teach kids that eating food from their own lunch box or plate (and not someone else’s) helps keep us safe.

It can be difficult for small children to understand why they can’t share someone’s food or swap food with a friend. They may be very used to sharing food within the home and we’re always encouraging children to “learn to share” with others. Aside from family food rules and individual child health needs, sharing food can also heighten the risk of infection – sharing isn’t always caring!

Reasons why fingers may be wandering to another lunch box

I want what you’ve got! – Kids are naturally curious. Sometimes what other people are eating just seems way more delicious, right? Communicate with parents if a child has been particularly interested in another food. It might help them expand food variety at home.

I’m still hungry – If a child is constantly sneaking food from others, are they getting enough to eat? Growth spurts can increase appetite. Could it be that they need to be offered more food or parents pack more from home?

My food isn’t appealing to me – It can be tempting to offer the same foods or bland foods to children. If a child is regularly not interested in what is offered, some food detective work might be needed.

I’m exploring – We LOVE food exploration! Can you think of ways to help children explore different foods in a safe way?

How can I support positive food experiences at childcare?

Educators can lead positive lunchtime discussions that drive curiosity and interest in expanding food variety. We can begin by asking some of the following questions…

  • ‘What have you enjoyed most about your lunch today?’ This can drive a sense of pride and ownership for the child.
  • ‘Did you see something in someone else’s lunch that you thought looked delicious?’ Here you can explore what they may have seen and it provides a fantastic opportunity for discussion with parents.
  • Provide kids with the opportunity to share their food-making experiences from home and diverse cultural cuisines – for example, talk about what they may have helped make for dinner the night before.
  • The old quote of: “Don’t do for kids what they can do for themselves” is certainly true of food and eating. Encourage children to be as independent with eating as possible. This continues to guide their food exploration and cultivate curiosity.
  • Use positive language around meal times and when discussing food. Avoid words such as ‘yuck’ or ‘hate’ as children are still developing their food preferences. Instead: “You’re still learning to like (broccoli)” is a wonderful way to acknowledge that the child isn’t quite eating a food yet, but you believe that one day they will!
  • Share your food and cooking experiences with the children in your care. What do you love to cook? What foods would you like to try?

What isn’t helpful

Talk about Good & Bad foods – Singling children out as having “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy” food in their lunchboxes, since children rarely have control over what is packed

Comparison – “Thomas, why don’t you eat your banana? Eliza is eating hers!”

Pressure – “You’ve hardly eaten anything. Just take a few more bites.”

The Balancing Act

Childcare educators, you are in a unique position to promote positive and safe mealtime experiences with the children in your care. It’s a bit of a balancing act but possible to respect family food rules, encourage kids to eat the food that is theirs (their plate, their lunchbox) and encourage curiosity of other foods.

Regardless of whether your childcare service provides meals or they are supplied by parents, you can still use the Division of Responsibility in Feeding to guide you. In other words:

  • Offer a variety of delicious and nutritious foods for children to choose from or encourage parents to provide variety in food choices from home
  • Provide structure and predictability for the when and where of eating, including a calm and happy space for eating and enjoying food
  • Understand and respect that each child is responsible for how much and whether they eat from what is on offer at any given meal or snack time

Healthy food relationships are cultivated in familiar environments where there is respect, patience, understanding and curiosity. When you provide opportunities for the children in your care to express joy and love for their food, their fingers become less likely to wander to another lunchbox, plate or bowl.

Eat happy!
Posted: 10 May 2018

image of unhappy kid faceplanting on the sandwich on his plate

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