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What do mealtimes and food mean in early childhood programs?

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Food preparation facilities should be available on the premises and nutritional and culturally appropriate food should be provided.

- Quality target 33. Quality targets in services for young children, European Commission Childcare Network, 1996 (the full list of 40 targets have been re-published with permission as a CRRU BRIEFing NOTE).

A great deal of food education occurs early in life. Eating is not just about providing necessary energy for daily activities but is a social activity and a socializing process. Along with nutritional and language opportunities, children practice social and other skills, develop table manners, attitudes towards food, self-esteem, independence and learn cultural norms. As described by Ochs and Shohet (2006), mealtimes are "cultural sites for the socialization of persons into competent and appropriate members of society".

This broad approach to mealtime in child care has been referred to as the "family-style meal", "mealtime culture", the "pedagogical meal" etc. These labels suggest a holistic approach and assign importance not only to eating but give the meal value as a social situation with a strong identity and a precise structure. Thus, the "before", the "after" and the actual lunch or meal with the child at the centre are all important. The food too is important from a number of perspectives including nutritional value and cultural content.

In some early childhood centres, participating in cooking, setting the table, serving, discussing, eating and clearing up the shared meal occur in a convivial, comfortable and communal environment and are all parts of the program's learning and social opportunities. In other settings, children's meals come in individual lunchboxes or ready-prepared, are eaten in a chaotic or negative atmosphere or nutritional value may be compromised.

In Canada, many young children participate in child care outside the home. Therefore, children engage in eating practices outside the home so preschool tables are often significant sites for learning. Mealtime is recognized in all provincial/territorial child care regulations but the regulations may or may not require that the child care program provide meals. Most of the emphasis is on nutrition.

The information in this Issue File focuses on Canadian child care food policies and the significance of mealtime practices including those outside the nutritional and language development realm. It is hoped that the information provided will create reflective discussion around evaluation of the policy and practice of mealtimes in child care in Canada.

This ISSUE file has four sections:

- Legislated requirements for food/meals in regulated child care programs
- An appetite for life (2006), Issue of Children in Europe on food and meals
- Materials available online
- Print only materials, abstracts provided

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