Rolling kai at early childhood education services

Published on Wednesday, 21 July 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021

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Children thrive on routine, but when it comes to mealtimes, a fixed approach to food isn’t always appetising.

Little ones might not be hungry or interested when set mealtimes roll around, and some early childhood education (ECE) services remove the time pressure by offering rolling kai.

Rolling kai – or rolling, roving or progressive mealtimes – allow children to eat when they’re hungry and choose whether they’d like to share in the meal being offered.

This flexibility promises to make mealtimes enriching for children and educators, so let’s see how rolling kai plays out in practice.

How do different ECE services approach mealtimes?

Everyone agrees that good food is a vital part of the ECE day. It powers young children through fun and educational activities, helps them focus, hones physical and social skills, and delivers the nutrients that growing bodies need for positive developmental outcomes.

This doesn’t mean that all menus or mealtimes are the same, though.

The licensing criteria, for centre-based ECE services require that. ‘Food is served at appropriate times to meet the nutritional needs of each child while they are attending.’

If meals are being provided by the service, the food must be of a, ‘Sufficient variety, quantity and quality’ to meet each child’s nutritional and developmental needs. Centre-based ECE services must also keep a record of all food they serve during their opening hours.

Where food is provided by parents, the service should encourage and promote healthy eating guidelines (e.g. by sharing the Healthy Food and Drink Guidance for Early Learning Services with whānau).

When it comes to meal scheduling, services can choose to have set mealtimes or rolling kai, as long as they meet the above criteria and make sure:

  • Food is available for children when they’re hungry
  • There’s a place set aside for tamariki to sit and eat, and
  • Children are supervised and seated while they’re eating.

Rolling kai allows children to eat when they feel the need, and tamariki are free to continue with an activity they’re immersed in, rather than joining the dining table en masse when the clocks tell them to.

In practice, rolling kai is often a rolling morning tea at ECE services, with a large window of time offered for snacking. For example:

  • Step Ahead Kamo’s rolling kai runs from 9am to 11.30am, with children eating food packed by their parents, and
  • Fairfield Kindergarten Waikato has a rolling kai from 9.30am to 10.30am, where children help themselves to food.

It’s common for services to serve lunch at a set time after the rolling morning tea.

Westport Kindergarten offers preschoolers a rolling kai from 9.30am to 11.35am (paired with free play and planned activities), followed by lunch (kai) at 11.55am, however there is room for flexibility. The service recognises that a single routine won’t fit every child’s needs, so uses the eating timetable as a guide only. 

There are also services that take a rolling approach to most meals.

For example, after providing breakfast at 8.30am, Elite ECE offers a rolling morning tea (with lunchboxes), rolling lunch and afternoon rolling kai to allow tamariki to ‘eat and play at regular intervals during the day.’

All in all, there are different ways to approach rolling mealtimes. Services consult with families about food, and educators are on hand to support and supervise tamariki as they eat, play and learn.

What are the benefits of rolling kai?

Supporters of rolling kai say it has benefits for children, educators and the general ECE atmosphere for these reasons:

  • Rolling kai encourages children’s autonomy and independence

A key principle of the Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum is that children should be empowered to learn and grow, and rolling kai supports them to, ‘Make decisions and judgments on matters that relate to them.’

Educators make children feel welcome at the dining table, but tamariki can decide if they’re hungry or not, and make a decision based on their needs. 

Anya Bell is a Kiwi-based child care cook and she says children are more engaged in their food and eating when this autonomy is encouraged, and trust relationships between educator and child can also grow.

Specifically, Ms Bell says children learn to trust that, ‘When they have finished eating, they can return to their play, refuelled and replenished.’

  • Rolling kai can have a positive effect on the ECE atmosphere

Rolling kai involves children gathering in small groups to enjoy meals together, without interrupting the play and needs of their peers, and there’s the idea that food flexibility encourages, ‘Quieter, more social and meaningful interactions at mealtimes, and allows for a smoother flow throughout the day.’

Ms Bell explains that rolling kai are often used as a way of resolving ‘unruly and unpleasant mealtimes’ and catering to those children who refuse to come to the table to eat at set times, and believes a rolling approach does succeed in making mealtimes calmer and nicer.

She says meals become more ‘heart-centred’ moments, with meaningful interactions between educators and children, and tamariki wanting to be part of these enjoyable and engaged gatherings.

  • Rolling kai can also help tamariki develop a ‘healthy, mindful relationship with their bodies and food’

It’s important for young children to learn to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, and author, Tanya Valentin, explains that rolling mealtimes cater for children’s individual body rhythms and needs.

She says, ‘Some children like to eat a substantial amount of food in a sitting and some children prefer to graze throughout the day.  When we allow children choice as to when and how much they would like to eat, we are helping them tune in to what their body needs.’ 

Learning when their body needs food, and what hunger feels like, prepares children for the set mealtimes at big school, and this is an important life lesson.

  • In some areas, rolling kai ensures that disadvantaged children are catered to

A recent Growing Up in New Zealand study found that many young Kiwis are experiencing food hardship as infants and preschoolers, and some services offer a rolling kai to ensure children from poor families get a proper breakfast.

Stuff reports that one Christchurch preschool says it offers a rolling kai, ‘Because we don’t know how much children eat in the morning. The children can eat as much as they can in the morning if they are really hungry.’

  • All mealtimes can create learning opportunities for tamariki

Whether eating happens progressively or at a set time, positive mealtimes provide a chance for children to learn practical skills, develop social-emotional competencies and build their knowledge.

For instance, sitting, eating and chatting allows tamariki to develop their:

  • Fine motor skills, e.g., how to use cutlery or pour water
  • Communication skills, e.g., talking about their favourite foods or where different foods come from
  • Social skills, e.g., by practising sharing, patience and turn-taking, and
  • Cognitive skills, e.g., when tamariki think about healthy food choices and consider different tastes, smells, textures, quantities and colours.

Ms Bell says mealtimes also teach tamariki, ‘A sense of place and a sense of themselves in that place,’ and this sense of belonging is really important in the ECE setting and beyond.  

What can we take away from all this?

Each ECE service has its own way of running the day, and children’s individual health and nutritional needs must be taken into account when planning mealtimes (e.g., if a child is diabetic).

Services also need to work around challenges associated with rolling mealtimes, like how to keep track of what tamariki have eaten or not eaten, or how to assuage parents’ worry that their children will go hungry.

However, there is food for thought in the idea of rolling kai, and it’s nice to think that routine mealtimes can be transformed into rituals that connect children and care-givers in enriching ways.

The famous paediatrician, Dr Emmi Pikler said that, ‘Food should always be a pleasure,’ and whether mealtimes are flexible or scheduled, there’s an opportunity for caring and sharing when nutritious food is served.

Further reading

Back in 2018, a Growing Up in New Zealand study looked at different nutrition behaviours that are recommended in early childhood services (daycare centres, kindergartens, kōhanga reo and playcentres) and at home.

It found a disconnect between the healthy eating messages that preschoolers were being taught at their ECE service and at home, and you can read the recommended nutrition behaviours for both settings here, along with the research findings. 

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