“A MEAL IS MORE THAN WHAT IS ON YOUR PLATE” - The symbolic value of meals: A study of children’s mealtimes in the nursery and at home
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The aim of this study is to explore children’s experiences of dinnertime in the home and lunchtime in the nursery and to explore the meaning children, parents and early-years practitioners give to meals, by using qualitative methodology. The data collection took place in three nurseries in a city in Norway in the autumn of 2012 and spring of 2013, as well as in the home of eight families with at least two children, of which at least one was 6 or 7 years old, in the period from autumn 2011 to spring 2013. The methods used included the use of puppet show, role-play, drawing, lego, walk and talk, semi- and un-structured interviews, and both fly-on-thewall and participant observation. The study is based upon social constructionist thinking, drawing particularly on the studies of children and childhood. The ideas of childhood as socially constructed with an intrinsic value of its own, and of children as social actors in their own right rather than mere becomings, like adults in waiting, underpin this study. Key concepts used are childhood, food, community, generation, childhood dependency, structure and agency. The study has found that children’s experiences of meals depend on how these are prioritised and facilitated by adults. There were great variations in the way food and mealtimes were prioritised and facilitated. Within the individual nurseries and homes, however, the mealtime experiences stayed more or less consistent. The differences within the settings related to actual food served and other activities or obligations contributing to time constraints. The similarities within settings related to reasoning, aims, attitudes and wishes for the meals, and thus how the meals were prioritised. The study found that the understanding and meanings related to food and the role of mealtimes were diverse. Where mealtimes were highly prioritised, children were encouraged, if possible, to take part in all stages of the meal, from growing and cutting vegetables, preparing warm meals and baking bread, to serving and tasting the finished meal. Such facilitation of mealtimes in the home and nursery created a friendly and welcoming atmosphere were food (and eating) was seen as important not only due to its nutritional value, but also for its social, cultural and symbolic meanings. Where mealtimes were not prioritised in the same way, children were rarely encouraged to be involved. Adults did rarely, although present, eat with the children, the mealtimes were stressful and noisy, and the overall experience was coloured by a feeling of duty, obligation and obedience. Norwegian nurseries have a mandate in the national framework that outlines the role food and mealtimes should have in the nursery. The findings in this study, however, imply that the understanding and implementation of the regulations and curriculum in relation to mealtimes in nurseries are variable.