Content warning: mentions of disordered eating
I’ve worked in childcare for a few years – in nurseries, holiday schemes, and now, the after school care club. It’s a joy to see children grow, to hear their stories, to play their games, and to look after them. It’s a particular joy of mine to share snack time with them.
I love to look on as the kids happily consume. I recognise so many of the pleasures. That sweet back of the throat sting as juice is washed down, orange mixed with apple and blackcurrant, just because. The supermarket own brand chocolate biscuits melting into fingerprints, collecting in the ridges. Peel bright against pith, whole oranges cut into slices – they’re sucked, not chewed – leaving tasteless membrane behind. A room full of orange grins.
Snacks are rarely given their much deserved praise. They are branded as unnecessary, a calorific symbol of our greed. Snacking is excessive, we simply don’t need it, grazing and gorging between meals. But in childhood, we are given this brief grace when snacking is permitted – in the playground at morning break and, of course, at after school club.
It demands a certain efficiency – the children are hungry and want to play, and there are many mouths to feed. Hair is scraped back before a plastic apron and blue disposable gloves are pulled on. There is care in hygiene. It’s regulation, yes, but it also says: I care about you. I care about what goes into your body and how – and I am going to act on that care.
Shredded lettuce and banana pieces are piled into little mouths – it tastes good like that today.
Food is a process, not a singular buttered cracker or orange slice. How we prepare it matters. I lay out the food and drinks on a table at the front. Under fluorescent lights, the children sit, excitable, at classroom-tables-turned-dinner-tables. I work my way through the noise, making my way to each child. I bend down, my head tilted to hear better. “What do you feel like today?”
They mull over their choices, and I wait to hear them, in this doughy silence, weighty with the importance of this decision. There is a certain decisiveness to their indecisiveness – they are children and they intend to stay that way, at least for now. And so, they will take their time and take pleasure in not quite knowing. “Um… toast!”
“Fab. With butter or no butter?”
“Butter – but just a bit.” I butter the toast lightly but right to the edges: it sits, pale yellow, with that initial stillness of dairy-free margarine before it melts – slowly and then all at once.
And then the process repeats itself. A wrap with chicken – no! Ham! And butter. Please.
Once they’re all carbed up, we give out the fruit and veg: apple slices, carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes and grapes cut down the middle (a choking prevention). Shredded lettuce and banana pieces are piled into little mouths – it tastes good like that today.
By adulthood, many of us have lost this particular joy. Diet culture has chewed away at our brains.
The children are getting to know themselves. At snack time, they are learning that they don’t like the feel of rice cakes on their teeth and that they like the particular sogginess of juice-dipped-crusts on their tongues. Food is a direct interaction with matter external to us: when we consume, we are forming necessary and loving relationships with both ourselves and our world. It’s a gift to allow, to nurture, such a connection with children’s selfhood.
In a child’s snack time, there’s a playfulness we’re denied later in life. Yoghurt pots are saved and apple seeds collected in pockets. Worlds are built with apple stalks and Babybel wax. It marks a particular closeness with one’s own food. It’s private and insular, and only shared with those who likewise enjoy.
When they zip up jackets and pull on gloves, ready to go outside, it’s not an end to snack time, but a continuation. Snack morphs into play. Our playfulness with food should be encouraged as a means of getting to know it and be cherished as an act of our love for it.
By adulthood, many of us have lost this particular joy. Diet culture has chewed away at our brains. It’s clear in the way that we talk about food with such coldness and critique. In previous jobs, I sat, tight-lipped, tongue-tied, as senior colleagues commented on children’s food – both to each other and to children.
Snack time should not be didactic. Food cannot – and should not – be moralised, regardless of age. In a school setting, these comments are always thinly veiled, neat white icing topping something bitter tasting.
The children I work with often ask the kind of questions I once did. “Is this bad for me? Is it unhealthy?”
“She is such a good eater,” adults would say over me as a child, passing another slice of cream cheese on toast. A good eater, a good girl – and yet it never felt like praise. There are, of course, the more heavy handed comments on fatness, badness and, more recently, on wellness.
There is something particularly sinister about the slightness of some comments – it leaves children to fill in the gaps themselves. “She is such a good eater. Not like my lot – they’re just so skinny,” said with a simper upon the lips. All of a sudden, the cream cheese would turn sour in my mouth.
As I grew, I began to refuse white bread, believing it would make my stomach swell. I turned down yoghurt, thinking its sweetness would rot my teeth. I denied myself artificial-orange cheese, horrified at the image of it melting into my thighs before its grease seeped through my pores. This childhood of disordered thoughts around food eventually manifested itself as an eating disorder in my early teens. It is a narrative now tired and weary – there are so many of us.
As they crunch down on a digestive biscuit, the children I work with often ask the kind of questions I once did. “Is this bad for me? Is it unhealthy?” There are comments on the snacks of others – “you want another wrap?” There are self-edits as they describe what they ate at the weekend; it’s okay that they had pizza and cake and McDonald’s because they know that it’s bad for them and they wouldn’t eat it all the time, they wouldn’t, they just wouldn’t.
“It’s all just food,” I say. “It’s there to be enjoyed. To feed you.” I say these words as much to myself as I do to them.
It’s not with ill intent. They are trying to reconcile what they’ve heard from adults with their own daily lives. They’re trying to see if the recipe – of weight-loss teas, kale, and calorie counting – matches up to reality. It is our job to show them that it doesn’t.
“There’s no such thing as good food or bad food, healthy or unhealthy. It’s all just food,” I say. “It’s there to be enjoyed. To feed you.” I say these words as much to myself as I do to them. I hope that I say it slowly, that my mouth takes its time over each word, tasting each syllable, unscared of its unfamiliar flavour and what it means.
Its meaning is weighty – everything we were ever told about food was a lie. It is oftentimes scary to admit a societal truth to yourself, it is almost always more scary to admit it to others, to children – and to perhaps be the first to voice it to them.
I leave each shift feeling full yet wanting more. I want what I can’t have – a loving relationship with food, as a child. The chance for that has been and gone, stuck somewhere in the early noughties, along with Tracy Beaker and Singstar on the PS2. I was so pint-sized, just like them – a whole person, in miniature form, bursting with joy and angst and confusion. Whilst my childhood may be over, theirs isn’t. I can care for them and, somehow, simultaneously, care for myself too – past and present.
In adulthood, I have, at times, felt a specific grief for myself as a child and the distress I felt around food. But if grief is love with no place to go, then I am no longer grieving. There is a great deal of love to give to these children and to their snacks. On a plastic plate, I hope to give them what I could not give myself: a custard cream and the promise that it’s okay to just eat it and enjoy it.
Eilidh is Glaswegian, studying English Literature, and is interested in intersectional feminism and everyone looking after each other. Overall, she is just trying her best. @eilidhakilade_