Managing snack times in an early years setting

For young children snack time should be about so much more than just eating. Early years consultant, Tricia Pillay, explores the wonderful opportunities snack time can present. 

Snack time at nurserySnack times which are well prepared for and well managed can support children’s learning and development in many ways. 

It's a great opportunity for your children to practice physical skills, begin learning to take responsibility for their own health and hygiene and to develop social skills as they share time with practitioners and other children in the setting.

By making snack time comfortable and inviting for children, they'll look forward to it each day and be more eager to get involved, remember to always treat food and eating as a natural event rather than an achievement that needs praise. 

Think about your approach

You might opt for a whole group snack time, with children all together or in small groups, perhaps with their key person, or you might opt for a café style, free flow snack time, with children making their own decision about when to have their snack.

Each approach can be successful in providing a meaningful experience for children, as long as they know and understand what is expected from them, they are comfortable and that their individual needs are well met.


Children eating at nursery

It’s really important that all practitioners know and understand how snack time will be organised and managed. Ensure you maintain the same basic expectations throughout all groups, rooms and situations e.g. indoors, garden, forest school, out on visits.

Have a clear, simple routine leading into each snack time, for example:


  1. A sign/sound telling children that it is snack time (it should always be the same sign/sound)
  2. Have children wash their hands before snack time and during (if necessary) with soap and running water
  3. Encourage children to help you prepare for snack time e.g. clean tables, wash fruit and vegetables, set out cups and plates, count breadsticks etc.
  4. During snack time support children to manage spillages  - accidents happen, drinks get spilled, food gets dropped. Keep a dustpan and brush, kitchen roll/cloths and a bowl of water close by, this not only facilitates easy cleaning it lets children know that spillages are OK
  5. Encourage children to help you clear up after snack time by disposing of their food waste, washing up and putting things away (ensure you check this so they are clean and hygienic for future use), cleaning and tidying their place at the table.

These repetitions may seem to take up time, slowing down the process but they are vital for teaching valuable life skills that will prepare children well for starting school. Just because you have shown a child how to do something today does not mean that you won’t need to remind them tomorrow. The most successful learning takes lots of repetitions.

Promote independence

Snack time is a great opportunity to promote independence in you children.

Can they manage their own portions? Remember sometimes children's appetites may fluctuate due to: 
  • How much energy they've used
  • What breakfast they've eaten
  • Illness
  • Events happening at home or at the setting
  • Being tired ​

A café style, free-flow, snack time can help children to monitor their own needs and make independent decisions about when they are hungry and/or thirsty, or when they are ready to move away from the activity that has previously engrossed them.

Make sure that you are easily able to monitor who has had a snack and that you provide appropriate support for less confident or younger children to access their snacks. 

Some children, especially less confident or highly sociable children, might need extra support to move away from the snack table when they have finished.

Here's a hand washing rhyme to try:

This is the way we wash our hands,

Wash our hands, wash our hands,

This is the way we wash our hands,

Ready for our snack.

Plan your timing

Consider individual children’s needs when planning your snack time.

  • Children having lunch at midday followed by a nap with tea at 4pm will probably not need a snack when they wake from their nap (they should have water available and be encouraged to drink though)
  • Your snack time may be taking the place of breakfast for some children. If so, a free-flow snack bar available throughout the first half of the morning would be beneficial and remember, these children will then need to be able to eat more 
  • Alternatively, a child who has had a filling and nutritious breakfast may not need more than a drink at morning snack time.

Sometimes, especially with whole group snack times, a longer than ideal wait cannot be avoided. At these times sharing rhymes and songs while children wait can help to keep their attention.

Get social

If you have a whole-group snack time, try not to treat this as a time for practitioners to be busy elsewhere. Instead, treat snack time as a social point in the day when everyone in the room or setting comes together for a break from the day’s play and learning.

  • Practitioners should position themselves where they can most effectively provide the support needed by individual children
  • It is good practice to have a practitioner sitting with children in a café style free-flow snack bar
  • Practitioners could see themselves as a member of the group, sitting with the children throughout and keeping to the expectations that you have for the children, such as using a plate, saying please and thank you and clearing away.

Snack times can also offer a good opportunity for children of different ages to come together for a shared experiences. Younger children will learn competencies from older children and older children will learn that younger children might, for example, need more adult help, or perhaps begin to offer help themselves (although this should not be at the expense of younger children developing their own practical and social skills).

It should be a time to enjoy, not only an appetising snack but also interesting conversations and opportunities to get to know each other better. 

Make food more appealing

Make your children's snacks appealing by thinking carefully about the presentation of what you offer. The less food is handled the more hygienic your snack times will be.

Let children get involved and reduce pre-prepared fruit:

  • Allow children to cut and share fruit with a friend, rather than choosing from a plate of pre-prepared slices
  • Provide scissors (for food use) for children to cut a small bunch of grapes from a larger bunch themselves - rather than than to selecting them from a plate (remember to supervise this)
  • Cut a banana in half still in its skin so that children can peel their own
  • Let children grate their own courgettes, carrots and cheese.

Children will become more adventurous in their eating if they do not always have favourite standbys such as apples, grapes and bananas to fall back on. You could try offering: avocado, plums, cherries, celery, little gem lettuce leaves, radish, cucumber, peas picked from their pods in summer, a big slice of water melon with crunchy seeds.

Cooked fruit or vegetables can also add variety. Carrots boiled for just five minutes are firm but not so hard to digest as raw carrots, Bramley apples, blackberries, gooseberries, plums can all be served stewed with perhaps a little honey (but don’t use honey with children under the age of one year).

Questions to ask yourself:

Do children know and understand what is expected?

Are your expectations for the individual children in your care appropriate?

Can all children easily reach everything they need? (soap, paper towels, plates, cups, cutlery)

Are these things always kept in the same place so that even very young, or less confident, children can be independent?

Are children’s individual needs well met?

Are children excited by snack time and eager to participate?


Another important aspect of managing snack times at nursery is of course hygiene. 

When promoting hand washing at snack time, teach children a short rhyme to recite as they rub the soap all around their hands really thoroughly. 

Make sure they are easily able to reach their individual towels or paper towels to dry their hands and that they know where to put towels after use.

Remind children to wash their hands again if necessary during snack time for example, if they sneeze on their hand, blow their nose, or touch surfaces that are not clean (this could be the floor, outdoor shoes etc.)

Don’t skimp on time here, children are learning to meet their own physical care needs.

NDNA works in partnership with The Safer Food Group to offer Level 2 and Level 3 food hygiene training for early years practitioners. Our Level 2 course is seen as the industry standard and is for anyone who handles, prepares, cooks and serves food in your nursery.

Both courses are are unique to childcare and use clips filmed within an early years setting and are the UK's lowest cost, fully accredited Food Hygiene training courses for early years. 

Find out more  

Tricia Pillay
This blog post was written by Tricia Pillay, early years consultant and qualified forest school leader.