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Screens during school meals? with Francesca Martino

Screens during school meals? with Francesca Martino

Ah, a controversial episode!

The use of screen time during school meals is on the rise – but is it really such a good idea? Francesca from Growing Early Minds shares her wisdom for the good, the bad, and the necessary when it comes to letting your students watch a show while they eat their morning/afternoon tea and lunch.

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Show Notes

Growing Early Minds has a team of specialists who can answer all your questions, whether about school or home!



Emily: Hello, my lovely people. Welcome to another episode. Today I have a topic that is going to be controversial and a lot of you are probably gonna be quite angry with me by the end of the episode. So, Sorry, not, sorry. I guess, we are talking about the topic of screen time during meals.

I’ve noticed this has become quite popular in the primary settings around Australia, particularly for schools where kids are eating inside the classroom instead of out in the playground. A lot of teachers are turning the screen on and playing a show or a movie while kids are eating their meals.

And it got me curious because we know that screen time for kids is not recommended. We also know that obviously we use screen time quite a lot as a teaching tool, as an entertainment. They get screen time at home. A lot of schools now with their iPads or laptops or tablets, Kids are using screens far more than the recommended time, and we’re adding to that with mealtime.

So I’ve asked Francesca Martino from Growing Early Minds to come on today to have a discussion with us about screen time during meals. She is a registered dietician and she works with a lot of families through feeding therapy or making sure that children are eating well enough, all of that sort of stuff.

Her wisdom is vast in this area, and I’m sure it will come as no surprise what she’s going to say during this episode. But it’s not all bad news. There are some cases where using a screen during meals, Is okay. And actually sometimes it can be beneficial. So with that, I’m sorry if I burst your bubble.

I’m sorry if your leadership teams hear this episode and say, no more screens during meals, but we do have to think about the best interest of our children and I hope you’ll grow with me while listening to this episode, so let’s jump in.

Hello, Francesca. How are you today?

Francesca: I’m well, thank you. How are.

Emily: I’m very well, thank you. Now, we are here today to talk a bit about screen time during meals in the school setting. But before we get there, would you mind giving us a little bit of a rundown of your background and your professional wisdom that we’re gonna dive into today?

Francesca: Of course. So, I guess if we go back a little while, I was actually a qualified chef before I became a dietician. But I’ve always had an, obviously an interest in food , and the nutrition side of things. Working in both of those industries, always had a keen interest in working with children, and working in the hospital space for a short period of time gave me a bit of insight into the difficulties that parents feel in the community working in the outpatient setting. And so it gave me a bit more of a desire to move into sort of outpatients clinical, in the community and get a bit more of an idea of sort of what parents are struggling with in the community.

Emily: Yeah, perfect. Because I think the way that we were fed as children is a lot different to the way that kids these days are being fed cuz of, you know, the whole societal shift. You’ve got two working parents in the home. Kids might be in afterschool care every day. So I imagine the way that you practice would be completely different to the way that your lecturers would’ve practiced, for example.

Francesca: Definitely, definitely very different. Very different to the way I was brought up. I had a parent at home all the time and working with the clients that I work with these days, it’s two working parents. It is that afterschool care routine or grandparents heavily involved. And so, Meals are something that is definitely quite different to what I recall being a child.

Emily: are they a bit, I guess less social now and it’s more, in some cases would almost be more like a chore, wouldn’t it? Like it’s something that we have to get done, not something that we have to enjoy.

Francesca: Yes. Uh, there is definitely a lot less time focused around meals. It’s very much more on the Go Foods. Rather than home cooked meals, and particularly when parents are working late, it’s what can I pick up on the way versus what can I go home and cook?

Emily: And I think that links into what we wanna talk about today, the story from the staff room is that a lot of schools now are turning towards having the children watch something on a screen while they’re eating their meals. And that can be obviously for a variety of reasons.

And the biggest one I can think is just crowd control. You know, if all of the kids are sitting there and eating their food and watching something, they’re not picking on each other and they’re not running around the room and doing all of these things that might be harder to control. But I guess as a parent and a teacher myself, the concern comes in as to whether having kids sitting and eating all of their school meals in front of a screen, is that something that could be detrimental or is it something that we actually shouldn’t even worry about?

Francesca: Yeah. So, um, there is. Research coming out on the effects of screens at mealtimes, there’s not a lot because it’s something that is newer emerging, but the information that is coming out is that it can be harmful in the long term because what we’re promoting is an association between screens and meals . And so what that means is that that child becomes dependent on having something in front of them as a distraction, and it’s generally an iPad, a tv, mobile phone before they’ll actually sit down and eat a meal.

And often what’s happening is because they’re so hyper focused on that screen in front of them is they’re not actually invested in what’s being put in their mouth. So they’re mindlessly eating. So there’s a lot of things that obviously can go into that mindless eating. So we’re not listening to our body cues for hunger, thirst, satiety.

And then we’re also not focusing on the, sensory properties of food. So foods have a lot of different sensory information that go in, when we’re eating. And so our body is not focusing on picking up that information and connecting those brain signals to understand those things. We’re also not socializing food, social.

For many people it might not be social for everyone. And there, I’ll talk maybe later about some areas where maybe the screen’s important and that eating is not a social thing for some children. but for me it’s definitely social. So, I wanna be engaging with other people rather than watching a screen while I eat my.

Emily: And do you think, because some kids will be getting so hyper focused on that screen, we talked about the satiety . Do you think this could lead to overeating or even potentially undereating? Because I know. for my own kids at home sometimes if there’s something distracting them while they’re supposed to be eating, they’ll actually end up eating less and then the meal time’s finish and they go, well, I haven’t finished eating.

And it’s like, well, yeah, because you were so distracted that you weren’t actually eating your food. So do we see sometimes that they, they could be like both extremes. So you know, you sit and you overeat cuz you’re not paying attention, but also you’re paying so much attention that you don’t actually eat

Francesca: we do see both sides of the spectrum. More commonly, we see the overeating side, and that’s what the data and the research is showing is that that screening use, we’re tending to overeat and we’re tending to eat more unhealthy foods or junk foods, as you know, most people know. And the problem is that, we’re creating an obesogenic society, and that’s what the data is showing. We often tend to use screens for children that need the distraction to get them to eat more. So sometimes it’s a strategy that’s actually used by dieticians, because some kids need to focus on something else to be able to eat.

But there is obviously some children that that doesn’t work for, and they, like you said, get hyper focused on what they’re watching and forget that they’re actually meant to be putting food in their mouth at the same time.

Emily: You mentioned about like body cues. When, when do children sort of start noticing body cues while they’re eating? Is that something that happens from birth?

Francesca: So it is quite young in age, they can start developing it. Obviously a baby will cry when they’re hungry. That’s them telling you that I need to be fed. As they get older, they can obviously start communicating that with you in a more sort of, nor what we would consider normal way by saying I’m hungry or, you know.

Your hand and reaching for food and those sorts of things. So they generally learn those things earlier in age, and then they develop and build on them. The problem with the screen is that we’re not listening to those things, so we’re just sitting there putting the food in our mouth consistently. And we might be full at the time, but our brain is not focused on the food.

Our brain is focused on the screen. And so once the screen goes off, sometimes they go, oh, I ate way too much of that food. I probably should have stopped earlier. I wasn’t listening to that signal that was being said. And the problem with that is without neurology, we can actually damage those signals so our brain stops listening to them and our stomach will stretch, and then obviously we gain weight and those sorts of things happen.

I guess in saying how detrimental it is to everything, there is a space for it, so we have, uh, Some clients, some children will have neuro divergent tendencies. So they might have autism, they might have a D H D, they might have sensory processing differences.

These are the children that I would be saying, it’s okay to use this for. Or in a, support unit where you’ve got children with lots of different needs, sometimes they actually need the distraction to be able to eat, and we need to make some accommodations for those children where we know they do have difficulty eating.

Maybe their range of foods is quite limited or they don’t eat a lot of food, and we know that if we put em in front of the screen, they’re gonna eat lots and it’s gonna help their range increase. That’s the kind of families that I’d be working with, on a day-to-day basis that I’d say, okay, allow them to have the iPad when they eat, or allow them to sit in front of the screen for a short period of time while they eat.

But yeah, it’s not. So a hard and fast rule one way or the other, but it’s, I definitely say that there’s a lot of evidence showing that for a typical population it’s not necessary and it’s detrimental to some degree, whereas there are some population groups that it is important to understand that it’s still something that we might use.

Emily: but that would be more as I guess a therapeutic tool rather than a crowd control tool,

Francesca: correct? Yes.

Emily: And do you think if these kids are going through school, like say they start this in prep and they go all the way through Prep you 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and they’re having two or three meals a day in front of a screen, that’s gonna become habitual, isn’t it?

Francesca: Of course

Emily: I don’t know about you, but like, if I go sit in a cinema, I expect to eat popcorn and if I don’t have popcorn, it’s like the movie is wrong. The whole experience is wrong.

Francesca: You’ve created an association between movies and popcorn, and what we’re doing to these children is creating an association between mealtime and screen time and they go together and the data in terms of screen time. Do you know what the recommended amount of screen time is for a child per day?

they recommend an hour. So if you think about if you are using it for mealtimes or you’re using it for actual learning, we know that kids watch TV at school, we know that they are on devices at home. You are adding to that screen time, and you are creating that association between screen time and mealtime.

And so when they go home for. Their expectation is that mom’s gonna put the TV on for me, or dad’s gonna put the TV on for me, or someone’s going to give me a device so that I can sit and eat. And the problem is they grow up going, well, I can’t eat without that. Similarly, you can’t go to the movies without

Emily: Without the popcorn

Francesca: correct?

Emily: does it work in a bit of in reverse too? Like if they sat down in the afternoon to watch TV at home, would their brain sort of kick in and go, oh, you should be eating because you’re looking at a screen. Like, does that reverse sort of link come in?

Francesca: yeah, I’m not sure. I haven’t come across any data on that, and I haven’t really had too many families say to me. They just, they come home and as soon as they’re on watching the tv, they grab food or they’re snacking or things like that. So that’s not really one that I’ve come across.

Emily: Yeah,

Francesca: Um, ,but I’d be very interested to kind of see whether there is some information on it, or particularly with the families that I work with, whether any of them are having that issue.

Emily: Yeah. Interesting. So would a home situation where you might be sitting as a family and watching TV and eating dinner, would that be different in any way to a school situation where the whole class is sitting and watching a screen and eating their lunch?

Francesca: So I will admit the TV was on at my house at dinnertime every night.

Emily: Yep.

Francesca: Um, however, it was on in the background, my parents. We did buffet style family meals. So that’s something that we talk about as feeding therapists and dieticians is the importance of a buffet style meal. So kids can get used to different foods on the table rather than just plated meals where they only see what they’re plated.

And there would always be conversations. So it wasn’t that we sat down and we all turned our heads and watched the televis. , it was that mom and dad would talk to us. I’m one of four girls, so there it would be a very loud mealtime,

Emily: A lot of talking

Francesca: but there was lots of talking, lots of social interaction. How was your day? What did you do? We’d talk about anything and any everything. but it was on in the background. However, it was never that we would be given a meal and sat in front of the television and just kind of left on our own. And we were always having family conversations. And so I think that having a TV on or a screen on for the whole family, but you’re still included in family meals, is different to everyone sitting just in front of the TV and not engaging in any communication together as such.

Emily: And what sort of, do you know what sort of social skills they might be sort of missing out on or not developing as well in this situation? I know at a school that I used to teach at was very multicultural, and the kids would have very different foods and some like, they didn’t have screen times there, but you would hear the kids talking about their different foods and that would be bringing in their different cultures.

So are they like, obviously they’re gonna be missing out on all that sort of thing too, aren’t they?

Francesca: Yeah, definitely. So, funnily enough, I brought up this topic, at my family dinner table just to get some perspective. I come from a Greek Italian background. And my dad said to me when we were at school, he’s Italian, he said, everyone would say, oh, what’s in your lunchbox? Oh, salami gross. And so it gives me a bit of perspective that kids are not doing that when they’re sitting there and so focused just on what they’re eating and what they’re watching.

There’s no communication around different foods. They’re not kind of saying, oh, what someone else has got. It’s not broadening their food range. And the problem is, , I’m not sure about your school, but when I attend schools. A lot of foods that I see in lunchboxes are not as healthy choices as what I would expect want, for kids to be having.

I know that sometimes, obviously financially things are very hard in Australia these days and parents are looking for that quick, easy, convenient option when they’re both working. but the problem with sitting there and eating that unhealthy item, you’re also creating. Association between that food and screen time.

So it’s not just food and screen time, it’s that particular item that you are eating and screen time, which often tends to be chips, chocolates, lollies.

Emily: like the popcorn and the movies.

Francesca: Correct. Yeah. So it does, it does limit that social interaction with kids and just that interest in food and the interest in, oh, what someone else has got, and the communication that’s around that.

Emily: So you’re really on multiple fronts. We’re narrowing these kids in by giving them the screen time at mealtime, like we’re narrowing

their, their food options, we’re narrowing their ability to listen to their body, and we’re also narrowing the social growth. I guess you

Francesca: Yeah. Think about if you went out for a meal with some family and friends. You all went to a restaurant, you ordered your meals, and then everyone pulled out their phone. Put something on to watch and had no conversation. How enjoyable would that be For me, I


Emily: be a waste of time,

Francesca: It’d be correct, right? I could cook if I’m not gonna have a conversation with anyone or enjoy sharing meals and things like that, I’ll do that at home with no one else around.

That’s when

Emily: Yeah.

Francesca: But when I’m gonna go out for dinner, I wanna be socializing. I wanna be talking, having conversations, you know, seeing what other people eating and going, oh, I’ve got a bit of food envy right now. I wish I ordered that meal. You. and it means, okay, next time I come back to this restaurant, I wanna try that dish.

So the other thing that kids are not getting is, ooh, so-and-so’s got, you know, a ham and cheese sandwich. I’ve only got a, you know, veggie mite sandwich today. Maybe I’ll ask mom through a ham and cheese sandwich tomorrow cuz that looked good. There’s none of that because they’re not looking at what someone else has got.

Emily: Yeah, particularly, like we said, those, those more cultural foods, like some of the kids at my school now, they’ll bring in, you know, their, their meat and their rice or I saw one kid that had like meatballs and a veggie wrap and I was like, oh, my kid’s got a veggie. He had a veggie mite sandwich that day cuz that’s what he wanted.

And I’m like, oh, he might see that and he’s gonna come home and ask for meatballs, you know,

Francesca: Yeah, and I think the, when I was at school sandwiches were obviously very big and we’re finding that sandwiches are not something’s as common in lunchboxes anymore. A lot of kids do have sort of a hot lunch or things packed in thermos and those meatballs and stuff like that, which is great because

Emily: All these Bento boxes.

Francesca: yeah, because it’s so much variety in a lunchbox.

Don’t get me wrong, A sandwich is great. I love a sandwich every day of the week, but it’s giving the kids more options and they’re seeing more things. They’re opening their food range. When we can get more fruits and veggies into. Hallelujah. That’s all we are and harass for as parents, I think. But it’s definitely restricting what they’re seeing when the screen is the focus.

Emily: Is there an age where it would become less impactful? So like, you know, if you’re sort of training kids that are in prep or kindergarten to sit and eat and watch a screen. , I’d imagine that it’d be more impactful than, you know, a kid that’s in grade six or seven that may not have had that experience growing up is, would it be less impactful later on in life if it wasn’t happening so early .

Francesca: I haven’t seen any proper data or research come out about particular ages. However, we know that developmentally kids are developing their brain all through primary school. So any sort of impact in creating those associations is going to impact them. But the other thing to think about is when they go to high school, they’re not gonna have that.

So you’re setting them up to fail. So at high school, they get let out onto the playground and they have their lunch or their recess meal breaks, but they have no screens, a lot of them will probably have a mobile phone, which they’re probably not allowed to have, but a lot of them will have a mobile phone. And the, then you see the problem of mobile phones all out at the playground.

And we know that there’s issues with kids and social media and kids on, you know, different apps and things like that, and bullying and all of those sorts of things that come more prevalent as they get devices on their own and as they reach those teenage years. But the. , obviously if you’re setting them up for the screen all through primary school, what is the expectation when they get to year seven?

They don’t know any different and they have this habitual mealtime

Emily: They have this, all this free range now and they’re like, what do I

Francesca: correct. And they’re like, oh, I actually don’t know how to sit and have a conversation while I eat my lunch. Because I never did that in primary school. I never was exposed to that. And so I think that that’s obviously something that’s going to be a challenge for all of these kids that have been exposed to screens for mealtimes.

And as they get into those later years going, oh, now I have to retrain my brain as to how I function at a mealtime,

Emily: Which can be quite difficult, like teenagers have enough going on already.

Francesca: definitely.

Emily: don’t really need to add in that on top

Francesca: No, exactly right. And sort of the, even going back a step before school, I know that a lot of childcare centers cook for, infants. And so they sit down to a hot meal every day of the week that they go. And I think to myself, are we setting them up to fail when they go to school, when we give them a lunchbox with a sandwich and they’ve had this hot cooked meal five days a week, if they’re going five days a week. And they get this lunchbox and they go, mom, what’s a sandwich? What is that like? They never get sandwiches. They get a hot cooked meal every day.

So it’s the same thing. We’re we’re setting them up into this root. And what, what kid in prep is sitting down with a plate and a fork and a spoon to eat their hot cooked meal, you.

In kindergarten where they’ve got no support to do that and they’re expected to be able to manage all of that themselves. It’s just not happening. And so I think that yes, there is a place for it and it’s great that they get really nourishing meals at preschool and childcare. But is that the expectation that’s then left on a parent when they go to kindergarten?

Cause a lot of parents won’t be able to maintain that. Particularly families where there’s two working parents. And it’s also for a four or a five year old to manage that meal on their own at school and then expect a teacher to help them with it. When the teacher’s got however many other kids in the classroom, it’s not gonna happen. So I guess there’s, you know, from every level of education. I think meal times do change and it is challenging for kids to, I guess, understand those changes at each level.

Emily: And we really need to be setting them up for success at the next level. And by doing things like these screens, we’re not, not quite doing that for them, are we? We we’re more giving them another barrier that they’re gonna have to overcome later.

Francesca: Yes. And I think that particularly post Covid post, you know, the world that we’ve been in for the last couple of years, they’ve already had a lot of struggles, particularly with schooling in terms of the homeschooling and online learning and those sorts of things. that they spent a lot of time on screens and there’s no social interaction with that.

And I think a lot of kids struggled with being that isolated learning, that when we’re back at school, we just need to be getting them interacting. And the one of your questions is, relating to teachers using it as a crowd control method. I don’t disagree that sometimes it’s necessary. I probably wouldn’t use it five days a week. It might be something that can be used once or once or twice a week if you find that the kids are particularly dysregulated. It’s just a chaotic day and you need them to all calm down a little bit into an a nicer window of tolerance to be able to sit down and eat.

That’s fine. It can be used every now and then. but it’s when it becomes that five days a week expectation, the screen goes on, I eat my meal. That’s where it becomes a problem.

Emily: Do you have any suggestions of what teachers might be able to do as an alternative to screens? Like I know one school I taught out in London, They had this big thing that was called like the big question or big picture question where the teacher would actually say, all right, everybody, I want you to think about what would happen if there’s no octopuses or something like that.

And then that would be sort of, I guess, giving them a, a prompt to guide their conversation during mealtime. Is there things like that that you would recommend that could help a bit with crowd control, but not be as distracting as a screen?

Francesca: That’s that’s actually really great. I have not heard of something like that before.

Emily: Oh,

Francesca: but sometimes even like topics of conversation, like the kids can put topics in a box and then they could all, you know, start discussing it and it could be part of their mealtime that, that’s the topic of conversation.

There’s probably not a lot, something like if you are eating inside, if that’s something that’s, you know, having a picnic. So seeing if you can get the kids maybe into some smaller groups sitting, together so that it’s small socialization, and pretending they’re having a picnic together so they’re not necessarily sitting at their desks and next to whoever they would normally sit next to.

Mixing them up a little bit so that they do get to engage with some different children, and have that sort of picnic vibe. But if it has to be in the classroom based on whether or that’s what the school does, that can be done. Alternatively, going out, going. And if they are a little bit more noisy, it doesn’t really matter.

It does. The sound will travel a bit better as opposed to echo in the room.

Emily: Yep. So let them be noisy. Let them have their messy eating time. That’s fine.

Francesca: Yeah, well particularly the prep kids. So children learn by play and learn by being messy. and so particularly those earlier age groups are gonna be a bit messier with their food. And that’s all normal. That’s normal development. We need to be a bit more understanding and go, oh, I just don’t want them to make a mess, versus I need to allow them to explore, figure out how to open their packets on their own.

That’s part of, you know, learning, learning to be at

Emily: it open and spill their chips everywhere.

Francesca: Yeah, and, and parents are like, oh, I want them to be able to open it, but they can’t open it yet. And so working on those skills so that, you know, and just allowing them to do it and eventually they’ll figure it out and provide them support in that.

But sometimes it’s gonna be a bit messy and that’s okay. We just need to be a bit more understanding.

Emily: So I guess what I’m hearing you say overall is that screen times at meals, It’s, it’s not necessarily the end of the world, but it definitely shouldn’t become the norm. It should be, you know, once or twice a week, or in those cases where it’s therapeutically beneficial for certain children.

But when we are using it every meal, every day, that’s when it actually can become detrimental. Maybe not necessarily straight away, but certainly down the line later in life. And that as teachers, we really should be encouraging the kids to be a bit more social and exploratory with their mealtime.

I guess to wrap it up, is there anything that you would like to say to teachers or anything,

any last words of wisdom on that,

Francesca: Yeah, I’d probably just say like, put yourself in a child’s shoes. Like I said earlier, if you go out to dinner, you like to be social, you like to talk to the people that you’re with, see what they’re eating, try and ingrain that in children from a younger age, that mealtimes can be a nice social interaction versus they’re needing to be a dependency on something there for them.

And the other thing, We wanna broaden the foods that they like to eat and with the screen, we are limiting that. So we wanna be able to take that away and allow kids to see what everyone else is eating. Have your lunch with the kids if it’s a possibility, um, because it’s really important for natural development of mealtimes for kids to, you know, monkey see, monkey do.

Learn from you, learn from what you are eating and have discussions about meals when you guys are eating.

Emily: Perfect. All right. Now if, if people wanted to know more or get in contact with you, where’s the best place to find you?

Francesca: So I am based at a company called Growing Early Minds in Blacktown, new South Wales. Um, happy for you to jump onto our website and you can send me an email from there.

Emily: Perfect. All right. Thank you so much for your time today, Francesca.

Francesca: Thank you


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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