Early Years Diary 5: Promoting Healthy Eating Within Early Years
The festive season has come and gone and many of us will now have regrets about having overindulged by eating one too many mince pies or one too many glasses of Bucks Fizz. As we set ourselves the all too familiar New Year’s resolutions of eating healthier and kick starting our fitness regimes, I find myself thinking about children and the condition of their health, and not just over Christmas.
At my setting we always promote healthy eating and reinforce the importance of staying active and looking after ourselves, encouraging the children to recognise this from an early age. However, we seem to have a constant battle on our hands with helping some parents fully understand what they have already heard hundreds of times before; that healthy eating leads to healthy living.
Children are more than enthusiastic about joining in with any physical activities, happily playing games that get them running around, or equally helping them to be still and mindful. However, the biggest issue seems to revolve around food, and unfortunately this is a learned behaviour. Children are not born knowing what foods are better for them and so it is our job to teach them not only what is good for them, but also how it is good for them. We need to teach them that the nutrients in their food can help them grow and become physically stronger, how the right foods allow them to have faster cognition, and how food can affect their moods and behaviour.
The fact that what we eat can have such a fundamental impact on our moods and behaviour is not recognised nearly as much as it should be. There is a lot of knowledge on how food affects our physical appearance, even our internal organs, but what about our brain? The conversation seems to begin and end with not giving children too much sugar lest they get “hyper”, and even that conversation is focussed more on convenience to the adult than the health and wellbeing of the child.
I recently put together a presentation that I planned on giving to the parents at my nursery (once COVID19 allows). In doing my due diligence and background reading, it was was to say that what I read was quite the eye opener.
There is some research to suggest a strong link between diet and certain behavioural disorders. Meanwhile, a component of ASD for some children is that they are particularly “fussy” with food, normally preferring dry, “beige” items. This of course can have further impact on the child as this can limit the fresh fruit and vegetables that they are comfortable eating. This challenge can spark behavioural issues and tantrums when trying new foods, which in turn makes parents hesitant to encourage a diversity of food sources, which may then lead to a further lack of nutrients and more behavioural issues. There are many parents and practitioners who I am sure are keenly aware of this vicious cycle and the challenges it presents to their children.
Children become very accustomed to the types of food they eat at home, and so when it comes to trying new and different foods they can sometimes be reluctant to try it.
However, ff you make new healthy foods fun and appealing to children, I assure you that most of them will try it. They may say they don’t like it, but getting them to try it is the half the battle. It is important to let them know they don’t have to like a new food the first time they try it, nobody likes everything after all. Part of our adult duty is imparting to children the knowledge and understanding that people’s tastes change, and that sometimes after trying something more than once it becomes one of our favourite things to eat!
I have been told hundreds of times that “oh no he/she won’t eat that!” or “they don’t drink water, only juice”. I’m sure that you yourself have likely heard the latter a thousand times over. To know that some children never drink water is astounding to me, but unfortunately it happens. At risk of sounding harsh, some parents opt for an easier life and give their children what they want rather than what they need, and it results in adults later having unhealthy relationships with food. It wasn’t through any fault of their own, but because they weren’t told the word “no” when they were younger; however the consequences are lifelong. Sometimes part of being responsible for the development of a child is placing a focus on their long term welfare, rather than their short term wants, and sharing with them the knowledge of what will making them healthier and happier in the long term, and not merely the now. This is an area in which they are not fully developed yet, and as adults and caregivers we carry that burden of responsibility.
Adults are children’s role models, so at my setting we set a good example. During snack times we will eat fruit while they eat their snack. If we have lunch with them, most of us bring a home-cooked, healthy lunch, and they are always inquisitive and interested about it. Children love learning and tasting food is a regular occurrence at my nursery, finding colourful and intriguing new foodstuffs to try always piques their interests. Yes, some can be hesitant, but they will all at least try, and some will discover a new food that they can then ask parents to have at home.
Children have been bringing in their own food since the pandemic began, and the sneak-peek into some of their eating habits is quite frustrating. I see a lot of processed, packaged foods that are also more expensive than the healthier alternative, and no matter how many times we encourage more fresh ingredients in a lunch box, some are reluctant to change their habits. By educating parents and children simultaneously hopefully we can pave the way for a healthier and more nutrition-conscious generation.
How do you promote staying healthy within your setting? Join the conversation and share your experiences using the hashtag #mynurserylife.