Early Years Diary: Supporting “Picky” Eaters
We have all come across children in our settings who will not eat certain foods. The children sit down and, before they even know what food is available, they say “I don't like it!”. This exclamation from one child can soon lead to a chorus of children who are all refusing to even try their food. It can be incredibly frustrating not only for practitioners, but for families as well. So, what can practitioners do to support those more selective eaters?
The first way to help is talk to the family. They know their child best and can provide an insight to eating habits at home. A child may prefer certain tastes, textures or even how the food is presented on the plate. Families will look to us for advice and, by having this professional discussion, together you can make a productive plan that ensures both home and setting are equipped with the same strategies for success.
Meal times should be a chance for children to be freethinking; expressing preferences and making choices. Settings should reflect this in their meal times. Children should have the opportunity to be independent and practitioners should be positive role models; children hear everything, even when not directed towards them, so the smallest comment made between staff can directly affect children’s behaviour during meal times.
At my setting we encourage independence no matter the children’s age. An easy way to promote independence, as well as being a fantastic learning opportunity, is for children to help to set up the tables for meal times. Through this, children learn 1:1 correspondence and work as a team to achieve a common goal. Allowing children to self-serve also helps them to create a sense of self by choosing how much they would like on their plate.
Practitioners being positive role models can be the turning point for some children on their “picky eating” journey. If practitioners can eat with the children, this often encourages them to at least try new foods. Practitioners need to ensure they do not pressure children into trying or eating food, however; gentle encouragement is enough.
Our actions as practitioners can pave the way for a child’s eating habits. Using pudding as a bribe is starting a negative association with food, whereas positive talk at meal times, discussing body health and how we feel about food is a step in the right direction. My favourite quote from a child has been “I don’t like broccoli, but I still eat it because my brother is growing into a giant because he eats his, so I want to be giant like him”. Positive role modelling at its finest!
Bringing food into play is another great way for children to become more comfortable with different textures. Messy play involving food allows children to explore it in a new way, creating lots of positive associations with food. My favourite way to explore food is in a farm tuff tray, incorporating all types of foods and providing an open-ended opportunity to promote a wide variety of intents. Staff should always involve themselves in messy play; demonstrating imaginative play and showing confidence and resilience.
Cooking and growing food together is another great way to incorporate food into play. When children are involved in preparing their meal from start to finish, they are more likely to try new foods. At my setting we are lucky enough to have our own dedicated growing area, allowing children to be involved in the whole process. If a garden area is not available, simpler activities like growing cress for egg and cress sandwiches is suggested. I am always astounded at how many children will eat egg and cress sandwiches but won’t touch a normal egg sandwich made by our chef. The power of involvement!
Strategies for a child who is particular with food and a child who has food aversion are very different. Identifying if a child’s dislike for food is because of preference, a sensory need or a fear of food will help determine how you can best support the child. Some children with SEND may have difficulty eating and this is when advice should be sought from the setting’s SENCO for support and professional guidance.
Working with a child who has food aversion can be stressful and the primary focus should be creating a calm, comfortable environment to lower the child’s anxiety. Families can establish ‘safe’ foods, supporting the child to ensure they are getting enough nutrients and hydration throughout the day. Setting up their food in an area of the room where they feel comfortable can enable the child to gradually overcome their fear of food in a pressure-free environment, even if this results in them eating in a book corner, for example.
Thinking of innovative ways to encourage children and remaining flexible towards their needs will ensure children feel heard and respected, rather than being pressured into uncomfortable situations. Focusing on a healthy relationship with food from a young age will be the foundation of a balanced diet later in life.