Introducing children to nutritiously balanced foods at snack and mealtimes throughout their early years provides them with a critical foundation of knowledge and understanding that can help influence their decisions as they become more independent. Helping them to learn about ‘real’ food is imperative at assisting them to establish long-term balanced eating habits. Achieving such balance is affected by many factors including children’s diverse backgrounds, willingness to try new foods, parental influences and planned opportunities within early years settings.
The modern family typically deals with the pressures and balance of modern living and parenting. Challenging feeding behaviour in children tends to be common today with many being labeled as ‘fussy’ from a very young age. Interestingly, refusing new foods at specific stages of development are completely natural human instincts and linked to an innate survival instinct from hunter-gatherer times. This would have protected very young children from eating the ‘wrong’ foods that could be harmful.
Early years settings provide a fantastic opportunity to expose children to different foods in a safe and influential environment. Some opportunities that can be implemented throughout the day, which may support a child to develop more balance in their food choices, include:
Use of language: Use child-friendly language about food. Avoid labelling food ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but instead refer to it as ‘high energy’, ‘high in brain fats’, ‘high bone food’ … terms which help children to begin to understand the role different foods play and they can also start to understand there are food choices that will be hugely beneficial for their bodies.
Our senses: Encouraging children to talk about food in relation to their senses can engage children and capture their interest. Asking them to test for crunchiness, smell, describe the texture or colour and even compare foods can also encourage them to try new things.
Role-play/Modelling: Providing opportunities for children to be exposed to different foods can easily be incorporated into role-play. A café, restaurant or farmers market set up using real food can give children the chance to prepare, cut and taste food. Modelling behaviour can be planned by perhaps setting up a food show with food demonstrations to the children, hands-on opportunities and tastings.
Preparing food: During mealtimes and snacks, children should be encouraged to take an active part in the preparation of the table including the crockery, cups and cutlery and, wherever possible, adults should eat with the children to provide an opportunity to talk about food and model ‘high energy’ food choices.
Presentation: How food is presented to children can be key when encouraging them to become more diverse eaters. Bringing food to life can make a huge difference to young eaters. Using items such as toothpicks to create a boat’s mast and sails, shaping food into animals, and presenting food as faces all make foods more interesting to children, and can encourage them to engage.
Get out and about: Planning trips to local supermarkets, food halls, fishmongers and green grocers can further develop children’s interest in real food. Such trips can also establish community links which can be brought back into your early years setting which can further develop ‘food talk’ within your environment.
If such opportunities are planned, children’s exposure and understanding about real food will develop from a young age. The influence this may play in developing balance in their dietary decisions can be significant as they get older.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, is an award winning nutritional therapist, teacher, mum, and entrepreneur who has over 20 years experience working with children and schools in the UK, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. She has founded The Food Teacher brand that combines her passion for education and nutrition to deliver a healthy childhood, focusing on promoting family health through food and lifestyle.