Promoting nutrition within Early Years settings has a huge impact on children’s mood, development and concentration as well as demonstrating to parents that the nutritional wellbeing of their children is being well catered for. During the period of Early Years education, a child grows and develops at a significant rate and nutrition during this time is essential to support optimal health. This stage of a child’s development is also a great opportunity for laying the foundational habits around food and eating within a social setting which will serve them well throughout life. Given the basics of good nutrition are founded on a few key principles, this is invaluable information for everyone in nursery settings.
Good fats are essential
The dry weight of the brain is made of 60% fat. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds are most important for brain function and nervous system development. Saturated fats from eggs, meat and dairy are also beneficial for growth but trans-fats found in ‘junk food’ such as biscuits, cakes and crisps should be avoided. Trans-fat are thought to impact on cognition and the brain signalling, which can affect the brains plasticity and lead to early degeneration.
Focus on: Talking to children and parents about ‘good fats’ and make suggestions for packed lunches, e.g. swap crisps for oat cakes and vegetable sticks.
Know about the carbohydrate effect
Carbohydrates are an essential source of fuel for a growing child but not all will have the same effect on the body’s blood sugar levels. Unbalanced blood-sugar levels can impact on sustained energy levels, concentration and learning, even at a very young age. Complex carbohydrates (wholegrains, vegetables, oats, beans) will provide a more gradual release of energy rather than refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, white rice, cereals). Protein and fibre are key nutrients alongside carbohydrates, which will help to slow the release of sugars.
Focus on: Providing snack options which slowly release carbohydrates.
Know about vitamin and mineral needs
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that help the body function including making energy from carbohydrates, neurotransmitters from protein and processing essential fats for repair. They also act as antioxidants, hormones, and support the immune system. If children consume a whole rainbow of fruit and vegetables daily, this will help to provide them with a vast array of necessary nutrients.
Focus on: Talking to children about eating a rainbow of foods.
Negative nutrients are factors, which may have a detrimental affect on the health of some individuals. These include trans fats, gluten, artificial sweeteners, high sugar, caffeine, and high toxin exposure (cigarette smoke, household chemicals, toiletries etc.). Foods to avoid include packaged biscuits, cakes and pastries, low fat products, sugary foods such as fruit juices, cordials, sweets and fruit yoghurts.
Focus on: Promoting good practice and talking to parents and children.
Being aware of many of these factors such as blood sugar balancing, the importance of fats and negative nutrients can support early years settings to educate children and families and ultimately support optimal development and lifelong habits.
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.