Most adults know that healthy eating is essential for optimal health. We understand that drinking plenty of water, eating nutritious food, and watching what we put into our body is crucial for staying healthy.
Passing this information on to children isn’t always at the front of our minds, but it’s a valuable lesson. After all, this isn’t just about the food we eat; it’s the lifestyle it offers. After all, children can’t prepare their food, understand what they’re eating, nor make conscious health choices based on previous education.
For early years providers, this role is essential. Your job isn’t only providing nutritious food; it’s also vital to teach young children why it’s good for the body in a way they can understand.
Understanding Obesity in Children
According to Public Health England, nearly 25% of children in reception are considered overweight. There are several risk factors for obese children, including parental health (when at least one parent is obese) and maternal health (if a woman is overweight or obese throughout pregnancy). One significant causal factor to the excess weight is poor diets; highly processed food, sugary drinks, and high-fat meals.
For children facing obesity status, pre-diabetes, breathing difficulties, and high cholesterol can develop quite rapidly as the body’s physical health declines. The impact of obesity in children isn’t just physical. There’s a strong association with poor emotional and psychological health; many children become bullied or face low self-esteem as a result.
How early is too early to adopt healthy eating?
Facing these statistics, the notion of too early doesn’t exist. The goal for all children should be education, information, and opportunity. Children should be encouraged to make healthy choices as soon as possible, as effortlessly as possible.
Healthy eating habits aren’t just within the home; as early care providers, the onus falls within the centre to deliver healthy, nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day. If you’re looking for a few ways to implement healthy eating strategies for your children, consider the following ideas:
1. Always be the role model. Children will often imitate what they see, especially if it’s someone they trust. Getting involved with snack time doesn’t have to be a big production. Just set a good example in what you eat and watch your children do the same.
2. Let the Children Create Their Masterpiece. When children are given the option of eat or starve they most often will choose the latter. New foods are intimidating, and picky palettes can make textures or flavours challenging to handle. Consider giving your children a few different snack options and let them choose what they’d like to add to their plate.
3. Make Food Fun. Rather than serving ordinary fruits and vegetables, purchase a few small cookie cutters and go wild. Cucumbers can transform into hearts, cheese can become stars, or fruits can become a rainbow.
4. Let the Children Help. While children may not have the skill to chop and prepare their snacks, they can get involved with “meal planning”. Find several photos of different fruits and vegetables and post them to a class wall. Ask each child what food they’d like to try (either individually or as a group). This may not work in every setting, but it can be a fun exploration game for younger children.
5. Offer Choices. Every child will prefer specific foods, but that doesn’t mean they can’t try new ones. When setting out a snack, give the children an option between two vegetables or fruits. For example, “would you like carrots or cauliflower?”
6. Always offer dip. Whether you’re serving fruits, vegetables, crackers, or salad, having different dips or dressings can always encourage children to try new foods. Consider a low-fat salad dressing, hummus, guacamole, or low-fat ranch dip.
7. Offer different types of protein. A centre needs to branch out from animal-based protein. Protein comes from a wide variety of sources; this includes fish, beans, legumes, dairy, tofu, and whey protein. Plenty of vegetarian meals can be high in protein too.
8. Teach children about balance. For most children, trying to understand diet and nutrition isn’t a linear progression. There will always be setbacks when it comes to healthy eating, and that’s okay. You don’t want an impressionable child to be afraid of processed food! Educate children on the importance of healthy eating while still allowing the occasional treat.
9. Remember proper portion sizes. As adults, we have become accustomed to eating platefuls of food without a second thought. For young children, you’ll want to lower your expectation considerably. Offer children one tablespoon of food for every year of age (for example, if a child is 4, serve four tablespoons of food).
10. Open communication during snack time. Children are adept at multitasking, making it the perfect opportunity to talk about nutrition during snack or mealtimes. Ask the children what they enjoy about the meal and how the specific food helps their body in age-appropriate language.
11. Switch out refined grains for whole-grain substitutes. One of the most manageable changes to make at your facility is the substitution of refined grains. According to Harvard, the quality of the grain is just as important as the quantity. Meaning, serving whole grains give children maximum health benefits while still being tasty.
12. Allow the child to end the meal. While eating nutritious food is essential, recognizing when they feel full is equally beneficial. By allowing your children to stop eating when they no longer feel hungry, they’ll learn to regulate their bodies. Refrain from asking the child to clear their plate at meals and snack time unless they have a medical reason on file.
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