Licensing criteria specified by the Department of Education mandate that early childhood services provide healthy food appropriate to the nutritional needs of each child and in services where food is provided by parents, the service encourages and promotes healthy eating guidelines.
This is a considerable responsibility and it can be challenging for educators to know which foods to offer children and how much they are consuming. In addition, food refusal among preschoolers is common and this can make the introduction of new and/or unusual foods hard work.
However, a new study has shown that healthy eating is encouraged when educators use language which focuses on the child and what they stand to benefit from the food. The researchers call these child-centred nutrition phrases.
In addition, the study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, found repeated opportunities for children to become familiar with a new or unusual food, without pressure, helped them understand the benefits of healthy eating and increased consumption.
"Because preschool children rely on other people to provide food, it is important to understand best practices to improve healthy eating," said lead author of the study Dr Jane Lanigan, from the Department of Human Development, Washington State University.
"This study shows the value of creating consistent nutrition phrases to use in the home and in child care and healthcare settings during meal time."
For the study, 98 families were recruited from two early education programs for children aged 3-6 years old.
One centre served snacks, breakfast, and lunch. The second served only snacks, and children brought lunch from home. Tomatoes, bell peppers, lentils, and quinoa were the new foods introduced to the children during the study.
Children were assigned one of the foods for repeated exposure, one for child-centred nutrition phrases plus repeated exposure, and two foods for no intervention. Two days per week during the six-week study, trained research assistants operated tasting stations in the classroom.
Children visited the tasting stations individually and were offered one food to taste. On the day when child-centred nutrition phrases plus repeat exposure were used, the researchers introduced food-specific phrases into the conversation.
Phrases used included "whole grains help you run fast and jump high," and "fruits and vegetables help keep you from getting sick".
Children who tried the food were asked to select a face that showed how they thought the food tasted. At the conclusion of the intervention, the foods were provided to the classes as a snack and researchers measured what was eaten by each student.
Results showed the repeated exposure and the child-centred nutrition phrases increased their willingness to try and consume the food.
In addition, those hearing child-centred nutrition phrases consumed twice as much of these foods following the intervention, but their stated liking or willingness to try the food did not increase.
"Mealtime conversations can be a time to encourage food exploration and develop healthy eating behaviours with young children," concluded Dr. Lanigan.
"Both parents and child care providers would benefit from learning and using developmentally appropriate, accurate nutrition messages when introducing new foods."
In addition to mealtimes, educators can encourage healthy eating and good nutrition among young children by embedding nutritionally sound principles into planned play-based learning experiences offered to children:
- Home corner/ pretend play area
Add a variety of healthy play food from varying cultures and add appropriate cooking utensils (wok, saucepans, ladle, mixing bowls, weighing scales, chop sticks, cutlery). Divide food up into 'sometimes' food and 'everyday' foods. Turn the home corner area into a restaurant, café, doctor's office or supermarket. Add recycled / reused items for children to play with and extend activities further. For example, include empty cartons, boxes, lids etc. these could also be used for creative play.
Read a range of picture books of foods for babies and toddlers and for older children, add books about growing own foods, where different food sources come from and recipes books with a variety of foods from other cultures.
- Sand / water
Reuse old food containers, tubs and bottles to encourage children's explorative skills while they pour, weigh, measure etc. Add spoons, chopsticks or other everyday objects associated with food, to the sand or water area. This could also be extended to activities about recycling and sustainability for older children.
- Art / creative
Play dough experiences could include real cooking utensils and dishes. Cooking / baking demonstrations for snacks or to take home, will also bring about much discussion and opportunity for children to explore different food types, tastes and textures. Have taste testing activities where children get to taste a wide variety of foods.
- Treasure baskets
Promote investigative skills by adding cutlery (safe for babies), cooking utensils of all different shapes and sizes, pots, pans, wooden spoons to make plenty of noise. Discovery food baskets where you can include a variety of different foods, textures, smells and tastes for babies and toddlers to explore are also interesting.
- Food preparation
Involving older children in picking, choosing, washing and preparing food is educational and fun and offers a chance to promote children's learning and development even further. For example, develop children's mathematical skills by discussing size, shape, weight of different food types in a fun and enjoyable way, or try classifying different food groups.
Plan experiences for children to experiment and explore food science and the composition of different food types. Make links between healthy and unhealthy food choices where possible.
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