Good nutrition in early childhood can contribute to growth and development as well as behaviour and wellbeing in children. Alongside physical activity, positive educational experiences and supportive relationships, eating well is vital in children’s early years and beyond.
According to research, only 5% of Australian children are meeting the recommended guidelines of five serves of vegetables daily. To raise awareness about the connection between healthy eating and good health, Nutrition Week is coming up. Running from 15 to 21 October, this presents the perfect opportunity to take a fresh look at the role of food on overall health and children’s education.
Actively promoting healthy eating is a requirement for early childhood education services under the National Quality Standard, including services who do not provide food or beverages. This means making, serving, encouraging and/or celebrating food that is nutritious to help young children begin to establish patterns of healthy eating.
There are many ways services can support children to have a firm understanding of nutrition, such as:
- A focus on fresh, unprocessed foods
- The facilitation of positive mealtimes
- Creating a connection between the educational program and meals
- And more
Fostering a positive relationship with healthy food now, will pave the way for a thriving future for children.
The importance of nutrition in early childhood
Healthy eating is important at all ages, but as with most things, habits set while children are young are easier to carry on through life. A little effort now into helping children to understand the best way to fuel their bodies can be life-changing for the better.
Throughout a child’s early childhood years, getting the right amount of nutrients is of particular concern, as they are growing and developing quickly.
Adequate macronutrients are needed, such as fats and protein, along with micronutrients including iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine. This is to ensure children have the best chance to thrive through their childhood, optimise their wellness and avoid delays in their development, both mentally and physically.
A focus on children’s nutrition is included under Area 2 of the National Quality Framework, which provides for children’s health and safety. Early childhood services are required to ensure their food offerings are adequate in quantity, nutritious and are appropriate for each child’s developmental needs and cultural, health or religious requirements.
Enhance development and wellbeing with healthy eating
For many people, the thought of nutrition and health makes them think of maintaining healthy weight. And while this is a positive outcome of healthy eating habits combined with physical movement, the advantages go much further than that.
Good nutrition in early childhood offers a range of benefits, including:
- Protection against illness
- Appropriate physical growth
- Optimal brain development
- Improved ability to learn
- Better quality of life
Empowering children to make these healthy food choices for themselves means that they will continue to enjoy the benefits of good nutrition as they gain independence and grow into healthy adults.
Practical strategies to support healthy eating
The earlier you begin to offer children healthy options, the easier it is for them (and educators and families) to guide children to a life of healthy eating. Education, support and consistency can enable children of any age to transition to enjoying mealtimes with a plate full of delicious, nutritious food.
There are a few strategies that can make healthy eating simple and satisfying for all involved. Here are some tips to try that will encourage a love of good foods:
Growing food in early learning settings
Planting, watering and caring for plants is always an area of fun and fascination for children. Growing things that children are allowed to eat takes it to a whole new level!
Many herbs, fruits and vegetables are inexpensive and easy to plant and grow, plus they provide an invaluable educational experience in early childhood that will help children to get excited about eating healthy food. Create a compost for scraps too!
Cooking in centres
Children love to be a part of the journey and are significantly more likely to eat a meal or snack that they have been involved in making.
Tie this in with the previous tip of growing food and you could find that children are so excited about this process they will want to eat everything from the garden.
Create positive mealtimes
A sense of inclusion during mealtimes can help children feel inclined to eat healthily with others. Ensure the eating environment in your service makes everyone comfortable and gives them the required support to enjoy the mealtime.
A calm transition to mealtime is ideal, and encouraging educators to role model by eating a healthy snack with children can go a long way to promote healthy habits too.
Eating well doesn’t need to be over-complicated. Create some simple rules or guidelines to follow (most of the time — treats are good too!). Suggestions could be to ensure half your plate is fruit or vegetables.
Trying to ‘eat the rainbow’ so each child is inclined to choose different coloured fruit and vegetables. Avoiding wrappers and packaging is a good rule to minimise the consumption of processed foods while caring for the planet too.
A clever switch from white bread to wholegrain bread can make a sandwich much healthier. Try switching to wholegrain pasta too. Swap sugar on cereal for fruit pieces. Ditch juice for water, or water with a squeeze of fresh fruit. Make smoothies instead of milkshakes.
These smart swaps are still tasty but offer significantly elevated nutrition levels.
Make it fun
If you want to make healthy eating extra fun and enticing, make it look exciting.
Fruit cut into different shapes or on kebab sticks is popular with children. Making a face on the plate using a variety of foods is often enjoyable.
Healthy plate, healthy children, healthy planet
Healthy eating can be healthy for the planet as well as people. With the right choices, we can simultaneously sustain health and sustain earth. Opting to eat seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables is one way promoting sustainable healthy eating, along with eating less packaged, processed foods to reduce waste and getting creative with creating meals that use leftovers.
Use Nutrition Week as a reminder to prioritise healthy food and positive mealtimes in your service. Promote thoughtful, healthy eating habits now and you will support optimal development and wellbeing for children.
Education, support and exposure to healthy-but-tasty meals and snacks will empower children to opt for nutritious meals and establish a love of healthy foods throughout their lives.