Positive relationships with food are very important, and have their foundation in early childhood eating experiences. Eating disorders and body image issues have increased in the last few years, with research showing that children as young as three years old are aware of using dieting and exercise as a way of controlling body weight. Taste preferences also develop in childhood, so children learn to gravitate towards the types of food that they became accustomed to in childhood. In a webinar, dietitian Gabrielle Orr describes some strategies and approaches for supporting children to listen to their bodies and develop positive attitudes towards food.
While the parent or early childhood setting provides the food, children should be empowered to decide what they eat. This is the ‘Division of Responsibility’ feeding framework for healthy feeding practices, developed by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and feeding specialist, which is easily remembered as ‘adults provide, children decide’. Adults determine when, what, and where a child eats, and the child decides how much they eat and whether they want to eat anything at all.
Meal-time environments should be very relaxed and social, with conversations that are positive and enjoyable, and not focused on food and eating. This helps to take the pressure off eating. Seats should be comfortable, and children should have cutlery and implements that are appropriate and that they know how to use. Stressful environments for eating can cause a rise in adrenaline, which has an inverse relationship with hunger, while mealtimes that are fun and enjoyable enable children to better tune into their hunger cues. If children are encouraged to self-serve, it helps them to learn about how much they need and like to eat. There are also opportunities for children to learn about sharing when they self-serve, such as learning to leave enough for others.
An expectation to come together for a mealtime can support children’s eating habits. This is particularly useful for children who don’t eat because they don’t want to stop playing. All children then have the opportunity to eat, but can also participate in social conversation without eating. It is recommended that mealtimes are limited to align with children’s attention span (around 20 minutes). Structure and routine are helpful for teaching children how to regulate and respond to hunger cues, so progressive mealtimes (in which lunch is available over a given time period and children can choose when to come) are not as helpful for developing hunger regulation skills as structured, or non-progressive mealtimes, when children come to the table as a group at a certain time and for a certain amount of time. Snacking throughout the day can also be detrimental to children developing an understanding of hunger and fullness.
Children need develop body trust for a healthier relationship with food. At birth, children have the ability to regulate their own hunger, and so it is important that food environments in early childhood support children to trust their intuitive relationships with their bodies and to continue to regulate their own hunger and feeding choices. When children are pushed to eat past their hunger cues, they start to lose the ability to recognise when they are full and when they are hungry. Children are competent at knowing how much they need to eat for their growth, learning, and play. They may eat more at some meals and on some days than others, and this is not a cause for concern provided the amount they eat over a week is sufficient for their nutritional needs. Teachers should not pressure children to eat any more food than they want to, or tell them they have had enough (and the desire to do so may be a worthy area of reflection for teachers). If teachers are concerned that children cannot self-regulate their food consumption, they can support them to check in with their own hunger and fullness with questions about how their stomach is feeling, and using concepts such as the tummies filling up like balloons. Except in cases of persistent undereating, adults can allow children to explore their body’s requirements for food and to eat at their own pace without worry.
Teachers can focus on supporting children to be food explorers, and to consume a variety of nourishing foods without restriction. When we create a hierarchy of more and less healthy foods, we risk children developing a disordered relationship with food. It is important to remember that no food is morally good or bad. Children need to be able to trust that their parents are feeding them properly, and labelling some food as ‘unhealthy’, ‘bad’, or ‘sometimes’ foods can undermine this trust. Moralising language can also cause a lot of anxiety for some children, and teachers should try to avoid creating any guilt, shame, or anxiety around eating so that children can enjoy a positive relationship with all foods. When teachers and families restrict foods, this can develop a restriction mindset around certain foods which raises their status in children’s minds. Strategies might include providing foods such as biscuits on the same plate as other lunch foods to emphasise that all foods are part of a nourishing diet.
Children need concrete experiences with food, rather than nutrition knowledge concepts. Nutritional concepts are too abstract for young children (children can’t touch, taste, smell, or feel the nutrients in food!) and they are not likely to be able to engage with these understandings until around age 12. Instead, teachers might talk about food with children, using food names and words that describe the look, smell, taste, and feel of food items, such as ‘sweet’, ‘sour’, ‘firm’, ‘long’, ‘drippy’, and so on. With new foods, children may need to touch and smell it before they are prepared to take a bite. In early childhood settings, there is often more time to slow down and really explore food with children. This might involve reading a book about apples, then bringing in some apples for the children to look at before they are offered apple to eat, and children should be invited to explore food without any pressure to eat anything. Teachers can also reassure children that it takes time to ‘learn to like’ a new food. Learning about food can also include taking children out to the garden and teaching them about how food grows.
It is important to be compassionate and non-judgemental in regard to food provided by parents for children. Where there are issues, compassionate conversations with parents should centre around remembering that parents are doing their best. Food insecurity may be a huge challenge for a family, and early childhood settings can have different processes in place to support children’s nutrition when families are struggling, such as the provision of fruit platters or supplies to make sandwiches. In regards to parental expectations about what and how much children should eat, teachers can share their philosophy around eating with families in respectful ways that help to open up conversations about feeding practices.
If you’d like to learn more, you can read Gabrielle’s research review here.