Ask the Experts – Early Years nutrition
We’ve launched a brand-new blog series just in time for the New Year – ‘Ask the Expert’.
This provides a platform for all Early Years (EY) professionals, where they can share their experiences and advice with the industry, on their chosen specialist subject.
So, whether you’re a policy expert, nutrition specialist or knowledgeable practitioner, we want to hear from you!
This month, we welcome Julieta Matayoshi, Early Years nutrition consultant at The Professional Nursery Kitchen (TPNK), and Louise Mercieca, a nutritional therapist, owner of The Health Kick and author who is working with TPNK to improve its offering. And the topic is, you guessed it, EY nutrition…
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself / yourselves and your background in the Early Years (EY) sector:
Louise: I accidentally fell into the EY sector as I was a nutritional therapist and had always worked with adults. However, when my son was due to start school, I discovered a course on nutrition for children’s brain development and gave it a go. I was completely wowed by the content and started to see there was a lack of information generally across the nutritional space for children.
That’s when I wrote my book, ‘How food shapes your child’, which links how nutrition can shape their future health.
Julieta: I am a food technologist and have been in the industry for more than 20 years. I’ve always been interested in healthy eating and having seen my own children go through nursery, I became passionate about providing the best start in life for children.
Q: What is meant by a balanced diet in EY – what food groups does this consist of?
Louise: I’d say don’t introduce sugar – that’s a big thing for a lot of people because cakes and biscuits are often considered treats. For me, it has no place in a child’s diet because it impacts palette development and affects the exploration of other foods.
A healthy balance should include lots of essential fatty acids – fish, nuts and seeds (where allergies permit) and avocados – because most of the energy from food is going to develop their brains. Vegetables too of course, as well as age-appropriate carbohydrates and protein.
Julieta: A balanced diet is essential for children in their EY, as the first 1,000 days of their lives are key for mental and physical wellbeing – and nutrition plays an enormous role in how they grow. It’s about different foods, in certain amounts or portions, and includes starchy items such as potatoes, rice and pasta, alongside fruit and vegetables, dairy (or dairy alternatives) and meat, fish, eggs, and pulses (protein-rich foods).
Q: Do you have any advice on how practitioners and parents can help children develop good eating habits?
Louise: There is a change in how people see EY nutrition but there are still confusing elements to it, such as food labelling, so it’s vital that we continue to educate.
Children are like sponges and we often underestimate how much information they take in about their body. It’s important to get them to understand their own biology, in an age-appropriate way. For example, we should be saying things like, ‘if you eat this, you’ll be much neater when you colour in your picture because you can sit down and concentrate for longer.’ Or, ‘this food can help you run faster and jump higher because your muscles are getting the right nutrients to become stronger.’
Julieta: I agree. If you talk about the benefits of healthy foods and let children taste and touch different ingredients – alongside you making positive comments throughout – this will help them feel more familiar and likely to develop good eating habits in future.
Q: As part of the EYFS, the DfE suggests; where children are provided with meals, snacks and drinks, they must be healthy, balanced and nutritious. What advice would you give to settings to ensure they can meet these standards?
Louise: It’s about empowering children as much as practitioners and parents, with all the information they need to decide what they should be eating – they should be involved in as many food experiences as possible.
Of course, when they’re at settings you can’t exactly take them shopping but at home a good idea is to take them with you when you’re heading to the shop. Get them to scribble down a shopping list and also involve them in taking items off the shelves. That way, they’re beginning to understand the process of how to get the right foods into their bodies.
For nurseries and childminders, they can get recipe books out (not just baking ones either), and ask the child to pick meals they like the look of. This can help them to understand where food comes from, seasonality of different ingredients and how it comes together on their plate.
Julieta: I’d recommend designing a weekly menu to ensure foods from all groups are provided each day, by:
- Offering different types of meats/other proteins, and also containing a starchy carbohydrate as well as vegetables (within the main or as a side dish)
Alternating a variety of snacks such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and breads.
Q: And can you share your top suggestions for nutritious snacks:
- Vegetables with dips
- Fruit canapes – for example, a slice of banana with a dollop of peanut butter (allergies permitting) and blueberry or strawberry balanced on top
- Yoghurt and fruit are also a good option
- Cottage cheese – for protein. This is also good for balancing moods.
- Carrot, red pepper, cucumber or cheese batons
- Fresh fruits
- Bread sticks with dips
Q: One of the age-old challenges for parents is getting their children to eat vegetables. A research project lead by the University of Reading states that children are likelier to try and eat veggies if they become familiar with them in picture books. Do you agree, and do you have any tips on how to make veggies a firm dinner-time favourite?
Louise: One of the biggest things with vegetables comes down to the language we use. Bear in mind that children have a clean palette and no real concept about what they have to eat and how often. That’s led to people using vegetables as a way towards a treat, for example saying, “have a piece of broccoli and then you can get some chocolate afterwards.” Immediately the veg is the ‘bad guy’ and must be overcome to get to the sweet thing.
If we can change our language and instead educate, it can go a long way towards impacting how children view food in later life and the habits they pick up.
Julieta: Any source that promotes talking about vegetables – including where they come from – should help children to feel confident and safe to taste, and eat, that vegetable for the first time. It’s about repetition – presenting this type of food several times and being positive about it.
Q: In EY, (age dependent), children go from weaning, to solid foods, then to finger food, where they develop likes and dislikes. They are encouraged to try a wider range of foods with different tastes and textures. Then when they are ready, to eventually use a fork. What ideas can you give to practitioners to help them support children during this process?
Louise: It’s always a tricky stage to get children through certain milestones and it often comes down to perseverance. For example, if you’re doing baby-led weaning and you’re eating cake as they eat, they’ll want it too because they desire what you’re having.
Let them get messy and allow them to take their time when they’re getting to know food. Be prepared and patient.
Julieta: Always present food in a safe way to avoid choking during the weaning stage. They’re still learning to chew and control their swallowing, so it’s vital that you cut up fruit and vegetables into finger-shaped pieces to make it easier for them to digest.
Q: What is the most effective way to create a well-balanced menu? Is there any key nutrient guidance practitioners should consider?
Louise: This is a huge subject and, as a result, there are lots of conflicting messages. It’s important to keep things simple. Avoid sugar and additives as they provide no nutritional benefit.
Introduce mild spices and different cultures too – this is something I think some restaurants get wrong at times by ‘kiddifying’ meals when they could be providing a greater range of age-appropriate food with more taste.
Julieta: ‘Eat better, start better’ is a practical guide to follow. If all four groups are included in the day/week – at their advised quantities – it provides all the nutrients the child needs.
Q: Encouraging and maintaining healthy eating habits shouldn’t just be a priority within the childcare setting, it should translate into the home too. What role does parent-practitioner communication play in helping to achieve this? How can they work together effectively?
Louise: There does need to be a joined-up approach but it’s often hard for nurseries to tell parents, “they could concentrate more if they didn’t have sugary cereals in a morning.” You can’t really say those things as a practitioner, but it’s important to see how you can work together to develop a child’s diet.
Feeding a child is very emotional and we get offended when told we’re doing it wrong. As nutritionists, we shouldn’t be ‘preachy’ either – it’s about being both educative and communicative.
Julieta: It’s important that practitioners understand children’s nutrition and why the nursery’s menu has been designed that way. It should enable them to communicate with parents confidently when covering what their child has eaten or tried. Working alongside parents can also help to further understand eating habits at home and find common ground in terms of healthy choices.
Q: A recent report from Nursery World found that the obesity rate for Reception children – aged four and five – has risen from 9.7 to 9.9 per cent. And children living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in more affluent areas. With regards to nutrition, what steps can EY practitioners take to help make a positive difference to a child's health?
Louise: Don’t just fill your child up, instead understand the huge impact that nutrition has on their body. It’s worth looking at the neuroscience behind food intake, which details how our eating habits are formed, which nutrients provide the best level of brain development, and our emotional attachments that can lead to comfort eating. You’re not just feeding children, you’re shaping their current – and future – health.
Julieta: This really shows the importance of providing healthy meals and portion control at the nursery. Practitioners play a critical part as role models to promote, and encourage, children to not only eat healthy and nutritious meals, but teach them how to develop healthy choices.
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