We know that the eating habits and food preferences developed in early childhood leads the way for a lifetime eating behaviours. Many of these eating behaviours are underpinned by social and cultural practices which are among the first lessons we teach our children – you may teach your child to sit at the table and eat with a spoon, or you may teach your child that meal times are spent sitting on the floor and eating with chop sticks, such as the custom in Japan.
There is obviously no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to developing a food identity, but beyond these social and cultural relationships with food, there are several universal concepts that provide a foundation ‘nutrition curriculum’ that will guide you in teaching your children healthy eating behaviours and a joy of nutritious foods.
Lesson 1: Opportunity, access, exposure
In order for a child to learn to eat a nutritious diet they need to be provided a nutritious diet – seems pretty straight forward right?
Well it is.
If you want your child to eat well, you need to ensure they have the opportunity to try nutritious foods on a regular basis. And I don’t mean every couple of days, I mean at a variety of times across the day, every day. They also need to be able to access nutritious foods and be within an environment that exposes them to the food you want them to be enjoying – so put the biscuit tin back in the cupboard, put the fruit bowl on the bench and keep ready to eat veggies, like carrot sticks, tin corn and cherry tomatoes, at eye level in the fridge.
Lesson 2: Role Model
Beyond providing opportunity, access and exposure to nutritious foods, role modelling is key to teaching your children to eating and enjoying a wide variety of foods.
Nutritional concepts, food behaviours and eating habits are taught to your children every day through the way you role model them and the attitudes and associations you exhibit. It’s likely that you are not even aware of many of the food attitudes and associations you are role modelling. These can be simple associations such as desert is a reward for eating vegetables at dinner, which implies the vegetables were unenjoyable and need rewarding, or more extreme associations like, ‘if I eat food X I will get fat, which is undesirable because people won’t like me’, or I don’t feel good about myself but I will make myself feel better with food,’ (the latter two are typically an association made due to a parents low self-esteem and poor self-worth).
It is important that you role model the food behaviours, attitudes and associations you want for your child, take the action needed for you to develop them, and address any underlying issues which manifest as food associations.
Lesson 3: Food Literacy
It is well understood that poor food behaviours are often a consequence of limited food literacy knowledge and skills, and as such development of your own food literacy skills may need to be a critical course of action to improve the food behaviours you are role modelling.
Food literacy skills include basic cooking, shopping, growing and sourcing foods, food preparation, and food storage skills which provide a foundation for lifelong healthy eating habits.
In my opinion it is essential for a child (or adult) to have these fundamental food literacy skills under their belt before worrying about “academic” nutrition. In fact, this curriculum should be consider progressive, in that lessons 1, 2 and 3 need to be mastered before moving on to lesson 4.
Lesson 4: Simple Grouping
Once lessons 1, 2 and 3 have been mastered, the “academics” of nutrition can be introduced. The way in which this is done will largely depend on your child’s age, but at the most basic level food can be grouped in several simple ways for the purpose of teaching about a healthy diet.
Most simply food can be considered as those that are essential and those that are non-essential. Grouping foods in terms of those “our body needs,” or “every day foods,” and those that “our body doesn’t need,” or “sometimes food,” is appropriate from around 2 ½ years of age. From this you can progress to the Traffic Light system where foods are colour coded with ‘green,’ as the best choice, ‘amber,’ to be chosen carefully, or ‘red,’ to be limited.
To be honest, my children haven’t overly been exposed to the traffic light system, but rather have a strong foundation in ‘essential’ verse ‘non-essential’ foods (as well as strong role modelling, and opportunity, exposure and access to nutritious foods) and have then moved on to becoming familiar with the 5 core food groups. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating is the key teaching tool in nutrition from this point on. It can be used to explore each of the food groups, the proportions in which they should contribute to the diet across the day, the different macro and micro nutrients each food group provides and the role they have within the body.
Although it is great to have an “academic” understanding of nutrition I truly believe it is of much greater value to teach a child the skills they need to prepare and enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods as this provides them with a foundation for good health for life.
- Nikki -
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.