Jenni Clarke discusses the important role early years practitioners can play in helping young children to develop good eating habits

‘Good nutrition is important for all, especially for those younger than five years as these years are demanding for the developing child. They are the years in which children acquire many of the physical attributes and the social and psychological structures for life and learning’. (British Medical Association 2005)

Statistics from the World Health Organisation show that 22 million children in the world under the age of five years are severely overweight. In the UK childhood obesity has increased significantly since 1995 and continues to do so. Young children grow and learn at an astonishing rate and should be physically very active, as physical activity develops muscle tone and neural connections in the brain. In order to have the energy required to grow, move and learn, young children need nourishing food and plenty of water. A varied diet will provide all the different proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals a young child needs. A good diet also improves concentration and energy levels, thereby increasing children’s learning potential. A healthy diet in childhood can help to prevent anaemia, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity in later life.

Healthy eating policy

The Ofsted publication, Starting Early (July 2004) notes that having a policy on healthy eating increases the chances of children developing good eating habits. A policy helps all the staff in the setting to understand the objectives of a healthy eating approach and to appreciate the reasons why snacks and meal times are run as they are. In addition, parents are aware of the setting’s goals and approach to promoting a healthy lifestyle.

A good healthy eating policy will include:

  • The reasons that underpin healthy eating in the setting.
  • Key aims focusing on health and wellbeing.
  • Key messages about food and nutrition.
  • How these messages will be coordinated and conveyed.
  • How everyone, including parents and carers, will know how to contribute to the promotion of healthy eating.
  • How staff will be trained, so that knowledge and skills are developed to ensure consistent messages are given to the children.
  • How the setting’s practice will be monitored and reviewed.

What constitutes a healthy diet for young children?
(The word ‘diet’ in this context is used to refer to general nutritional needs rather than a ‘specialised diet’ in order to lose weight.)

A healthy diet is one with variety including plenty of water, enough protein for growth and repair, sufficient carbohydrates to provide the energy young children use, small amounts of fat as a source of essential fatty acids for cell growth, iron and calcium for blood and bones to grow strong, vitamin D for healthy bones and zinc and magnesium to support the immune system. ‘Variety of food’ refers not to how much you consume of one food type or how often you eat it, but to the range of foods that are eaten. Encouraging children to try a variety of different vegetables, meats and fruits will not only ensure a balance of nutrition, but also means they consume enough fibre to keep the digestive system healthy.

Key points to remember when thinking about a healthy diet for young children:

  • Young children should not be placed on low-fat diets, but need to be encouraged to eat a variety of foods.
  • They should be encouraged to drink plenty of water rather than drinks high in sugar and additives.
  • It is important for children to begin the day with a nutritious breakfast, as their bodies continue to use up energy for growing even when they are asleep. A nutritious breakfast ensures that the child has enough energy for all the activities of the day, including growing and learning.
  • Young children have small stomachs but use up large amounts of energy – they may need to eat little and often.
  • The nutritional value of food will be affected by how it is grown, stored and prepared. Simple baking, boiling and grilling of either fresh or frozen food will help to retain the best nutritional content.

Maintaining a balance of good health
The nutritional advice produced by the Food Standards Agency entitled The Balance of Good Health is applicable to children of five and over. This also provides a good guideline for younger children, although they may need more calcium and fat in their diet.

The Balance of Good Health is a pictorial guide that groups foods together into five categories. These are:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • breads, other cereals and potatoes
  • milk and dairy foods
  • meat, fish, eggs, soya, beans and pulses
  • foods containing sugars and foods containing fats.

A healthy balanced diet contains more foods from the first two groups and a smaller number of foods from the next two groups. Foods from the fifth group – those containing fats and/or sugar – should be eaten sparingly and not as a substitute for foods from the other four groups.

The Balance of Good Health also provides eight general guidelines on healthy eating which are applicable to all of us:

  • Enjoy your food.
  • Eat a variety of different foods.
  • Eat the right amount to be a healthy weight.
  • Eat plenty of foods rich in starch and fibre.
  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Don’t eat too many foods that contain a lot of fat.
  • Don’t have sugary foods and drinks too often.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink sensibly (no alcohol for young children!).

Eating fruit and vegetables as an alternative to crisps and sweets as a snack between meals is a good way to start introducing young children to a healthy, balanced diet. Fruit, vegetables and salads are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and other components which boost the immune system. They also provide an excellent combination of fluid and fibre to help prevent constipation in young children.

How you can help young children to develop healthy eating habits
Early years settings have an important role to play in encouraging young children to develop healthy eating habits. They are naturally social places, where children can learn from other children as well as from adults, and the staff have daily contact with parents and other carers.

Acting as a role model
Children learn much about the world through watching and imitating others – they need to see adults demonstrating healthy eating and drinking habits in order to develop their own.

Most settings now have water freely available to the children, but how often do the adults drink the water? Drinking plenty of water is vital for a healthy lifestyle and if the adults are seen drinking the children will drink more. Some children never access water at all during the course of a session, so a system for monitoring who has accessed it and who needs some encouragement is a good idea. It could be that when a child has had a drink he puts his name on a board or puts a picture of a water drop next to his name/photo. The child can see how many drops he has by the end of a session and the adults can quickly see who is not drinking enough. The adults will of course have their names and water drops recorded too!

Snack and meal times need adults acting as good role models, not practitioners hurrying around sorting out the room, or passing plates of food around, but instead sitting, eating and talking with the children. To appreciate the importance of acting as a good role model think about the messages you are giving if you do not participate. If no adults are eating the food some children may feel apprehensive and wonder what is wrong with it. If children see others, particularly adults, eating new and unusual foods they will feel it is safe to try the food themselves.

Making eating an enjoyable social event
In the busy lives many families lead, children may be eating alone while an adult prepares a meal for other members of the family to have later, or may be eating in front of the television. The early years setting is an ideal place for redressing the balance – it is a social place, everyone is present and children can experience eating with others. They will be more likely to try new foods if they and see their friends trying them in a relaxed and happy atmosphere. There will be opportunities to talk about food, their likes and dislikes and the texture, colour and smell of different foods.

The organisation of snack time often depends on how many children there are in the room at any one time and the times the children arrive and leave. Snack time can be set up either at a specific time when everyone sits down together, or as a snack bar where children are encouraged go when they are hungry. As snack time is a social event it should not be hurried – it is important to give children time to explore and talk. Their talk does not have to be about the food – general chit-chat about their play and their homes is very valuable too. It is amazing what you can find out about children’s lives when you have the time to listen.

Remember some children will not have eaten breakfast when they arrive at the setting in the morning. This is such an important meal, especially for young children who are growing rapidly and who need a boost after fasting all night. Some settings offer a breakfast table until 9.30 in the mornings, with small jugs of cereal and milk for children to help themselves.

Providing variety
Careful planning of snack and meal times means that a wide range of food can be presented to the children in a variety of different ways. Some children will eat grated carrot for example but not sliced; or dried raisins but not grapes. Planning for variety ensures children have the opportunity to experience food that they may not have at home, such as exotic fruits or unusual vegetables.

When introducing children to new foods it is important that they have the chance to try the same food on more than one occasion. The first time they try a food it can be the fact that it is new or that they do not like the texture that makes them not want to eat it. The second time they try it, it is not so unfamiliar and their preferences may change. Remember, there are many different ways of presenting the same type of food, for example looking at and tasting fruit and talking about the colours, looking at the seeds, comparing dried and fresh fruits, comparing sizes, juicing the fruit.

Encouraging play and involvement
Playing is the main way children learn and this is no different when learning about food – children need time to explore and play with different foods. Playing involving foodstuffs can conjure up a vision of food mess and hygiene problems, but food play that has been carefully planned is very beneficial.

A variety of fruits and vegetables in a bowl for children to investigate provides opportunities to handle, explore and discuss. Using real fruit and vegetables for transactional play is far more interesting than plastic food that all feels, smells and weighs the same.

Being involved in the preparation of meals and snacks can remove some of the unfamiliarity, so that when a child sits down to eat she feels that she knows the food and that it is safe to try. Having the opportunity to decide what fruit pieces are going into her bowl gives the child a feeling of control. She can be encouraged to talk about what she has chosen and her developing tastes can be supported by comments such as ‘Well if you like that because of … then you will probably like …, would you like to try a piece?’

When trying new foods children need to know that they do not have to swallow the food. If they know they can spit it into a tissue they are less likely to be worried about putting a new type of food into their mouth.

Developing language and learning
A group snack time is an ideal opportunity for developing social and language skills. Encouraging children to talk about where a food comes from, what country it is grown in and how it is harvested can remove some of the mystery and fear of trying new food.

Taking children shopping and looking at the range of food that can be bought, or taking children to visit a dairy or a bakery is an exciting way to help them to understand about food and to realise that it will not harm them to try something different. In the process children can learn in a relaxed way about different food types, for example, which ones make the blood strong, which food contains calcium to make teeth and bones grow strong.

No food is a ‘bad’ food or a ‘good’ food, and it is important that children are not encouraged to label food as good or bad. The idea of bad food tends to promote phobias and eating disorders as well as rebellion – what is denied is desired.

Involving parents 
It is vital to keep parents informed of the setting’s policy on, and approach to, healthy eating. It is important that parents are not made to feel that they are giving their children ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ food habits at home. A healthy eating policy is a way of explaining the importance of healthy eating and can be looked on as part of the setting’s responsibility for ensuring the best standard of care for all children.

A noticeboard displaying the types of food on offer for snack time, along with photos of the children enjoying different foods, will enable parents to talk about these foods with their children. A letter sent home at the beginning of the week describing the food on offer, and how it will be presented that week, also gives parents the opportunity to talk with their child about food. Do not expect young children to remember the names of the new foods or to tell their parents about them unprompted.

Tips for parents

  • Be a good role model – it will help your health and weight too.
  • Make sure you have a good basic knowledge of what a healthy diet is, and of ways to be more active.
  • Ensure your child understands how their body changes as it develops, and that healthy lifestyle changes are to help their skin and health and are not about appearance (relevant for older children).
  • Recognise that we’re all different shapes and sizes and examine your own feelings and comments about your weight and shape, and other people’s.
  • Help your child find something they’re good at and enjoy to boost their self-worth.
  • Encourage the whole family to follow the same flexible healthy behaviours, rather than single one child out. Eat together whenever you can – eating is social as well as nourishing. Watch portion sizes for the whole family.
  • Try not to let food become a power struggle, nor a means of reward or punishment.

Ideas sheets could be made available to parents from sources such as the ‘Tips For Parents’ section of the website, the Fussy Eaters leaflet from HLFussyEaterleaflet.pdf or the Healthy Eating Parent’s Booklet from Living Every Day


Sources of further information

  • British Nutrition Foundation
  • Eating Well for Under 5s in Childcare Caroline Walker Trust
  • Food Standards Agency
  • Healthy Eating for Kids by Anita Bean (2004) A & C Black
  • Healthy Food for Happy Kids by Suzannah Olivier (2004) Simon & Schuster
  • Nutritional Guidance for Early Years: Food Choices for Children Aged 1-5 Years in Early Education and Childcare Settings Scottish Executive publications
  • Snack Time by Jenni Clarke (2005) Featherstone Education
  • The Food Our Children Eat by Joanna Blythman (2000) Fourth Estate
  • 5 a day fruit and vegetables

Jenni Clarke is the author of Time for a Snack – practical ideas on food for young children. and