The early years of childhood are the critical ones for developing life long eating habits and food preferences. During the age group 2 to 6 years, Children become very responsive to the external exposures like media advertisements of food items, fancy displays of candies and junk food in the markets and special offers like free toys with kid’s meals in the restaurants etc. These messages create a great influence on children’s decisions about what they should eat. By the age of six, children tend to lose their tendency to eat primarily in response to hunger, but they prefer eating calorie-rich sweet and junk food like candies, chocolates, pastries, shakes, ice-creams etc…..
Adults offer children some healthy options like fruits and vegetables, but in a coercive manner which is not at all appealing for them. Parents put some conditions like they have to finish these vegetables or fruits prior to having dessert or before leaving the dining table. Instead of forcing the healthy eating habits, parents must use a positive approach to foster healthy food behaviours which helps children develop young children long term habits that are helpful in avoiding the nutritional disorders and also avoiding obesity.
Nutrition and young children
There is a new challenge to early educators and the parents to guide children in developing healthy eating and activity habits. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is ideal for achieving a healthy body status. It is recommended that pre school children should eat 3-5 half cup servings of vegetables and 2-4 half cup servings of fruits daily. However, on average preschool children are not consuming what is recommended by the dieticians. Their diets are typically low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy contents, but high in saturated fats, sodium, added sugars and artificial chemical flavours.
Role of early education in improving the diets of young children
Early childhood educators interact with the children daily and they have an impact on child’s mind too, so they have the opportunity to improve children’s food habits to some extent. Teachers and family members can influence a child’s food habits by providing healthy food choices, offering them to prepare/cook and eat new foods and also playing role models through their own food choices. A preschool child becomes comfortable and familiar with its taste and texture in 5 to 10 exposures to a new food. Children often change their reactions from rejection to acceptance, when they have repeated opportunities to taste something new.
Teachers and parents can provide an ideal setting for healthy food awareness by allowing children to observe and care for food giving plants and develop a connection to the natural world.
One example of such project in a preschool can be as follows-
Expose the children to six vegetable various times over the course of few weeks of the curriculum. Some recopies could be developed for cooking/preparing snacks, salads or meals using those six vegetable. It could include some healthy ingredients, dairy products, healthy fats, whole grains and some amount of salt or sugar.
Each recipe could accompany a sensory exploration activity that features the same vegetable. The child smells each vegetable, feel the shape and touch its various parts and notice how it looks before tasting it raw or the outcome of a prepared recipe. It involves the children in exploring the parts of the plants by using all of their senses.
The next step includes the cooking process. After exploring the vegetable, children are eager to participate in cooking and tasting process. The teachers encourage the children to perform developmentally appropriate steps like measuring, cutting with safe tools, mixing the ingredients and then helping in preparing and serving the food.
Finally, at the end of the curriculum section, each vegetable is featured few times. In the beginning children use their senses to explore the vegetable, this is followed by a cooking activity featuring a special recipe designed keeping in mind the health aspect. At the end of the week, this recipe kit and cooking tips could be sent to home so that family involvement is also there. The purpose of this activity is to help families reinforce the healthy food preparation and eating experience that children had at preschool.
Few suggestions could be kept in mind while framing such activities for children.
• Invite children to serve the food themselves. Initially with one small serving then the second serving if they liked it.
• Encourage the child to share the positive comments and enthusiasm.
• Praise the children for preparing the snack. Many of them participated in this activity, so thank them for putting the efforts in making the delicious food.
• Ask the children about how they made it, the ingredients used or so on.
• Engage the children in some pleasant conversations related to the health benefits of particular vegetable of food which they made.