Introducing new foods to children in education and care services

This month we hear from the National Nutrition Network – Early Childhood Education and Care (‘the Network’). This group of academics, researchers and implementers promote best practice nutrition and healthy eating in the early years throughout Australia. The Network provides practical resources based on research that support children’s education and care services to promote healthy eating. ACECQA would like to thank Amy Wakem, Lara Hernandez, Shabnam Kashef and Caryn Maslen for their contribution to our learning community. 

What’s all the fuss about fussy eaters?

Fussy eating is a phase that many children go through. Up to 50% of all 0-3-year-old children refuse to eat new and different foods at least half the time [1]. For some children, fussy eating tendencies are short-lived, but for others, they can last for much longer.

In a supportive eating environment, children can tell when they are hungry, when they are full and they can self-regulate their eating behaviours. It is their caregiver’s role to provide nutritious food, decide how often food is offered (through routine meal and snack times), and provide a relaxed child-friendly mealtime environment. This should include using appropriately sized utensils for children, as well as sitting and eating with the children. A child’s role is to choose whether to eat what has been provided and how much. 

It can take up to 10 or more exposures to a new food before a child may feel comfortable with it [2]. Mouthing a food (moving it around in the mouth but not swallowing) may be misinterpreted as a rejection of that food, however, this can be part of the acceptance process. Infants and young children learn how to self-feed and explore food using all of their senses, including touch, smell and taste. This is an important part of the development process. 

To create a child-friendly mealtime, avoid pressuring children to eat everything on their plate, and try not to make a big deal if they refuse a certain food. Forcing or bribing a child to eat can make them forget their own hunger and fullness cues. Educators who recognise how a child is eating by nodding and smiling rather than providing lots of praise or commenting on what has or has not been eaten are encouraging a child to respond to their own cues. 

Remember, too, that persistence is key. Keep offering a variety of foods, include food-based experiences (for example, cooking activities, designing a vegetable patch and growing and picking vegetables), and seek support from others when you need it. 

Encouraging children to try new foods

There are many different ways that educators and service leaders can encourage children to try new foods. 

You can encourage children to become familiar with new foods by:

  • Creating a children’s garden space where they plant, grow and harvest different foods. It doesn’t have to be big, growing herbs is a good place to start!
  • Reading books about different foods helps introduce children to food from around the world and increase their language of food. 
  • Offering a variety of nutritious food to children regularly which considers the individual dietary, health or cultural needs of each child (National Regulations 78 and 79).
  • Providing regular cooking experiences where children can explore texture, colour and smell, for example, grating, cutting and peeling carrots or apples. 

Take a whole-of-service approach and involve everyone in your service community by:

  • Role modelling healthy eating, helping to create relaxed mealtime environments and encouraging children to try new foods.
  • Planning menus with children and the service cook/chef that provide opportunities for children to try a variety of foods in a variety of meals and ways. 
  • Providing a range of resources that support children’s changing interest in fruit, vegetables and different foods. 
  • Respecting different food preferences by involving families in the decision making process when planning healthy eating activities and changing seasonal menus (Standard 6.1, Element 6.1.2). Ask families to share recipes of their child’s favourite home or cultural foods and include these on the menu. 
  • Regularly communicate with families and your community about how foods are introduced to children and the healthy eating activities happening at the service. Services should be displaying the weekly menu for families to review, including what the child has been given to eat each day (National Regulation 80). You can also create a visual display or share information through your communication channels such as your newsletter or Facebook page. 
  • Incorporating discussions about food and healthy eating habits into the daily program to encourage each child to make their own food choices. (NQS Standard 2.1).

Consider these reflective questions at your next staff meeting

  • How could you incorporate activities that involve new foods into your everyday program?
  • How do your current practices encourage children to try new foods in a supportive and positive way at mealtimes?
  • What information can you share with families about fussy eating, trying new foods and how you plan healthy eating activities? 
  • How do you share information about children’s mealtimes with families? Does your service display the menu, and how is this information presented to ensure it is accessible and informative (National Regulation 80. Is the menu engaging and interactive?
  • How does your service plan for children’s food preferences and requirements, including cultural or specific dietary needs? (NQS Standard 2.1)

Fussy eating is a part of children’s development, and support for families, educators and teachers is available. Seek out more information and activity ideas to introduce new foods, starting with the resource list below.

Resources to support and continue your learning

  • For tools and resources with a vegetable focus go to VegKit, which provides tools and resources to support approved providers, cooks, teachers and educators as they seek to increase children’s vegetable intake.
  • For other helpful advice on understanding fussy eating in children and healthy eating in general go to Start Them Right, a guide for parents on how and what to feed children from birth to five years. The Growing Good Habits website has information on fussy eaters to share with your families too. 

[1] Better Health Channel, Toddlers and fussy eating, Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria. Accessed, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/toddlers-and-fussy-eating

[2] Nekitsing C, Blundell-Birtill P, Cockroft JE, Hetherington MM. Systematic review and meta-analysis of strategies to increase vegetable consumption in preschool children aged 2–5 years. Appetite. 2018 Aug 1;127:138-54. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29702128/

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