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/

Supporting healthy food provision during COVID-19

Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services across Australia have been feeling the impacts of COVID-19, including the challenge of continuing to provide a healthy menu to children in care.

State and territory regulatory bodies support a ‘common sense’ approach to regulation on food provision during this time. They understand that ECEC services are experiencing supply issues and may need support to meet children’s nutritional needs. Please check with your state or territory regulatory authority for further information.

The National Nutrition Network – ECEC has compiled a list of tips and resources to support services and cooks to continue to meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines and support children’s health and wellbeing during this time.

Consider ingredient substitutions

If you have experienced difficulties in sourcing regular ingredients, Early Childhood Australia and the Healthy Eating Advisory Service have compiled some helpful tips on food swaps and alternative suppliers on their websites. The Nutrition Australia Qld (NAQ) Nutrition’s Food Foundations Program has put together a tip sheet for ingredient swaps.

The Australian Childcare Alliance has developed a video: Adapting Children’s Service menus around food shortages inresponse to food shortages as well.

Include variety and key food groups

Aim to provide a variety of food and drinks from the five-food groups, and try to include a mix of colours and textures! The five food groups are:

  • vegetables and legumes/beans
  • fruit
  • grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
  • lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • milk, yoghurt cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat.

Discretionary foods (such as ones with high sugar, high fat or high salt content) are not recommended for inclusion on an ECEC service menu. The ‘healthy eating for children’ brochure from the Eat for Health website provides a guide to the types and amounts of food each child needs daily and also identifies substitutes within each food group.

If meat is not accessible consider using legumes or other protein rich plant-based alternatives. This Munch & Move program tip-sheet on creating a healthy vegetarian meal for ECEC services highlights the need for protein, iron and vitamin C sources and an additional tip-sheet that suggests ways to include iron rich foods in menus.

Recipe ideas

The following sites provide recipes suitable for ECEC:

Food safety and supply

Effective hygiene and food safety practices are always important to ensure children and staff remain healthy. Studies suggest that coronavirus (COVID-19) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions such as the type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment.

There is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food.

For trusted and up to date advice about coronavirus hygiene and food safety advice, head to:

Remember, you are not alone

Reach out for nutrition support from established resource hubs and programs. Read on to see what is available across most states and territories in Australia.

QLD & NT 

Food Foundations Program 

Food Foundations is Queensland’s early years nutrition and food safety program and provides tools, training and resources for best practice in nutrition, menu planning, meal times and food safety. Services provided include online resources, consultancy and in-person and online professional development training.   

NSW 

Munch & Move 

Munch & Move is NSW Health initiative that supports the healthy development of children birth to 5 years by promoting physical activity, healthy eating and reduced small screen time. Munch & Move offers free professional development training and resources to educators working in NSW early childhood education and care services. 

ACT

ACT Nutrition Support Services

The ACT Nutrition Support Service is an initiative of Nutrition Australia ACT Inc, supported by the ACT Government. Through its professional advice this service can support staff and management to give children the best start in life with Nutrition and Food Handling Courses, menu assessments, parent information sessions and more.

Food&ME Preschool

A course that provides practical ideas and materials to support the delivery of nutrition education to preschool students using the Food&ME Preschool Curriculum resource. Food&ME Preschool is mapped to the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Standards.

TAS 

Healthy Kids online 

On Healthy Kids online you will find information on: 

  • how and what to feed young children  
  • how you can help create healthy places and spaces in your community
  • active play ideas for under fives 
  • looking after teeth.

VIC 

Healthy Eating Advisory Service 

The Healthy Eating Advisory Service provides free support for early childhood services in Victoria to provide and promote healthy foods and drinks. Visit the website for:

  • tips for promoting healthy eating during coronavirus
  • menu planning guidelines and assessments  
  • online training  
  • advice on promoting healthy eating 
  • allergies and intolerances 
  • healthy recipes. 

WA 

SNAC (Supporting Nutrition in Australian Childcare)

A support site for education and care centres and early years educators.  This is a place to connect with other childcare professionals to share experiences, ideas and thoughts and to build a network of support. There are many reliable, accurate resources to help you provide a healthy eating environment at your centre, including recipes and factsheets.

About the authors.

Amy Wakem and Lara Hernandez co-lead the intervention stream of the National Nutrition Network-Early Childhood Education and Care (NNN-ECEC). The NNN-ECEC’s mission is to promote best practice food provision within education and care services to facilitate health, nutrition and positive developmental outcomes for children.

Amy is a dietitian with the Healthy Eating Advisory Service, which is delivered by Nutrition Australia Vic Division with support from the Victorian Government.

Lara is the manager for the NSW Health Munch & Move program.