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/

Keeping children’s food safe

Correct food safety practices are integral to the provision of safe food for children (National Quality Standard (NQS) Quality Area 2, Children’s Health and Safety).

ACECQA spoke with Nutrition Australia Queensland’s Nutritionist and Food Safety Auditor Abbey Warren who shared some key tips and advice for keeping children’s food safe.

Abbey notes that as a result of their developing immune systems, children under the age of five years are vulnerable to food poisoning and at a greater risk of developing serious health complications.

Abbey shared that in her role as a food safety auditor specialising in the food safety requirements of vulnerable populations, including early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, she has seen varying levels of food safety compliance.

“Everyone working within an ECEC environment has a responsibility to keep food safe, regardless of whether food is cooked on site by a chef or cook, delivered by a catering company or brought in by families” Abbey said.

Abbey shared her top three critical reflection points on food safety. These are all centred around the most commonly seen areas of non-compliance with accepted food handling standards and behaviours.

1. Do all staff have the skills and knowledge to care for food safely?

Anyone involved in the stages of food handling must have the skills and knowledge to do so safely. The chef or cook in the kitchen requires different skills and knowledge ie. Food safety supervisor training, compared to an educator who is involved in serving food to children who has had more basic training and general food safety knowledge and skills.

It is important that knowledge is current and reflected on frequently. A regular food safety agenda item at staff meetings is an effective way of ensuring food safety knowledge is current and at the forefront of mind. One month, it may cover correct hand washing and another month, it may cover food storage or cleaning. This is integral in ensuring that food safety remains a priority in the service.

The correct skills and knowledge of everyone involved in food handling is an important safeguard to promote the health and safety of children while minimising risks and protecting children from harm (NQS Quality Area 2).

2. Are the facilities appropriate for the amount and type of food being stored?

All food storage areas must be clean, pest free and well maintained (NQS Element 3.1.2). Food must be in sealed containers or bags and correctly labelled with the product name, opened date and best before date.

Items must be stored in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. If a product is opened, it is important that the storage instructions are followed. Storage instructions may state that the products must be refrigerated after opening or stored in a cool dry place. These requirements should always be checked and followed before storing foods.

It is important to consider that Dry storage areas include pantries, cupboards or rooms where low risk foods are stored.

Abbey’s top tips to ensure the food in your fridge stays at the correct temperature include:

  • Avoid overloading
  • Ensure hot food has stopped steaming before putting it into the fridge
  • Minimise the time the door is held open
  • If lunchboxes or insulated lunch bags are brought in by families, ensure there is enough space to store these in a fridge and that insulated bags are unzipped to allow cool air to circulate.

3. Is food cooked or reheated to safe temperatures?

Cooking and heating food kills off pathogenic microorganisms if the correct temperatures are reached.

It is important to consider the following:

Cooking temperature – Potentially hazardous foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and cooked rice and pasta are required to be cooked to an internal temperature above 75°C to ensure any pathogenic microorganisms in the products are killed off.

Reheating temperature – Once potentially hazardous foods have been cooked above 75°C and then cooled for later use, they can then be reheated once to a temperature above 60°C.

To ensure the safety of cooked and reheated food:

  • Test internal food temperature with a probe thermometer and document temperature reached
  • Ensure thermometers are cleaned and sanitised after every use
  • Cooked and reheated food will need to be cooled for a short period of time to allow it to drop to a safe temperature for children to consume. Portioning food into small bowls/plates will help speed up cooling time
  • Prevent cooling food from contamination.

Young children are a highly vulnerable group when it comes to food poisoning and it is important that we all take every practical measure possible to ensure their safety while they attend a service.

Reflecting on your own food safety practices and the measures in place at your service is important to do regularly due to the ever changing nature of the food environment. Doing so will highlight what is being done well and what may require improvement to ensure the provision of safe food for children. For more information, refer to the Guide to the NQF Quality Area 2.

Creating positive mealtimes

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone shares her insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest. 

Mealtimes at education and care services offer many rich opportunities to promote positive outcomes for children. Positive mealtimes are not only about nutritional requirements – they can shape children’s learning, development, health and wellbeing.

They involve every child enjoying nutritious and culturally appropriate food and snacks in a social, responsive, pleasurable, safe and educative environment. They also demonstrate outcomes from each National Quality Standard (NQS) quality area.

I encourage you to view your current mealtimes with a positive mealtime ‘lens’ and use these reflective questions to inspire conversations with your team.

1. Does your physical environment promote positive mealtimes?

The physical environment (NQS Quality Area 3) influences quality practice and has a significant impact on mealtimes and the potential for social interaction, learning, inclusion, safety, and wellbeing. The change in mood when we eat outdoors is a perfect example of this impact.

The components of this physical environment are broad, including everything from table and chair arrangements and table settings to noise levels and serving utensils.

Each service has a unique environment, and few have access to purpose-built, family-style dining areas. Food may also be brought from home to be eaten at the service. In outside-school-hours care services, food may be eaten on a bench or in a hall that requires daily transformation.

Whatever the environment, consider these questions:

  • Mealtime location: Does it promote a sense of belonging? Does it support mealtimes being social and relaxed occasions where children have time to eat, choose and interact, or does it uphold mealtimes as a rushed routine?
  • Is the environment child-centred? Do furniture and utensils suit different ages and sizes of children? Does the space accommodate children’s developing skills and independence and the inherent ‘mess’ that can sometime come with it?
  • Inclusion: Can each child access, participate and engage in mealtimes? Does the environment reflect and respect children’s needs?
  • Table settings: Do table and chair arrangements promote social interaction and engagement between children and between educators and children? Do table settings support mealtimes as an occasion?
  • Agency: Does the environment promote children’s agency and self-help skills? E.g. setting tables; finding their place; sharing food; serving food; processing waste.
  • Connection to the broader food environment: Is there a connection between mealtime and other food environments? This connection could be physical (e.g. the dining area is next to the kitchen; garden produce is used in meals); social (e.g. the cook has a relationship with children and educators; garden produce is shared with families); or through the educational program (e.g. the kitchen, garden, mealtimes or composting are used for learning experiences).
  • Transitions: Are transitions to and from mealtime environments respectful to children and calm?

2. Do mealtimes nurture relationships?

Secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships are fundamental principles of the approved learning frameworks, and relationships between children and with children are integral to NQS Quality Area 5.

Connections with others support the development of children’s identity and social and emotional competence. Research has confirmed the nature, quality and consistency of interactions between educators and children is one of the most important influences on quality education and care.

Mealtimes are intrinsically social and offer regular opportunities to have positive interactions, build secure relationships, learn from one another, provide emotional support, promote language and inspire learning.

You could also consider:

  • Positive interactions: Educators who consistently model positive interactions and mealtime skills will support children’s development.
  • Relationship building opportunities: Are educators able to sit with children at mealtimes or is attention focused on simultaneously serving, cleaning, supervising, setting up environments or doing paperwork? Quality interactions and relationships need quality time and attention.

3. Do mealtimes promote holistic health?

Healthy eating is integral to promoting children’s health (NQS Quality Area 2), with physical, social and emotional health all being nurtured by positive meals times.  A healthy menu (or healthy food brought from home) provides a firm foundation for health.

For holistic health, the healthy menu needs to be provided safely and in a health-promoting environment that also considers social and emotional health and wellbeing. The mealtime environment, relationships and staffing are important influences.

Beyond the firm foundation of a healthy menu, you could promote positive social and emotional health and wellbeing by:

  • Creating positive mealtimes that are social, relaxed and calm
  • Actively involving children in mealtimes
  • Never using food as a punishment or reward
  • Not discussing food in relation to a child’s weight or size
  • Not labelling foods as good/bad/clean/junk; instead, talk about ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes/treat’ foods
  • Respecting children’s appetites and preferences and never forcing children to eat
  • Respecting children’s cultural diversity and the values and beliefs of families (NQS Quality Area 6)
  • Being respectful of children and families when food choices or food brought from home are inconsistent with food and nutrition policies
  • Ensuring the menu reflects the needs of the children and community.

4. Are mealtimes a part of the educational program?

Positive mealtimes offer immense opportunity for each child’s learning and development to be enhanced and extended (NQS Quality Area 1).

Mealtimes allow children to learn about:

  • their identity (I prefer certain foods. My family celebrates our culture with food.)
  • relationships (When we sit for lunch, we share the milk. I like to sit next to my friend so I can talk to them.)
  • their community (We grow mint in our garden. Our cook’s name is Sam.)
  • literacy (My name card has an ‘A’. I can explain how to chop fruit.)
  • numeracy (There are six people at our table. I can make a pattern with my peas.), and
  • their world (Pancakes are made from wheat. When I have food in my mouth I don’t try and talk at the same time).

Connecting the mealtime environment to the kitchen, garden and waste processing also supports learning and development.

5. Does staffing organisation and leadership promote positive mealtimes?

Positive mealtimes require supportive staffing arrangements (NQS Quality Area 4) and effective leadership (NQS Quality Area 7).

For mealtimes to be social, responsive, pleasurable, safe and educative, educators need to be seen as an important part of them. Staffing at mealtimes can be challenging as staff responsibilities and meal breaks are juggled.

Positive mealtimes that are embedded in practice are visible in policies, procedures and programs, and guided by the service philosophy.

Further reading and resources

ACECQA – Information Sheet – Relationships with children

ACECQA – Information Sheet – Supporting agency: Involving children in decision-making

ACECQA – Information Sheet – The environment as “The Third Teacher’

Department of Health – Resources – Get up and Grow: Healthy eating and physical activity

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – Resources – Pleasurable food education

 

Should a Paleolithic diet be offered at early childhood education and care services?

Supporting Nutrition for Australian Childcare (SNAC) was developed by researchers at the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University. The website provides guidance and resources about nutrition and healthy eating environments for children’s education and care services, as well as an online community focused on supporting practice. Dr Ruth Wallace and Angela Genoni from SNAC talk to We Hear You about the key elements of a Paleolithic diet and how the diet might impact on children’s growth, development and health.

The idea of offering children Paleo foods – more lean meat and fish and less discretionary foods – may sound like a healthy way to go, but is it? Before you go down that road, let’s stop to consider whether such a diet will give the children you nurture and care for enough energy to grow, play and learn. There is a lot more you should understand about the Paleo way of eating before you offer this at your early childhood education and care (ECEC) service.

What does it mean to be Paleo?

The main principle of following a Paleo diet is to eat the foods our ancestors ate thousands of years ago during the Paleolithic Age. These foods include lean meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Foods that became staples when farming began around 10,000 years ago are not typically included in a paleo diet. For example, grains such as wheat and barley (used to bake bread), pasta and rice, beans and other legumes, dairy products, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and more recently highly processed foods such as chips, cakes, cookies, processed meats and ready meals (Cordain, 2011).

So can Paleo foods provide enough fuel for children?

Some research has shown that adults following a strict Paleo diet have reported losing weight, lowered blood pressure and other benefits from ‘going paleo’ (Masharani, et al., 2015), since this way of eating typically cuts out added sugars, salt and discretionary foods. While eating more vegetables and fruit is a positive, there is no research showing the diet is beneficial over the longer term (Mellberg, et al., 2014; Genoni, et al., 2016).

Children are a different story as their bodies and brains are growing and developing rapidly. They need a wide range of healthy foods from all five core food groups to ensure a sufficient intake of energy and nutrients to fuel this period of rapid growth and development, and to ensure they remain fit and healthy (NHMRC, 2013). Providing children with foods only from the Paleo diet actually removes two whole core food groups (dairy and cereals/grains), and even some vegetables that are recommended as part of a balanced diet. Most health professionals would not recommend the Paleo diet for young children.

What else should you know?

Eating the Paleo way takes a lot of planning: Since the diet relies heavily on nuts, and many ECEC services are nut-free, children may not consume sufficient energy without the inclusion of nuts at mealtime. It is also likely to blow the food budget as protein sources such as meat and fish are more expensive than vegetables and grains that are the bulk of a healthy balanced diet.

Children will need to find sufficient fuel from other foods: Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains readily provide sufficient energy and B vitamins to allow children to grow and be active. If foods such as rice and wholegrain bread are not provided, children will have to use other key macronutrients for fuel such as protein and fat, which may result in stunted growth, failure to thrive and other nutrient deficiencies (Brown, 2008; Desrosiers, et al., 2018).

Too much meat may be harmful to children’s health: Following the Paleo diet focuses heavily on meat, so children could be eating more unhealthy saturated fat than is recommended (NHMRC, 2013).

Future harms: Teaching children to avoid whole food groups may also lead to disordered eating in later life (Hart, et al., 2014).

The verdict?

Avoiding discretionary foods is a positive aspect of the Paleo diet, but existing guidelines already stipulate that discretionary foods should be limited in early childhood education and care and should not feature on the daily menu. More importantly, there is no research evidence to suggest following a Paleo diet is safe for the health of young children.

To ensure children optimise their growth and development, and have the energy to play and enjoy life, here are some simple, yet healthy tips to follow:

  1. Offer a wide variety of foods daily from all five core food groups, including lots of different colours and textures.
  2. Choose nutritious whole foods that have been minimally processed.
  3. Limit discretionary foods, which are energy dense and nutrient poor, and which displace other nutritious foods important for children’s growth and development.
  4. Allow children to self-serve at mealtimes from a wide range of healthy foods – this will support social and emotional development, and help children recognise their own hunger cues.
  5. Be a good role model. Sit with children at mealtimes, share the same healthy food, and offer them gentle encouragement to try foods they are unsure about.

As early years educators, yours is an important role in teaching children about healthy food choices that will enable them to be active and engaged learners, and for long-term health benefits later in life. If you should receive any special dietary requests that are not supported by a medical certificate, do not comply with Element 2.1.3 (food and drinks provided should be in accordance with the Australian Dietary Guidelines), or you are simply not sure about, seek further advice from your service director, or visit the SNAC website.

References

Brown, J. (2008) Nutrition Through the Life Cycle (3rd ed.), Thomson Higher Education, Belmont, USA.

Cordain, L. (2011) The Paleo Diet, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey.

Desrosiers, T., et al. (2018) ’Low carbohydrate diets may increase risk of neural tube defects’, Birth Defects Research, DOI: 10.1002/bdr2.1198

Genoni, A., et al. (2016) ’Cardiovascular, Metabolic Effects and Dietary Composition of Ad-Libitum Paleolithic vs. Australian Guide to Healthy Eating Diets: A 4-Week Randomised Trial’, Nutrients, vol. 8, no. 5, p. E314.

Hart, L., et al. (2014) ’Parenting to avoid body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating patterns in preschool children: A Delphi consensus study’, Body Image, vol. 11, pp.  418-425.

Masharani, U., et al. (2015) ’Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes’, European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 69, no. 8, pp. 944-948.

Mellberg, C., et al. (2014) ’Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial’, European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 68, no. 3, pp. 350-357.

National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines, NHMRC, Canberra.