Insight from the experts part 9

Start young to encourage a healthy eating lifestyle, says Sue Parfett

One of my first experiences, when we started catering services at a preparatory school was the delivery, by a father, of a Marks and Spencer meal for his daughter. She would only eat food from M&S. Whilst M&S has a well-deserved reputation for quality I am sure even they would suggest this isn’t the best diet for a small child. Not least because this was before the current food labelling standards and, in any case, these dishes would have recommended daily intake of salt, fat and sugar for an adult, not a small child. I often wonder how she is now that she must be in her late twenties. 

This was long before healthy school food hit the headlines. Today it may not happen, I would hope, as these parents would be better informed. We know now that a good diet has a positive impact on behavior, and so learning, as well as performance in education and sports. In fact, many parents choosing a school for their young offspring make the food offer a key ingredient. 

There is no doubt, when it comes to eating healthily, starting young has the biggest effect. However, for what is a daily need, food and nutrition can be frustratingly complicated. The human body is a bizarre and miraculously intricate machine, which requires a delicate balance of chemicals to run healthily.  For young children this can be quite a daunting prospect and that is where habits and familiarity become important. 

Taste is one of the biggest challenges, in trying to eat healthily.  We are programmed to find foods high in sugar, fat or carbohydrates tasty. This is because these sorts of foods were sparse in the time of our distant ancestors, who often needed high energy food to function in their fast-paced lives as hunter-gatherers. Our lives have now become far more sedentary, meaning we don’t always need the sort of energy boosts given by sugars.  However, our biological development has not kept up and a recent report by The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is advising our daily sugar intake needs to be halved.  This fundamental divide between the foods which we are programmed to crave and the foods which are healthiest, can be a contradiction that is difficult to manage in adulthood, let alone for a child. 

Educational assemblies about nutrition have been beneficial in providing some motivation for young pupils.  They allow us to deliver messages about healthy eating in a brief and comfortable setting for children. This is one of the most basic ways to put the message in the front of their minds.  As a result there is greater enthusiasm when making more informed choices about what they’re eating. 

Reinforcement is needed for the message to stick. Raw facts are only one method of communication. Many schools educate children interactively, through cookery lessons and “tasting tables”. Cookery lessons allow small groups of pupils to interact with food in an unthreatening way.  They are more willing to try food when the excitement or the group dynamic take over. This can be a new insight and which is thoroughly enjoyed by younger pupils! We have seen this develop into cooking competitions and all manner of other creative events.  Tasting tables offer small portions of exotic and unusual foods that many pupils have not tasted before.  Taking this approach can especially help young children try a wider variety of food available, useful when trying to encourage a healthier diet. 

As well as offering these immersive experiences, we can resort to incentivising healthy eating habits. For younger children this can be as simple as rewarding with stickers for eating healthy items. Younger pupils are very participative and want to please, at least at school. However, as children become older this becomes more challenging, so it is important to start young. Healthy eating is so vital, especially for the young, and the more we can do at an early age, the better it is. 

Sue Parfett, Brookwood Partnership, www.brookwoodpartnership.com    

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