Open your hand and make it into a fist, that’s roughly the size of your stomach. A child’s stomach is the size of their fist. It’s easy to see how children can easily be overfed but undernourished. A child’s relationship with food starts from day one. We must listen to children when they are saying and showing signs of hunger or fullness. We want children to see food as a source of nourishment, to avoid food and weight problems in the future, but we must balance this with food being enjoyable and an essential part of culture and rituals. Research is continually telling us that childhood obesity is increasing. The Growing up in Ireland data tells us that one in four children in Ireland is overweight or obese. The reasons are not straightforward, and one approach or strategy will not reduce levels of childhood obesity. A multidisciplinary approach with everyone working together is needed. We all have a part to play. In Early Learning and Care settings, the education and care provided must include the health and total wellbeing of every child.
However, before we start to support children’s nutrition, we must first look inward and think about our own relationship with food and how this can impact on our ability to help a child’s nutritional needs. For example, by imposing strict food rules on yourself, your relationship with food can turn rebellious; this is the same for children. It is more beneficial to show children how to balance eating for nourishment with eating for pleasure.
Within ELC settings, it is essential to support healthy habits in children. Children are born intuitively knowing how much food their bodies need. However, we can quickly end a child’s ability to control how much food they eat. When we use milk/food to comfort babies and young children, the message we send is that you need food to help you manage your feelings. Alternatively, you can use soothing words and hugs to comfort a child. We should avoid using food as a reward, attention and positive words support a child more holistically. It is vital that we don’t insist on a child finishing everything on their plate or use bribes such as dessert. By providing a safe, supportive and nurturing environment, you support children to cope with their feelings positively. By talking about how hunger can make us feel tired, angry, frustrated; we encourage the child to recognise how their body feels. But also, when we explain how food works in words that make sense to them, they can start to understand how the body works and all the amazing things it can do.
Also, I would argue that when we solely focus on nutrition, we forget our food culture. Here in the office at Early Childhood Ireland, food brings us together, we share breaks and lunches together, celebrate birthdays, fundraisers, you could say we have our own traditions and ways of celebrating with food. These beautiful social moments that food engulfs are ritualistic. Likewise, mealtimes in a setting are an excellent opportunity to model to children about nutrition, to connect and share conversations on and about the food we eat, but also to share stories and share food together. We can also encourage children to enjoy their food, smell it and look at it. Creating habits that keep them in tune with their body. By involving them in the preparation of food, they’re more likely to try new foods they picked. By role modelling a balanced lifestyle without restricting the enjoyment of food, we ensure a balance of ‘sometimes’ and ‘everyday’ foods.
The development of lifetime healthy eating and physical activity habits begin in childhood. As adults, we oversee the diet and activity habits of children in our care. It is not up to the children to take responsibility for this. All children are different, but all children live in their bodies all the way through life. Together we must teach children to trust, listen and love their bodies and lay the foundations for body confidence and healthier outcomes as they age.
Milica (Mili) Atanackovic is a Practice and Training Manager with Early Childhood Ireland. Her background in the early years is rooted within a passionate interest in Creative Arts. Mili originally studied Design Communication before moving into Early Childhood Care and Education in Australia. Considering training and mentoring as a key element of quality in the early years, Mili has worked as an Educator, Service Manager and Trainer, she also combines experience from a range of creative disciplines to her work.