The Elves were fortunate to bend the ear of Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) head nutritionist Dr Louise Burke (OAM, PhD, APD) this week about the importance of teaching healthy food messages early. Although Louise is very clear that she is not an expert in paediatric nutrition — her background is with Australia’s elite athletes — she certainly knows a thing or two about food (just look at those letters after her name for starters!). Plus Louise has been through it all with her dinosaur-loving nine-year-old Jack: a proud omnivore.
What age can and should parents be teaching children about food choices and healthy eating/nutrition? As soon as babies start to eat solid food, they are ready to start learning about healthy eating. Early on, the priority is to develop new tastes and textures, and to increase the variety of foods that are eaten. This requires repeat offerings of foods with the emphasis on nutritious choices. It’s said it can take up to 15 times of tasting a new food flavour before a child becomes fully familiarised to ‘like’ it. That background is important before the child starts having more control over what they will eat.
What about as kids get older? Once children are starting to choose what they eat, they can begin to learn more about food in different ways. The first way is by modelling what other people are eating – seeing what other members of the family, or other children at day care, eat. Another way is by involving them in choosing, preparing and serving of their own meals. Nutritionists recommend lots of activities centred around growing food (like some herbs or vegetables in the garden), shopping for food (being part of the supermarket or market activities), cooking (having little jobs like putting chopped vegetable sticks on a plate and arranging them in colours) and eating communally (including being able to serve themselves from a central dish). Focussing on healthy foods and discussing their characteristics (for example, colour, crunch, taste etc) is important. As children grow, they can gradually absorb more information about food, such as the nutritional characteristics and what these do in the body to keep it healthy and functioning at the highest level.
Louise shares her nutritional expertise with families all around Australia on Sunrise
What are some good ways that play food can help to demonstrate and reinforce these messages? Play food gives children an expanded opportunity to model these behaviours. They can pretend to prepare and cook their own meals for their friends or their toys, practising being ‘grown-ups’. They can take on the whole role play of shopping and learning where you go to buy (or grow) different types of foods. They can have ‘dinner parties’, mixing and matching healthy foods together into a meal and enjoying the social aspects of eating. They can also start to learn about portion sizes and what might be the right amount of different foods for different types of people.
How important is it that children develop a good relationship with food and an understanding about healthy options early on? Developing a good relationship with food is the key ingredient to learning about healthy eating. When food is free from issues about control, guilt or secrecy, it is much easier to be open to messages about which foods offer the best health outcomes and which are ‘special occasion’ choices, rather than everyday eating options.
Louise at work at the 2012 London Olympics
What are the current stats about childhood obesity? Current statistics suggest that a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, with large increases in obesity rates among children where both parents work or in a single parent family where the parent works. Such scenarios might be associated with less family time around the processes of designing, preparing and sharing healthy meals, and less opportunity for passing on good food habits.
Do you have any advice or observations from your own experience as a mum? I have learnt a lot from Jack’s (now 9) food journey. It has been inspired by several factors and tools — he loved eating with his own special chopsticks and his Food Face plate where he could arrange his food to make a funny face. He also loved his chef’s outfit, which he donned to help prepare the evening meal. But his greatest inspiration came from his avid love of dinosaurs. He quickly worked out which were carnivores and which were herbivores, and his role in being an omnivore. If a meal time stalled, it could be quickly put back on track by the enquiry, “How do you think a T-Rex would eat that?”
Here are some appetising options for making meal times easy to swallow:
For more kitchen toys or play food, visit Entropy’s website. Bon appetit!