Raising Little Foodies in the Early Years

Encouraging healthy eating for toddlers and preschoolers

A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing information from everything around them. The first few years of life are a key opportunity to provide young children with a wealth of positive learning experiences and good food habits are no exception. Healthy eating for early years has two main objectives: providing the nutrients that children need to grow and feeding their brains with knowledge and amazing experiences that will build the foundations for healthy food habits that last a lifetime.

 

Why is healthy eating for children in the early years so important?

Giving children the best start in life includes a balanced diet as part of a healthy lifestyle. Toddlers and pre-schoolers grow and develop quickly so it’s important to ensure they get all the energy and nutrients they need and to understand that some of their nutritional requirements can be a little different from ours as adults.

Developing healthy eating habits in the early years is not only crucial in terms of providing children with essential nutrients, but also to educate them from a young age on what to eat, instilling a love of healthy foods over the sugary, fatty junk foods that are so often there to tempt us.

Whilst as parents you can prepare healthy food for your child at home, if your little one spends time at a nursery it is important that the same attention to developing good eating habits will be given there. At Seymour House nurseries mealtimes are considered a fundamental part of the day, and healthy eating is incorporated into our education programme and daily activities.

 What is a balanced diet for children under 5?

Children under 5 are naturally lively and as a result they use a lot of energy through physical activity, as well as physical growth. To support this, it’s important they eat a balanced diet to ensure they get the essential nutrients needed, including vitamins and minerals, to build strong muscles and develop healthy brains.

Providing variety is key to a balanced diet. Varying the types of food you give your child will ensure a good mix of nutrients, as well as flavours and textures, and provide more opportunities for them to try different things. A healthy daily diet should include portions from the following food groups:

  • Starchy foods – bread, rice, pasta, cereals and potatoes provide your toddler with energy, B vitamins and fibre.
  • Fruit and vegetables – a colourful addition to any plate and an essential source of many vitamins, minerals and fibre.
  • Dairy foods – milk, yoghurt and cheese are a great source of calcium, B vitamins, protein and fat. Children in the early years should be eating full-fat versions of dairy products as these fats are needed for brain development and growth.
  • Protein foods – meat, fish, eggs, tofu and pulses provide protein and iron, both essential nutrients for growing children.

Focussing on whole foods is also important. These are less processed and contain more valuable nutrients. This means offering fruits and vegetables in their natural state, whole grains like brown rice or wholemeal bread, and lean protein sources like chicken, fish or beans.

How can you encourage healthy eating habits in the early years?

‘It’s yucky!’, ‘I don’t like it!’, ‘I’m not hungry!’ What parent hasn’t heard these when giving their child a new food? Sometimes words aren’t even necessary, just a look at their little scrunched up face is enough to understand! So how can you turn that frown upside down and get a positive reaction next time?

Forming healthy eating habits is not only about what you eat, it’s also about your relationship with food.

Make food fun

Who says healthy can’t be fun? Giving toddlers and pre-schoolers the opportunity to enjoy food will have huge benefits as they grow up. If they associate food with fun, positive experiences they will be more willing to try different foods and new tastes.

Get your creative juices flowing when preparing meals and snacks. Sing food themed songs, turn boring sandwiches into a tiny zoo with mini cookie cutters or challenge your little one to create their own artwork, making funny faces with slices of pepper, cucumber and tomatoes. Only use ingredients that are an age appropriate size for your child.

Getting your children involved in the various stages of food preparation also helps develop good experiences around food. Let your child pick out fruit at the supermarket or have them help with washing vegetables or stirring ingredients. Just make sure to always supervise children when they help with preparing food. This sense of ownership fosters a positive association with food and can encourage children to eat the meals you make together.

Turn mealtimes into a sensory exploration

Eating involves all five senses, so encourage your child to use them when introducing new foods. Help them choose colourful fruits and vegetables to create a vibrant plate that’s both delicious and nutritious, let them smell the sweet aroma of different types of berry and listen to the satisfying crunch of a carrot.

Texture is an area we don’t always pay so much attention to, but can be a big issue for some kids. Trying different preparation methods (for example raw, not boiled), can be all it takes to turn a broccoli hater into a broccoli lover!

Providing variety and exposing children to different flavours, textures and smells can have a positive impact and open up further opportunities to be more adventurous in their eating habits.

Stay in control for healthy eating

Encouraging your toddler to eat a healthy, varied diet can be difficult at times and it’s quite normal for young children to refuse to eat certain foods. However, the important thing is to persevere and support your child on their food journey, helping them learn to like a good range of foods across all food groups.

Here are some tips you can try:

  • Be positive. Keep mealtimes fun and relaxed. Focus on exploration and discovery, not forcing bites. A clean plate should not be the main goal. Introduce new foods alongside familiar favourites and encourage your child to try little bites.
  • Lead by example. Children are amazing imitators. Prepare the same food for yourself and show them how much you enjoy what’s on your plate.
  • Celebrate small victories. Make a big deal when your child tries something new, positive reinforcement goes a long way.
  • Don’t be discouraged. There will be bumps along the road, even the best eaters can become picky at times! As a parent it is important to stay calm and if at first you don’t succeed, just keep trying. Sometimes it may be necessary to offer a food as many as 15-20 times before your child learns to like it, but the achievement will be worth it for both of you!

Healthy Eating Week

Healthy Eating Week is an annual event in June created by the British Nutrition  Foundation. It’s all about promoting healthy eating and physical activity, encouraging people of all ages to make positive changes for a healthier lifestyle.

The theme for Healthy Eating Week 2024 is ‘Give it a go!’. This is excellent advice all year round when it comes to trying something new, and not just for your little ones! Whether it’s an extra portion of fruit or vegetables, drinking more water, being more active or experimenting with tasty ways to increase fibre, doing this together as a family will develop healthy eating habits in your children from an early age.

Healthy eating at Seymour House nurseries

We always encourage healthy eating in our nurseries, helping the children form positive relationships with food. We provide nutritious meals from Nursery Kitchen, which are prepared by professional chefs and an early years nutritionist and are delivered fresh to our nurseries. We believe in making mealtimes a special part of the day, so that food is not just about eating but becomes part of an experience of spending time with friends and the nursery team.

Learning about food is also included in our curriculum. We teach children where food comes from and give them hands on experience growing herbs, fruits and vegetables in our kitchen gardens and involving them in cookery sessions.

At Seymour House we prepared a variety of different activities as part of Healthy Eating Week 2024 for our children, parents and team including:

  • Healthy Eating Week activities for the children in the nurseries. These include learning about different foods, playing fun food-related games, cooking together and sharing favourite foods with friends.
  • Food and nutrition webinars for Seymour House parents and team, hosted by our Nursery Kitchen Early Years Nutritionist.
  • Nursery Kitchen Food Team cook-a-long for Seymour House staff.
  • Parent drop-in sessions at the nurseries for menu tasting and healthy eating advice.
  • Sponsored activities for the children around the theme ‘Let’s get moving’, encouraging physical activity while raising money for our charity partner, Home-Start Essex.

Raising healthy eaters is a journey. Be patient, keep offering a variety of healthy options and most importantly, have fun together. Embrace the mess, the silly questions and the moments of pure joy when your little one discovers a new favourite food. With a little creativity and a whole lot of fun, you can set them on the path to a lifelong love of healthy eating.

 

Learn more in Next Level Mealtimes about how we encourage healthy eating for early years in our nurseries.