Teachers have perfected the art of wearing many hats. Juggling multiple responsibilities, we are accountable to the children in our class and their families, centre policies, and broader national health initiatives, such as the Healthy Heart Award. Our curriculum Te Whāriki encourages us to view education as a holistic process. Every part of the day, including meal times, is seen as a learning opportunity. We know our children and families well. Those children who are still learning to try new foods, the parents who will always ask how much their child has eaten, and those who struggle with getting 'hangry'! Keeping everyone safe, and as happy as can be, is all part of the role.
Constant news of the harm from excessive 'junk' food and the 'obesity epidemic' results in policies that focus heavily on food rules. These policies imply that if we educate enough, kids will stick with 'good foods' and avoid the 'bad ones'. Such policies can lead to practices that moralise around both food and body size, making a teacher's role more about 'food policing' than happy, healthy children.
No one will follow our children into adulthood and ensure they get their daily 5-plus-servings of fruits and vegetables! Our health-promoting policies need to focus on empowerment and intrinsic motivation so each child can learn what works for them. Compassion and understanding to meet our children and families where they are at is also essential.
For children with larger- or thinner-than-average bodies, our policies shouldn't be telling them that only average size bodies can be healthy. Children naturally grow both up and out during childhood, according to their genetic predisposition. Children tend to grow in a way that's right for them unless we start to interfere with pressure or restriction. While nutrition is a factor, food choice is not something the child is in control of.
With so many factors affecting what parents/caregivers provide, it's not helpful to place judgment, especially when the rules have the potential to do more harm than good. When children feel shame around their size, it hinders a positive relationship with food and body, which certainly doesn't lead to empowerment.
Those living in situations of food insecurity, who don't get to choose what goes in their lunchbox, or even if they have one, shouldn't be feeling judgement about what they bring. I've met children over the years who often only had a bag of chips to get them through the day. There's always a bigger picture involved. What those children and families needed most was compassion and understanding.
For those who have allergies or additional needs, and for all children, as they learn to listen to their bodies, they shouldn't be feeling pressure around how much or what they have chosen to eat.
The current approach to teaching 'healthy eating' is full of good intention. However, the focus on weight and a narrow view of health must be broadened to include general well-being. Shame, restriction, and pressure does not motivate lifelong health behaviours and may, in fact, cause harm.
Recent studies show children are 242 times more likely to end up with disordered eating than type 2 diabetes. New Zealand has some serious work to do in supporting our young people in feeling better about themselves. With heartbreaking stats on youth suicide, anxiety, and depression, it's time to change policies and practice to encourage children to make decisions for both health and happiness.
Learning to enjoy variety and balance our diet takes practice, over years of trial and error to figure out what works best for our bodies. Whether our setting provides the meals or children bring in their own lunchboxes, we need to foster safe places to learn about food and bodies.
Moving towards a genuinely nurturing 'healthy eating' policy
Family therapist and registered dietitian, Ellyn Satter, describes the ideal feeding relationship as the 'Division of responsibility'. Put simply 'The adult provides, the child decides'. The adult decides where, when, and what is made available to eat. The child has responsibility for choosing if and how much to eat. For those bringing lunchboxes, the adult deciding what to offer is the parent. If the setting provides meals, ideally children self-select from what is made available.
In both situations, teachers should provide a safe time and place for children to sit and access food. Teachers need to trust that the child not only knows their body, but is connected to that awareness of what their body needs. The child should always be responsible for deciding if and how much they eat. As Ellyn says, if adults stick to their roles of responsibility with feeding, children will do their job of eating.
Part of creating a safe place to learn about food and eating is ensuring that the timing of meals works. A child's urge to play is innate and of the utmost importance. If children have not had adequate time for genuine child-led free play, meal times will always be a challenge. If they have to choose between eating and play, many will sacrifice their meal (tip or skip lunch) so they can play. Ensure your policy is not making them choose. Play or food should NOT be used as a punishment or a reward. They are both fundamental rights for all children.
Ensure a safe place for learning
Aim to make mealtimes peaceful and enjoyable. Create a time and space that nourishes the heart, mind, and tummy. A sanctuary from the busyness of the day. If children come to the table expecting a battle, they are unlikely to have a positive experience. During mealtimes, connect by talking about topics other than what the children are eating. Give children the time and opportunity to choose and listen to their own bodies.
Choose neutral language when talking about food. Instead of being good, bad, healthy, clean or junk, let food be food. Talk about the smell, the crunch, the flavour. Be in the moment. Speak from the heart, and talk about what you are genuinely experiencing, instead of feeling you have to give a marketing speech to pressure a child to eat more or less of something.
Focus on relationships with children and their families.
Where possible teachers should sit and eat with children, role modelling not only the enjoyment of food but the joy of being together at the table. If mealtimes are about getting to know each other, a judgement-free zone, abundant in kindness, it allows children to feel safe and open to learning.
Review your healthy eating policy with your whole centre community. Work in partnership with families to understand the values and barriers in providing a balanced lunchbox. Is it access? Affordability? Knowledge, time, or something else? Understanding the challenges and what is important to your families helps you support them.
Consider adopting a genuine open-door policy where parents feel welcome to spend time in the centre. By strengthening relationships with parents, it helps children feel more secure in the centre as they see the parent feeling at home in the centre too.
Parents are more likely to ask for support and advice if they ever need it, as well as share their concerns and ask questions. This is a genuine partnership in action.
Finally, let's return to our teacher role of keeping everyone as safe and as happy as can be. Our policies need to empower children to feel worthy as they are right now. We need to seek to understand their situation and focus on creating environments in which all children can flourish. Compassionate, healthy eating policies are a great start.
As an early childhood teacher in New Zealand and the UK for almost 20 years, I have worked with so many inspiring teachers and families. Our role as an early childhood professional is to work in partnership with parents to raise happy, healthy children. They say 'it takes a village to raise a child' and I believe good quality, welcoming early childhood settings could be at the heart of that village.