“Help! Please can you share your recipes, Anya? My child always eats at daycare but won’t eat at home. “ A child attending full time early learning service will eat approximately 80% of their weekly meals at the centre. There they experience a structured mealtime routine. Suddenly we find ourselves grounded at home for an extended period of time and your child's normal eating routine is totally disrupted. So is every day Sunday until ‘normality’ recommences? Well, no. Firstly because there are no cafes and eateries open which are often a staple part of city families' Sunday excursion menu. And this, for better or for worse, is the new normal. Underlying the overriding fear of what the future holds, there lies a spark of opportunity. We could see a paradigm shift in how we connect with food - moving away from Instagram-worthy platescapes to a deeper understanding of what to do with the ingredients that are available, in other words, a deeper understanding of how to cook. An opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, with our family bubble and with our food and eating. Children know and understand their food culture in their early learning centre, but do they know their own at home? If we were to view it from a different perspective, one that recognises that young children are still learning to eat, would that put a different spin on “they don’t like it”?
When we focus on guiding a child to be confident and comfortable eating a variety of foods, the emphasis moves away from foods being good or bad and becomes about the relationships that they are building, both social and with food. Research has shown that people who are competent with eating have better overall health and wellness profiles and more harmony between the needs and wants of their eating. Get the feeding right and the nutrition will follow!
So how do we create an environment that nurtures this relationship with food and eating?
Create Mealtime Rituals: Make mealtimes a ritual that children value, feeling secure and connected within a loving relationship. Structure offers security in its routine, and the special nuances that each person, or family, or community, contributes to their mealtime elevate a thrice daily routine to an anticipated ritual that creates the framework of your food story. Perhaps your family has placemats or a familiar spot at the table? A special plate, or cup? Make Mealtimes that Matter: We recognise and honour mealtimes as a time for community bonding. Human beings are social creatures and we are hard-wired to be empatethic and altruistic. Mealtimes offer an opportunity to be interested in other people, connect cultures, to smile, to listen, to be grateful and to show gratitude for what we have.
Focus on Conversations: Try to take the focus away from food and consider our intention when we do talk about food. Are we commenting on something being tasty because we genuinely think it tastes nice? Or because we are trying to "get" our child to eat? If it's the latter chances are they'll realise that and are more likely to resist. Paying attention to how we communicate about food, eating, food choices and body image is a valuable tool in our nutrition toolbox and contributes more to making eating a positive experience than teaching nutrition rules to an audience that doesn't yet have the cognitive ability to understand it.
Nurture Food Exploration: Nurture the natural curiosity and enthusiasm of your child to experience their own unique perception of food and eating through sensory exploration, language, provocations and experiences and by offering them the tools, knowledge and vocabulary to explore, describe and give meaning to their food environment. Involve them in learning where food comes from, and how it gets to the table. This is an effective tool for building value of appreciation. Focus on what's possible: We are all in different spaces in terms of what food we are able to provide for our families, particularly in these unprecedented times. Every person will be providing what they can, and that is good enough. When they eat is more important than what they eat. How they eat is more important than what they eat. Focus on what is possible for you right now in terms of mealtimes.
Over a series of blogs, we will unpack this nutrition toolbox with you and explore how this can look in your home environment in more detail. We will share recipes but in a more deconstructed manner, focusing on giving you the tools to look beyond the beautiful Instagram foodscapes and break down how you can tailor recipes to suit your food story. We have an opportunity to create and celebrate your own food story! This is a part of who you are, and who your child is.
Anya Bell is a professional childcare cook. She is Head Chef and Group Nutrition Advisor for Nurture Early Learning in Auckland, New Zealand.
My journey with feeding children professionally began with the short term goal to provide nutritious choices that support healthy growth, development and digestive well-being in these early years where what children eat has an impact on both their immediate and future health and wellness.
But of course, children are their own little beings and what we feed them is often not what they choose to eat! Or is it something else? Deepening my understanding of our role in guiding each child to develop a healthy, balanced approach to food and eating has been about considering ways and means to effectively support a child to build a relationship with food and eating in a developmentally and emotionally aware manner, allowing the child to embark on a tour of discovery that embeds the knowledge they learn on the way. Reconnecting with the food we eat and how we eat it.
As a practising professional childcare cook, I have been working from a shared kitchen and dining setting, allowing me to observe and reflect on our practices around feeding children, as well as what we feed them.
“Mealtimes are a place of life and relationships; a vital space inhabited by adults and children on a daily basis for thinking, research and learning.”
(The Languages of Food).