Healthy eating in the early years is more than just what’s on the plate. It’s about consciously educating your children too, giving them the knowledge and independence to make healthy choices that will leave them in good stead for the future.
You can’t underplay the role early years providers have when it comes to healthy eating. Many children will eat most of their meals with you, which in turn makes up most of their weekly nutritional intake.
That means the breakfast, lunch, snacks and teas that you provide need to be healthy, balanced and nutritious. Due to little tummies (and little appetite) children should be offered 3 healthy meals a day, with at least 2 snacks in between to make sure they’re getting all the nutrition they need.
If you want to learn more about early years nutrition, don’t forget to check out our free guide on the subject.
Of course, it’s important to start healthy eating habits. But in the early years? Isn’t that a little too…early?
Put simply, the answer is no. Around 20% of children in the UK are overweight by the time they are five years old, a number which rises to one in three by the time they leave primary school. So when it comes to the next generation’s health, it’s clear that the earlier we introduce these healthy habits, the better.
The aim should be to encourage children to make their own healthy choices, by making it as easy as possible. A great start could be to replace your biscuits with crackers, rice cakes or breadsticks (low-salt varieties), sweets with fruit, and white bread with wholemeal pitta bread.
With lots of hungry children, it’s understandable that you may just want to get snack time over and done with. But really, snack time can be more than just getting the children fed in the easiest way possible. It’s the perfect opportunity to get your children to try new things.
Providing the atmosphere is fun and enjoyable, you may find your little ones try something different! For your older children, how about letting them prepare their snack themselves? Adding steps for independence can make snack time more rewarding.
Don’t hold back on being creative either. Pinterest has some great ideas such as turning your chopped apple into a car by adding grapes as wheels. Or try some rocket shaped fruit kebabs or star-shaped bread and cheese (using a cookie cutter). To help you on your way, we've got 10 healthy snack ideas for you to try, too.
Another idea? Research shows that children are more likely to eat their veggies if they have silly names. Get your children to try X-ray Vision Carrots, dinosaur broccoli trees, power peas.
Children are surprisingly good at multitasking so don’t be afraid of creating a dialogue during snack time. Ask your children open-ended questions about their food and help to encourage creative thinking too.
As you already know, children will watch your every move and look to you for behavioural cues – sometimes when you least expect it. By getting involved with snack time and meals by eating the foods yourself, children may be more willing to join in and follow suit.
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan (from Safe Food) knows this well. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she says. “If you set a good example in what you eat yourself, chances are your children will do the same.”
It would be easy in this day and age for children to think their food simply comes from the plastic packaging they see it in at the supermarket. But understanding where their food comes from is key to developing healthy, sustainable attitudes towards food.
From around June in the UK, you could pick berries with the children, or take a trip to the dairy farm to teach children where their milk and butter comes from. If your setting has some outside space, consider planting fruit and vegetables – it’s always so much more exciting to eat things that you have grown yourself.
Giving children freedom over their lunch is a great way to encourage more intuitive eating.
Every now and again, why not offer a base meal, like pasta, rice, or whole grain wraps and let the children (and the staff) choose what else they want. You could try healthy sauces, chopped tomatoes, cheese, salsa, sweetcorn - the options are endless. This approach can be great for those little tots who change up their preferences faster than you can keep up with.
You can give choices at snack time too. How about arranging a fruit or veg platter where the children can make their own healthy choices?
One way to make fruit and vegetables more appealing is to experiment with condiments and dips with your children. How about chopping up some carrots, peppers and cucumber for children to dip in something?
Hummus, guacamole, salsa, yoghurt-based dressing, Simply Heinz Ketchup… the healthy dip choices are endless.
In accordance with what DfE and Public Health England recommend, milk and water should be the only drinks available for your little tots. Children aged 4, let’s say, need between 1.1 – 1.3 litres per day.
As an occasional treat, you could try using your fruits and vegetables in a different way. Forget those ‘from concentrate’, high-sugar drinks and try making smoothies or juices using a blender so that children can understand how whole fruits and veggies can be turned into a tasty drink too.
Children can be resistant to trying new fruit and vegetables, and this is often down to consistency and mouth-feel. Juices and smoothies can be a fun way to introduce new foods that they perhaps wouldn’t consider trying otherwise.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to tooth decay because their enamel is weaker than that of adult teeth. Tooth decay is caused by having sugary food and drinks too often – so really try to make sure that cakes, biscuits and confectionery don't feature at your setting.
However, there’s an important difference between the natural sugars we find in whole fruit and milk and the free sugars that are present in juices, cakes, and biscuits. Natural sugar is far better for little milk teeth and brings with it important vitamins and minerals. So when it comes to desserts, it’s a safe bet to base them on fruit and dairy and try to reduce the amount of added free sugar as much as possible.
As we’ve mentioned before, if children are involved in the ‘prepping’ of their food, they will be more invested in the process and will be more likely to eat whatever you decide to make.
Providing the right safety precautions are taken, children could help blend some humous or chop vegetables for dipping. In the summer, frozen fruit ice lollies are a great (and easy) way to get children involved with making their own food.
The children can also help to plate up the food, set the tables up, take everything over to the table or serve their own food.
You could even try basing some activities around your children ’s favourite healthy food. They could cook this in their play-kitchen, or draw/paint their favourite meal.
Young children can be new-food-phobic much of the time – so don’t expect all your children to come running when they hear they’re trying a new food.
It’s important to remember that as with any changes, you need to try and be persistent with them. Research shows that it takes a child (or anyone for that matter) up to ten tries of a new food to decide if they like it or not. Be patient and realise it might take a little negotiation and compromise here and there.
Remember – no one is expecting an overnight transformation – changes can be made little by little in your setting. By taking little steps at a time, you can focus on getting the message across by talking with your children about the food they put in their bodies, why it matters, and how they can learn to make the healthiest choices. Healthy mindsets and healthy eating shouldn’t just be a rule, but a routine.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.