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Mealtimes with toddlers can be stressful. It can be tough to make broccoli seem approachable, and sometimes spaghetti ends up on the kitchen ceiling.
You’ve probably already read something about how we help children develop healthy eating habits, like monitoring what food you have on offer at your setting or involving the parents in your mealtime decisions. But the thing is, those healthy habits might not stick if we don’t talk about food in the right way.
Regardless of whether or not you have a fussy eater on your hands, the way we talk about food to toddlers has a massive impact on their relationship with it. Is encouraging children to eat their full plate before they get dessert encouraging overeating? Are we helping children understand when they’re full? Is labelling sugary foods ‘unhealthy’ and broccoli ‘healthy’ affecting how children associate likes and dislikes?
We’ve got some top tips on key phrases to think twice about, positive language we should be using and why talking about food helps children understand and appreciate what they’re eating.
We all have food we’d rather not eat, and food that we really can’t stand. But when toddlers are just beginning to try new foods, it’s not just about trying to find foods that they like and giving them a wide variety of them.
We make food with toddlers and young children an interactive activity, with lots of encouragement, dialogue and negotiation. We ask them if they like the taste of carrots, if they could please try eating those peas they’ve pushed to the side of their plate. Words go hand in hand with eating and enjoying food.
Children are constantly modelling their parents or caregivers, so the words we use to describe food we’re eating is just as important. Joking that you’re cutting out chocolate entirely because it’s going ‘straight to your hips’ may seem lighthearted, but this can affect the emotions and relationship children have with that food.
Though that’s certainly not a bad thing if we just turn it on its head. You interact with the little ones at mealtimes, give them food, snacks and talk to them about food every single day. You play a central role in helping them to build that healthy relationship, just through your dialogue with them in your Early Years environment.
Labelling definitely matters, particularly when it comes to building a positive relationship with food, but so is the way we encourage children to eat.
Before we get to labelling, let’s take a look at some common phrases we might use when we’re trying to nudge toddlers to eat their greens, and why using negative language as a default may be doing more damage than we realise.
Putting food into one of two categories puts them in a very defined box. It’s either positive or negative. Healthy or unhealthy. Fattening or slimming. Sugary or sugar-free. And who decides what’s healthy and what isn’t? We only need to look at ‘low-fat’ products to realise that sometimes they’re packed with other artificial ingredients, and aren’t exactly the healthier option.
If we’re taking it to the extreme, being overly negative about unhealthy food could cause children to become terrified of it. If you negatively comment on the little chocolate digestive in a child’s packed lunch, is this going to help them learn that we can eat sugar in moderation? What about your offhand comment to your colleague that you’re cutting out pasta, bread and pastries for a month to avoid carbohydrates?
Labelling can lead to children thinking that sugary or ‘unhealthy’ foods are the big bad wolf. This can very easily spiral as children grow older, as we see with eating disorders like orthorexia - an uncontrollable obsession with clean eating.
But what to say instead? One practitioner has stopped referring to foods as either healthy or unhealthy, using the benefits of food like ‘nutrient dense’ or ‘protein-packed’ instead. It turns out that taking a nutrition-based approach works wonders, as foods aren’t being compared but appreciated for the benefits they bring. Trying to drive home the point that carrots are ‘good for you’ doesn’t explain anything at all. Chatting about vitamin A or why they’re good for us makes it that much more likely that they’ll nibble them happily at snack time.
It might seem like there’s a lot to keep in mind. But if we just take it very slowly and start being mindful about the words we’re using when we talk about eating and food to our youngest, we can help children cultivate wonderful relationships with food.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
If you’d like to read a bit about tackling fussy eaters, have a look at our article on why children reject food and what you can do about it. Or if you’re looking to create the perfect mealtime environment, have a look at our piece here.
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.