In this series:
A model for living: Introduction
A model for living, part 1: Eat
A model for living, part 2: Sleep
A model for living, part 3: Play
A model for living, part 4: Learn
“When a child is deprived of food, there is public outrage. And this is
because child hunger is correctly identified as a moral and economic issue
that moves people to action.” –Too Small To Fail, Clinton Foundation
Since the days of the first “hunter-gatherers” to Oliver Twist’s
heart-stopping “Please, Sir, I want some more’’(Dickens 1838) moment and on
into our present day western “Master Chef”-style revitalization of the
culinary arts, eating has been so much more than a basic, physical human
survival need. One of the great societal dividers of our time, the act of
eating and its immediate and long-term impact has provided politicians,
scholars – and the rest of us – with absorbing and often contentious topics
for discussion and social comment. Margaret McMillan, agitating for social
change in the early 1900s when malnutrition was rife and conditions such as
rickets (now frighteningly returning) were commonplace, declared the
profound truth that it is “impossible to educate a …hungry child”
(Mansbridge 1932). In doing so, McMillan unwittingly laid the foundations
of “school readiness”.
Modern educators would not disagree with such a fundamental fact. Here we
are in the 21st century, yet child hunger and poor nutritional standards
remain a stark reality across many parts of the world. In the UK food banks
proliferate as the austerity agenda bites, becoming an accepted social
necessity for families struggling to provide food basics. Alongside this,
medical evidence suggests childhood obesity is becoming a real national
public health concern. Fewer families appear to value or have time for
positive eating choices, behaviours and the associated social dimensions of
eating together that are promoted by sharing family meals around a table.
Too many children observe the daily routine of adults eating on the move
from take-away bags, cartons and packets, as they scurry through their busy
schedule or hurry on to their next appointment. Yet there is incredible
potential in the simple act of sharing a family meal together. Family meals
provide an opportunity to address the complex social components of eating
behaviours (including limiting over-eating, making good choices and
developing independent feeding skills) as small children mimic the eating
choices, patterns and behaviours of others in the family. Schools and
settings have an incredible opportunity to reinforce this by considering
the important aspect of “social eating” and planning children’s snack and
mealtimes with the positive impacts of calm, organised and interactive
social engagement in mind. The social engagement structure of “family
together” meal times can really help to shape a child’s eating behaviours
and establish food preferences that can imprint positive patterns of eating
Research into our food choices suggest we are increasingly subjected to the
accelerating impact of a processed and over-varied diet. The increased
purchasing of processed and convenience food choices is associated with:
- a pandemic of childhood obesity
- increases in infant dental caries
- physical and mental health problems
- poorer nutrition with less fresh fruit and vegetable choices
- increased sugar and salt intake
Over the last twenty-five years our tastes and food choices have changed.
The basic four tastes of salt, sweet, sour and bitter have been joined by a
hotly debated fifth, known as “umami,” a taste receptor that responds to
many of the ingredients of over processed foods. Adults can easily become
conflicted by the myriad choices of what children should eat. Clever
marketing often leaves us pondering what came first, the “chicken nugget or
the (needs of) the child!” At worst, adults make poor food choices for
children from the standpoint of ease and convenience.
As a result, many children are not only at risk of future medical problems
(e.g. diabetes mellitus, hypertension, orthopaedic problems, obstructive
sleep patterns, low self-esteem, distorted body image [dismorphia], social
stigmatisation), but also of becoming victims of consistently poor eating
choices and even eating disorders. Such negative impacts can begin in early
childhood and continue into school-age and adulthood. However, it is
important to recognise that some perceived “unhealthy” choices can surprise
us. Observing children in a nursery in China enjoying a morning snack of a
square of deep fried “sticky rice” (where the entire school population
maintain a healthy weight and processed foods are rarely, if ever, served),
a matter of fact explanation changed the perception. The rice is locally
grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals, the oil a vegetable
based, unsaturated and purified version – and the treat served only once
per week. Food for thought in all aspects!
However, there is little doubt that early childhood eating experiences
affect both health and psychological well-being. Developing and supporting
healthy eating patterns and habits in the first three years of life is
crucial. This is when a small child’s eating abilities and needs change
with motor, cognitive and social development. Research suggests that when
parents allow children to determine timing, amount and pacing of a meal,
this helps to develop self-regulation, relieve tension and promote a secure
interest in food types and choices. Parental participation and example is
instrumental in establishing and encouraging positive eating patterns in
children. Preparing and eating healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables
as a family has a positive effect on the consumption of those foods by
children. But it is also true that if adults consistently model dieting for
weight loss, this can result in issues related to regulating a child’s
intake. These children are often referred to in the vernacular as “Muesli
Belt” children, suffering forms of malnutrition resulting from consistently
imposed low fat, low carb, low sugar diets in early childhood.
Adult eating disorders manifesting themselves in teenage or later life
often have a basis in early childhood behaviours. There is a plethora of
current research focusing on determining the precursors to such issues and
the positive impact of educating parents and carers to embrace “healthy
eating” for children from birth onwards. Many parents report that food
times can often become battlefields with both child and adult using food
(or the refusal of food) as a relational bargaining tool or manipulative
weapon – “eat this for mummy”, “one more spoonful for daddy”, or the deeply
damaging threats of certain foods being withheld until others are consumed.
It is interesting to note that many children are expected to eat when
adults are hungry – bringing to mind Loris Malaguzzi’s poem, “The Hundred
Languages of Children” from the book of the same title, where he purports
that children are told by adults “to love and to marvel only at Easter and
Christmas”, i.e. when adults decide! It is important that children learn at
an early stage to recognise genuine hunger, respond to the feeling of
having satisfied it, and to be at peace with the experience – a healthy
eating habit for life. This requires a delicate and sensitive balance
between the need to keep regular mealtimes whilst also encouraging
self-regulation and sensible choices between meals!
The adverse impact of a nutritionally poor or restricted diet on children’s
learning capacity and behaviour is well documented. Less widely reported is
the growing bank of evidence around the negative long-term impact of a
consistent diet of processed foods high in unhealthy fats, salt and sugars.
In the next article of this series, we will explore children’s sleep,
including how diet affects the quality of sleep and rest. If we are to
achieve greater educational equality we must focus more holistically on the
needs of the child across a wider range of domains than just the cognitive.
For some time the most effective schools and early childhood settings have
recognized the critical role they have to play in this “lifestyle for life”
education, actively promoting children’s all-round “wellness” even though
this adds an additional weight of responsibility on practitioners. The
educational, health and social outcomes for their children suggest this is
a wise investment with clear moral purpose.
This aspect of our “living model” adds to the increasing knowledge of the
significant factors affecting children’s readiness to learn. In giving the
widest consideration of children’s wellbeing and supporting the practical
application of new understandings (some of which are simple truths and
others, directly challenging questions), we can begin to gain a broader
understanding of the nutritional and dietary needs and risks facing young
children today. In our increasingly international society, we must also
think inclusively about the diversity of cultural heritage that influences
eating choices and behaviours in early childhood. Engagement with parents
about food and mealtimes can provide first-hand understanding of cultural
eating patterns, traditions and habits that can help us improve childhood
nutrition and inform more appropriate eating programmes in all schools and
We can also make a difference by asking challenging questions in our own
schools and settings and acting directly on what we find out. For example:
- Why, even in the most “nutrition aware” schools and settings do children
often experience the same “post-lunch slump” that causes adults in
conferences to refer to it as “the graveyard slot” and practitioners to
avoid offering core aspects of learning in the afternoon? In response, some
schools are reducing the traditional carb-heavy lunch and seeing alertness
and engagement levels accelerate post lunch.
- What about the “5 a Day” promotion that resulted in some children taking
in far too much fructose with an associated increase in dental decay?
- What do parents really understand about the connection between eating
together, nutrition, and learning capacity, and how can we help them?
- How can we support parents and children to navigate the minefield of
appealing advertisements for “clever milk” and “vitamin water” and
chocolate bars infused with protein, as the sophistication of consumer marketing strategies advances?
For schools and settings, the simplest questions can lead to useful
professional discussion and make a genuine and impactful difference. The
following examples may prove good starting points:
What is the impact of sugar-laden breakfast cereals, breakfast
biscuits and other “hidden sugars” consumed at this time on
learning and behaviour? How much sugar do they actually contain?
What about the impact on learning of having no breakfast at all?
What times during the day are there any noticeable changes in
children’s attention, motivation and focus? How can we find out if
these are food-related?
How do we know what children eat at home?
What are children’s individual eating choices and behaviours in our
school or setting?
How do our arrangements for dining impact children’s eating
behaviours and choices?
What happens to children’s levels of attention and interest
post-lunch? Every day? All children?
What eating behaviours are we modeling as adults?
Researching and actively responding to the outcomes of such questions may
inform your contextual “living model” of children’s future life chances far
more than you can envisage or hope. At even the most basic level of
awareness raising, such inquiry has potential to turn the tide and make the
act of eating both a healthy and joyous experience for our youngest
children. This may then help us to return to Oliver’s “key moment” and our
shared refrain become: “Food, magical food, wonderful food, glorious food”!
Bart, L. 1960. Oliver! (the musical)
Child Health Guide 2017
Dental Public Health Epidemiology Programme 2017
Dickens, C. 1838. Oliver Twist
Edwards, C. P., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. E. 2012.
The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in
transformation. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.
Elsevier Nutrition https://www.journals.elsevier.com/nutrition-research
Mansbridge, A. 1932. Margaret McMillan, Prophet and Pioneer: Her Life and Work
Obesity Update 2017 - OECD.org
State of Child Health Report 2017
Sue Egersdorff and Pam Mundy are co-directors of International Early Years (IEY), a social enterprise organisation providing support and challenge for early childhood care and education leaders and organisations in the UK and internationally. As authors, speakers and consultants, Sue and Pam bring a wealth of high level strategic and operational experience from their previous and present roles to inform current practice and future development of “everything Early Years”.