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Helping children to eat healthily

6th July 2017

A guest blog by Dr Emma Haycraft, an academic psychologist from Loughborough University whose research focuses on ways to help promote healthy eating in children and who is a co-developer of the award-winning Child Feeding Guide.

Dr Emma Haycraft, an academic psychologist from Loughborough University

Dr Emma Haycraft, an academic psychologist from Loughborough University

Eating a healthy diet is important for current and future health, yet fewer than 1 in 5 UK children eat the recommended portions of 5 fruit and vegetables per day.  We know that diets low in fruit and vegetables are linked to many preventable health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, overweight and obesity.  We also know that eating behaviours established early in life tend to continue throughout childhood and into adulthood, making the early years a critical period for establishing healthy eating.

So, how can we help children to eat more healthily?

While many children will happily eat anything that is put in front of them, a significant number have phases of ‘fussy eating’, where they might eat a food on one day and refuse it the next, or might only eat a limited number of foods.  Caregivers and professionals need to understand that children typically go through this phase, often beginning around 18 months of age, where they might start refusing foods that they previously liked, and that this is part of their development.  It’s important not to cut foods out of a child’s diet too quickly, as children need time to learn to like – or become familiar with – a variety of tastes and textures.

Vegetables in particular can often have quite a bitter flavour, meaning that they’re a food that is commonly refused by young children.  However, research tells us that it can take as many as 10-15 offerings of a food before a child will learn to like it, so caregivers and professionals should keep this in mind and keep offering seemingly disliked foods over time.

It’s important not to pressure or force children to eat or try a food, and just to offer them and perhaps gently encourage children to taste or even just pick up, lick or smell a food – it all helps!

How can we help you?

Health professionals have told us that they feel that there is a lack of evidence-based support available to help them to help families whose children are fussy eaters or eat a limited selection of (usually unhealthy) foods.

Caregivers have also reported feeling that there is a lack of credible support out there to help them with feeding children once weaning has started and complementary foods have been introduced.

In response to this feedback from caregivers and professionals, we developed the Child Feeding Guide; a digital resource and training courses which share research-informed information, tips and tools with caregivers and professionals to support them with feeding children.

The website has been used by over 30,000 people so far and is shared by the NHS in its Information Service for Parents emails.  Feel free to visit the website and share this resource with the families that you work with, who might benefit from it.

Dr Emma Haycraft

Academic Psychologist, Loughborough University

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