A balanced diet
Eating well is important for our physical and mental health. To ensure children and young people eat well, to grow and develop healthily, they need a balanced diet.
A balanced diet provides the full range of essential nutrients that the body needs. It provides children and young people energy for growth and activity, and will help them concentrate and sleep well. These factors are all important for encouraging good physical and mental health.
The Eatwell Guide can support you in providing a healthy balanced diet: www.foodstandards.gov.scot/consumers/healthy-eating/eatwell
Encouraging healthy attitudes and behaviours
Eating well isn’t just about what we eat, it is also important to think about how we eat. Encouraging children and young people to have healthy attitudes and behaviours around food and eating can help improve their wellbeing. So as well as providing a balanced diet, it is important to:
- Give children and young people meals at set times and snacks in between, as they need their energy levels topped up regularly through the day. Breakfast is particularly important as it provides the energy needed to start the day.
- Give them smaller portions than adults. If you give big portions, they may get used to this and eat more than they need.
- Allow them to listen to their own body's signs of hunger and being full up. If they’re hungry between meals, offer a healthy snack. At mealtimes, don’t put pressure on them to eat more if they say they’ve had enough.
- Keep giving them opportunities to try a food they say they don’t like, as it can take lots of attempts before they will try it. It’s ok if they just want to taste a mouthful, they can try it again another time.
- Try not to put pressure on them to eat particular foods, as this can make them less likely to want to eat them.
- Avoid calling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Foods aren't really good or bad for you - it's just that some should be eaten less than others.
- Remember that although some foods should be limited, e.g. sweets, crisps, ice cream, if children and young people aren’t allowed these foods at all, it can lead to them wanting them even more.
- Keep foods interesting and varied, e.g. give a different meal each night of the week, or put a variety of colours of food on the plate.
- Develop children and young people’s interest in food. Talk about what you are eating, where it came from, how it’s good for you and how many different ways you can eat it.
It’s sometimes challenging for children and young people to manage and express their emotions. Food shouldn’t be given as a way of comforting them, for example, giving them chocolate when they feel anxious or sad. This may lead to them using food to manage their emotions, which can become a problem if it happens all the time or is the only way they feel they can cope.
If you’re concerned about a child or young person’s eating
On some days a child or young person may eat a lot and on other days they may hardly eat anything. If they are growing and thriving, there is generally no need to worry. There are some more tips at: www.readysteadytoddler.org.uk/everyday-routines/food-and-diet/index.aspx.
Some other ways to help children and young people to eat well
Be a good role model
It’s important to be a good role model and show positive attitudes and behaviours towards food and eating, e.g. by eating healthily and trying new foods yourself. Children and young people can then follow your positive example. On the other hand, if you show negative attitudes and behaviours, e.g. you worry about eating ‘bad’ foods or about body weight, or comment negatively about other people, they may pick up on this and do the same.
Being involved in cooking can help improve children and young people’s independence, confidence and communication skills. When they are involved in preparing food, they may also be more likely to eat it. Depending on their age and ability, they can wash or chop vegetables, crack eggs, grate cheese, put toppings on pizza, weigh and mix ingredients, shape meatballs or mash potatoes. Remember to supervise them whenever necessary.
There are many benefits to family mealtimes. Although it may be a challenge to get the family together for a meal, try and do this when you can. Ideally, sit round the table and make sure TVs, phones etc are switched off. Eating together can:
- encourage children and young people to eat more healthily
- improve communication skills and give an opportunity for sharing stories
- build confidence and improve social skills
- help them feel involved e.g. by clearing the table
- encourage independence and a sense of responsibility as they learn to do more for themselves
- help them learn how to behave at the table.
Mindfulness can help everyone to enjoy eating. Eating mindfully is about being aware and paying attention while we eat, which can help us to:
- slow down and enjoy the experience of eating
- learn to read our body's signs of hunger and being full up
- think about and appreciate where our food comes from and all the people involved in getting it to the table.
Activities and Resources
Here are some activities and resources to encourage children and young people to eat well:
The Center for Mindful Eating:
Pick your own
Visit a ‘pick your own’ farm. This can help them see how food is grown, picked and delivered to the shops. Picking their own fruit or vegetables can make them feel they have contributed to a meal and may make them more enthusiastic about eating it.
Grow your own
Try growing some herbs or salad vegetables in pots on the windowsill. Seeing things grow is exciting, and can help children understand where food comes from.
Plan a meal
Help your child to plan a meal. Think together about what ingredients are needed and write a shopping list. Then you can go to the shop, prepare the food and cook it! Being involved in the process from start to finish can be really rewarding, and can help them get excited about food and eating.
Make fun models of your favourite meals.
What you need:
- Paper plates
- Coloured tissue paper
- Coloured string and wool
- Cotton wool balls, foam packing chips, corrugated card from old boxes, or any other junk that could look like food
- PVA glue + brushes
- Paint + brushes
- Felt-tipped pens
What you do:
- Give everyone a paper plate and ask them to use the craft supplies to make a model of their favourite dinner, without telling anyone else what they’re making.
- The tissue paper can be used with the glue to help colour the model food, or it can be rolled into balls and other foodie shapes.
- When the ‘dinners’ have been finished, sit down together and see if you can guess what everyone likes for dinner.
Some things to talk about together:
- What do you like best about eating together?
- How can you make meals that everyone likes when everyone likes something different?
- What’s your least favourite food?
- What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever done when someone gave you food that you didn’t like?
- What’s your favourite celebration meal? A summer barbeque, Christmas dinner, Burns Night, Pancake Day, a picnic, a special festival meal, bonfire night, a birthday party...
- Create your favourite meal out of coloured play dough or plasticine.
- Cut pictures of food from magazines and stick them onto your paper plates to make your favourite meal.
- Make pictures or models of your favourite cakes and desserts instead of dinners.
- Make a display of your ‘dinners’ in the kitchen at home or in the dining area at school.