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Pre-schools introduce children to new foods

Many children are afraid of trying new foods. Researchers from UiA partner with pre-schools to help both pre-school children and staff overcome their fear.

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It is a paradox well known to many parents: The one-year-old who unflinchingly puts sand and bugs in her mouth refuses profusely around the ages of two or three when broccoli is put on the table. However, scepticism towards new food, so-called neophobia, is a natural stage in our development.

“From birth we are omnivorous. But when we learn to walk and are able to get further away from our parents, we may end up eating things that are dangerous. Food neophobia is a protective mechanism preventing us from ingesting potentially toxic substances”, Sissel H. Helland, Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Health, Sports and Nutrition at the University of Agder, says.

In June, Helland defended her PhD thesis ‘Matmot i barnehagen – En studie av toåringers matneofobi og kosthold og hvordan dette kan endres’ (‘Food courage in pre-school – A study of neophobia in two-year-olds and nutrition and how it can be changed’) . She is also affiliated with the Priority Research Centre Lifecourse nutrition 

“At the same time, we also have a natural curiosity about new sources of food, and the degree of food neophobia may be reduced”, she says. 

Sissel H. Helland is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Agder.

Get poor nutrition

Food neophobia peaks between the ages of two and six. It reduces as children grow up and stabilises in adulthood. However, food habits tend to be established around the ages of two and three, and these are crucial years when the foundations for future health are laid down.

Children with food neophobia are more reluctant to eating fish, vegetables, fruits and berries. That is one of the findings of a cross-sectional study of over 500 two-year-olds conducted by Helland. The study also indicated that the higher the degree of food neophobia in parents, the more reluctant the children were of eating vegetables.

Studies like this of the relationship between food neophobia and food intake in two-year-olds have not been done in Scandinavia before.

Project in pre-school

“It is important to eat fish, vegetables, fruits and berries. When we see that some children rarely eat this, it is all the more important that pre-schools offer this food and that staff encourage them to try it. One of the main challenges in Norwegian pre-schools is serving vegetables”, Helland says.

116 parents with two-year-olds in pre-school participated in the intervention study Children’s food courage. The pre-schools participating in the action group were asked to do three things:

  • Have three weekly group sessions with the children introducing them to new vegetables. This is based on the Sapere method which enables children to discover and become familiar with their five senses, particularly the sense of taste, and develop a vocabulary relating to sensory experiences.
  • Prepare hot meals for lunch, using vegetables introduced during group sessions.
  • Follow the advice on creating a positive mealtime environment and stimulating healthy eating development (see factbox).

In addition, the parents were asked to follow the same advice as the pre-school staff.

Ten tips for a good meal

This advice was followed by the pre-schools in the Children’s food courage project but may also be used at the table at home.

Eat together with the children and help make mealtimes pleasant.

Children find it easier to accept food when it is offered in a positive environment.

Keep in mind that you are a role model at the table.

You don’t always have to tell the child what to do. Keep in mind that children copy both you and their peers.

Adults decide what kind of food is served.

The principle that everyone eats the same food has a positive effect on liking of foods. Do not offer children any other food than what is on the menu. As long as you serve basic foods like bread, potatoes, rice or pasta, there will be something for most children.

Serve the food with a positive attitude, again and again.

Don’t give up when you meet resistance. Children like best what they recognise, and some need time to get used to new food.

Respect the child’s right to have its own taste. Nothing is right or wrong.

Help children get to know themselves and their relationship with food by putting words to their impressions.

Let children help themselves to food with guidance, help and support.

Encourage children to help themselves from all the food groups on offer. Some children want their foods separate and not mixed on the plate. In that way they can put aside tastes/textures they don’t like.

Let children feed themselves as much as possible.

Eating independently, using their own plate and cutlery, adds to increased well-being and accept of more foodstuffs.

The child determines whether to eat. Being picky is allowed.

Children should try new foods of their own accord, but you can encourage them to taste: This is a turnip, try and taste, it tastes a bit like carrot. If the child wont taste, you can suggest that they look, smell or touch the foodstuff.

Pay attention and respect the children when they signal being full, thirsty or hungry.

Ask children whether they are full, thirsty or hungry before they leave the table.

Never use food or drink as a reward, punishment or comfort.

“If you eat your bread crust, you can…” In the long term forcing the child to eat is counterproductive. 

Sceptical children and sceptical adults

The group sessions were a success. The children and staff became more aware of sensory impressions of food and developed their vocabulary. Children were generally more willing to try vegetables, and the pre-schools experienced lower degrees of food neophobia. The pre-school staff were motivated to continue using the method.

When it came to making hot meals for lunch and following mealtime advice, experiences were more varied.

“Some staff felt that there were too many new things. Some of them were unaccustomed to eating with the children and not used to having the children help themselves to food. It is natural to think that staff find it hard to create a positive atmosphere if there are too many changes, and atmosphere is essential to reducing fear related to unfamiliar food”, Helland says.

Not only children are sceptical of new foods. As Helland’s project shows, it may also pertain to adult pre-school staff.

“We also saw that children in some pre-schools affected each other negatively. When many children are put together in a pre-school, peer pressure may work both ways. If the children have a negative reaction to the food, it is a challenge for teachers to change it”, Helland says.

The main challenge for pre-school staff was to find time for food preparation.

Want to increase knowledge among staff

Even though both the children and staff enjoyed the group sessions focusing on senses and taste and wanted to continue with them, the overall measures of the Children’s food courage project had no effect on the neophobia in two-year-olds 

Helland thinks this may be due to staff having too little knowledge of food, meals and food preparation.

Food and meals have so far been almost missing from pre-school teacher training. National focus on chefs in pre-schools, like in Sweden and Finland, would ease the situation for staff”, she thinks.

“The pre-schools were given lots of resources in connection with the project, and in the evaluations it didn’t seem like they missed anything. However, the staff were unfamiliar with many of the foodstuffs. You may wonder whether they had insufficient background knowledge”, Helland says

One example of lack of knowledge was that when cooking with fennels, they kept the stems, but threw away the bulbous root.

Helland is the coordinator of the Food and meal pedagogics course in the Bachelor’s Programme in Pre-school Education at UiA. She says that changes are underway to strengthen skills in this field in the pre-school teacher training. Helland also develops a continuing education course for pre-school teachers on this topic which will launch at UiA in 2020.