Encouraging good eating habits in your setting – four changes you can make today

Lucy Shipton, EYN Partnership Registered Dietitian

It is so important that we encourage young children to develop the ability to make healthy choices and establish the positive eating behaviours that will stay with them into adulthood.

I have been working with early years settings registered with the Early Years Nutrition Partnership since launch, and I have been truly impressed by how passionate practitioners are about good nutrition and by the hard work they put into providing a healthy diet for the children in their care.

At the EYN Partnership we believe that our Quality Mark criteria and the hands-on support we provide to nurseries and pre-schools will equip them with a number of the tools they need to provide healthy, well balanced meals and snacks. But if you worry that you won’t be able to get the children to actually eat the nutritious food provided, well I am here to help with some tips!

Your whole setting environment and approach to food and mealtimes is vitally important. And we would encourage you to think about how your whole team can help promote positive relationships with food and not just leave the responsibility with the manager and the chef to put the right stuff on the plate.

1)   Think about exposure to food outside mealtimes

One of the lovely things about early years settings is that very often children have the opportunity to experience different foods to those that they are used to at home. Try developing the childrens’ interest in new and unfamiliar foods by using stories (my fellow EYN Partnership dietitian Jo loves the story of Jack and his magic beans), and involve the children in creative storytelling. You can also look at growing and cooking activities to create excitement and interest around food away from the dinner table. This is particularly useful if you are trying to introduce new foods that the children aren’t used to or are not that keen on.

2)   Remember that practitioners are role models

We know that children learn from watching others and that’s why we encourage children to sit in groups around the table at mealtimes.  However, we mustn’t forget that the adults are really important role models too. Particularly so when new, unfamiliar dishes are introduced to the nursery – remember your facial expressions, comments, and (lack of!) enthusiasm might get noticed – and have a negative influence. When new dishes are introduced make sure you are familiar with what it is and what it contains so you can confidently talk to the children about it (and psyche yourself up if it’s something you would not normally eat yourself – big smiles even if you hate sardines!)

3)   Remember what is normal.

It is normal for toddlers to go through what we call ‘neophobia’, where they become very wary of food (all thought to come from our ancestors at a time when we used for forage for food, and basically try and avoid poisoning ourselves!). So yes, part of your role is to promote lovely table manners but remember it is perfectly normal for children to smell, touch, poke, prod and even lick new foods before tasting.  Also it may also really take up to 20 exposures to decide whether we like a new food so don’t give up after the first attempt.

However, we also need to recognize that we don’t want to be wasting food, money and time. If something is really unpopular with the children then it can be helpful to take a step back and think about creating exposure in other ways (see point 1). 

4)   Be consistent with your messages

Above all be positive and enthusiastic when you talk to children about their food. Of course, don’t use put downs or compare their eating to other children. It may also be wise to avoid colluding, or pressuring them into trying something new or eating just that little bit more. Respond to the child’s feedback and keep calm. Verbal praise goes such a long way in reinforcing good eating habits, just as with other aspects of behaviour.

Finally, do reassure yourself as a practitioner that every little step you take towards making a positive change is putting you on the right road to promoting healthier outcomes for the children in your care. An important reality check for those not so good days!

I was recently at the Nursery World Show in London and it was really encouraging to have conversations with so many early years practitioners determined to up the ante when it comes to nutrition. With so many talented practitioners who understand the need for good nutrition and know how to tap into and engage the imaginations of the children in their care, I think the little changes that will make a big difference are entirely within our grasp. 


Lucy is a registered dietitian with 18 years’ experience in children’s nutrition. She graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Human Nutrition and Dietetics in 1997 and has been practicing as dietitian in the NHS ever since. Lucy is registered with the Health and Care Professionals Councils and is a full member of the British Dietetic Association. She has been involved in the teaching and mentoring of students and contributed to several dietetic publications as well as presenting at childhood nutrition conferences.