How I taught 20 kinder kids to be food explorers (without bribing them) and how you can too

Something amazing happened in the Kindergarten room three weeks ago. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but amazing just the same. The kind of amazing that gives you a warm feeling in your belly and a spring in your step.

I walked into the room which was alive with excited chatter. Little people danced around my legs asking “What are we making today?”

“Hmmmm, tell me what can you smell?” I asked them.

After a bit of settling, twenty faces looked up at me all sitting crossed legged on the mat. The same twenty bright-eyed faces that I’d had the pleasure to see once a week for the past eight. They were bouncing on their bottoms, barely able to sit still and anticipating what was to come next.  Each little soul bursting to be the one to share what they had learned about food. Eager to demonstrate exactly what a snake taste looks like and what they need to do to keep safe in the kitchen. I was reminded twenty-fold that when we have the expectation that all children are capable learners, they show us that they can do such amazing things.

SO, WHAT WAS THIS AMAZING THING?

Over the space of 8 weeks I taught 20 kindergarten children to love learning about food. AMAZING!

Each week I took them on an adventure to find delight in where food comes from, how it feels and how it smells. AMAZING!

I taught these children how to sneak up on new and unfamiliar food will curiosity rather than fear or trepidation.  AMAZING!

I saw first-hand the power that building a connection with each child over time has on their learning. It gave me the opportunity to build rapport with them, build on their strengths and refine and practice skills.

Why was I so amazed? The answer is because I am not a teacher like you. I have no teaching Diploma or Degree. I am, in fact, an Accredited Practising Dietitian. A health professional. Albeit one that’s a bit quirky and likes taking food joy to the people… on in my case more specifically, to the kids!

YOU HAVE THAT OPPORTUNITY EVERY DAY

Early childhood educators, you have gifts that help you teach the children in your care about so many things every day. I see you as life-coaches for kids. You guide them through the textbook of life, page by page.

WHAT CHANGE DID WE SEE IN KIDS’ EARLY FOOD LITERACY OVER 8 WEEKS?

Food literacy skills develop over many years throughout childhood and into adulthood and include the ability to plan & manage, select, prepare and eat a wide variety of foods. By exposing children to a wide variety of foods in early childhood, foods become familiar and more likely to be accepted over time. I call this “banking positive food experiences”. It’s also a perfect time to encourage early food preparation skills and meal time independence.

In the busy lives of families, these skills are forgotten as meals are snacks become ready-to-eat and parents keep doing all the food preparation to save time. It becomes easier to serve food we know kids will eat to avoid the whining and waste. However, in doing this, kids are being denied the opportunity to learn these basic skills at a time when they are most enthusiastic to do so – during the toddler, kindergarten and early primary years.

The kids who participated in the Food Adventure workshops all now have a useful set of basic food skills. They have learned that they are capable and valuable helpers in my kitchen and in their kitchens at home. They can spread their own butter and vegemite on bread or toast. They can peel and wash vegetables and fruit. They can grate (under supervision) and they can chop many things using a kid-safe knife. They are curious and enthusiastic about food and know how to sneak up on new foods at their own pace. They are less likely to respond with a fearful “I don’t like that!” and more likely to offer a matter-of-fact “I’m still learning to like it”.

THE STUFF THAT HOLDS YOU BACK FROM TEACHING FOOD LITERACY WELL

I believe that early childhood educators are 110% capable of teaching early food skills, but over the years I’ve noticed a few things that hold educators back. Some of these also unwittingly stifle kids’ learning about food.

  1. Missing opportunities to role model

Any time a child eats with an adult they have a connection with, they learn countless valuable things about food and eating. That includes when they eat with you whilst in care. Don’t miss an opportunity to be a role model at meal times.

  1. The “Just taste it” or “Just one bite” rule

I have seen some educators (and parents) quash a child’s enthusiasm in an instant with this kind of misplaced encouragement. For children who are already quite confident with a variety of foods it may be helpful, but in my experience, is likely to be extremely unhelpful for most kids. Children do best when they are the masters of their exploration. You can support this by helping them to explore all the ways they can learn about food. Taste is just one of those.

  1. Negative thinking – “I can’t make a difference”

Do you get overwhelmed with the number of picky eaters in your care and lunchboxes filled with packaged snacks? It’s easy to feel like there’s no point or that the issue of child nutrition is too big to tackle. Each time you ignite a spark of interest in exploring food or help a child master a skill that allows them to be more independent with eating, you DO make a difference.

  1. “I’m not a good enough cook” / “I don’t eat healthy enough”

Food learning doesn’t have to be fancy. Simply exploring a whole food or finding out how it grows can provide a rich platform for learning. Kids benefit from knowing that we can learn to like new foods at any age.

  1. Unrealistic expectations – “Unless there’s a taste, it was a wasted effort”

Expanding on Number 2, focussing on taste can really hold kids back. Kids have 4 other senses they can use to learn about food, and may need to practice these a LOT before being ready to taste. If a child prefers to use their sense of smell to learn about food, let them build on this strength first. Tasting food does not guarantee liking a food. In fact, the opposite may be true if a child is forced to taste before they’re ready.

I am reminded of the profound influence I have over children’s early food experiences each time I take a group of children on a food adventure. My goal is to inspire a love of food that will last a life time. And I believe that you can do this too.

Eat happy!

Deb

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