Good nutrition during the first 2000 days of a child’s life is a critical indicator of good health in later life – but ask any parent and they’ll tell you – feeding kids is not easy.
Thanks to our Food Sensations® for Parents program, many parents are now saying feeding the under-fives is far less of a challenge and nearly half of surveyed participants reported a notable increase in their daily fruit and vegetable consumption.
Research carried out by Foodbank WA’s Public Health Nutritionist Jennifer Tartaglia, as part of a Masters project conducted through Curtin University, found that parents struggle with both what to feed and how to feed. Emotions associated with feeding children included stress, worry, anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, guilt, and shame.
“I’m physically, emotionally drained,” said one of the participants, “I seem to hit a barrier when my child doesn’t eat at night time… last night he literally sat there and screamed… I was in tears as well, you know, because I said, if he fusses during the day I can deal with it but come night time I am literally physically exhausted ‘cause I work every day as well.”
Parents interviewed for the study were from socially disadvantaged areas of Perth. They consistently reported trying to juggle food cost, quality, availability and marketing influences with limited time, lack of skills and knowledge, cultural beliefs, and family norms.
While parents recognised the importance of giving their children healthy food, they described doing “whatever works” just to ensure they were fed. Many participants prepared different meals for different family members.
“I, most of the time, make, like, four different meals but that doesn’t bother me … I grew up in the sense of you have to eat what’s on your plate and [to] the point where you’re sitting there in tears crying and not eating your dinner and it’s horrible. So, I cook what I know they eat, I’m not going to force them to eat anything different.”
The 2017-18 National Health Survey reported that Australian children are not eating sufficient amounts of nutritious food for growth and development. Over 80% of 2-3 year olds consume too much sugary drink and nearly 96% of 4-8 year olds are not achieving the recommended daily vegetable intake.
One quarter of Australian children aged 2-4 are overweight or obese. That has parents like Katie, mum to three year old Dakota, wanting to make healthy changes.
“We just want the best for Dakota and because me and hubby are both bigger, we don’t want her to go through the same struggles that we’ve gone through all our lives. Plus we’re older parents and want to change our lifestyles to be around longer for her.”
Jennifer’s research into the difficulties of feeding children informed the design of Foodbank WA’s Food Sensations for Parents Program. Offered to parents of children under five, the five week nutrition education and cooking program teaches food literacy and positive parenting in support of healthy eating. The face-to-face sessions include interactive activities, group discussion, hands-on cooking and eating together with their children. Participants like Katie leave the course armed with recipes, skills, knowledge and confidence.
“I think for me was a bit of confidence to try different things and the variety – and the amazing books. Just more knowledge about what we should be eating,” said Katie.
“The biggest one for me was the comparison of takeaway to cooked meals. That actually drummed it home for me, how bad convenience food is – it’s not actually cheaper!”
A 2020 evaluation by Curtin University found important benefits for parents once they had completed the program. Most participants reported they were reading nutrition information panels to make food choices and were comparing prices to select low-cost healthy foods. Improvements in parenting practices included not preparing separate meals for children, not letting children eat whenever they want and not distracting with play or praise to get children to eat their food. The evaluation found that consumption of fast food and sweet drinks reduced among the participants, whilst nearly 50% made notable increases to fruit and veg intake. 82% of parent participants said they had recommended the program to others in the weeks after the course.
Positive parenting practices are central to the Food Sensations for Parents program. When parents model healthy eating and provide healthy food, with routines and clear expectations around mealtimes, they build a child’s independence and skills.
Katie said Dakota is fantastic at eating her vegies, but “She’s not big on salad, that’s the one thing she won’t try.”
“So now when we have salad, I let her get it out of the bowl. I’ve noticed she’ll start to try a little bit of the lettuce and all of that. Doing that seems to give her a bit more interest because she’s picking it so that’s been really interesting to watch with her.”
Good nutrition during early childhood has been linked to optimal health, socio-emotional, language, cognitive and motor development, so there’s a lot at stake. Healthy eating needs to start early, and it must start with parents.
Curtin’s research into the difficulty of feeding children showed that parents of children 1-5 have the motivation and positive intentions and that given support, they can achieve healthy eating practices.
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Tartaglia, J., McIntosh, M., Jancey, J., Scott, J., & Begley, A. (2021). Exploring Feeding Practices and Food Literacy in Parents with Young Children from Disadvantaged Areas. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 18(4). doi:10.3390/ijerph18041496