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Can children make their own food choices and still eat healthily?

Families are spending more time together in the current climate, which can be exhausting for many parents, especially with more indoor entertainment required.  According to The Grocer, children in the UK ate the calorie equivalent of an extra meal per day during lockdown.

There are so many interconnecting factors that influence children’s eating behaviours - it is not all down to the parents (Scaglioni et al 2018). Viewing these factors in isolation does not portray how complex the child obesity issue is, but it can offer a great window into what can be done in the school environment to improve their dietary habits and life outcomes.

The three most cited reasons by parents for wanting to give their children a packed lunch is to provide a healthier meal, have greater control over what the child eats and reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Whilst some schools have to close their kitchen if a coronavirus breakout occurs, the government is encouraging kitchens to stay open where safe. School meals that are served in ‘bubbles’ do not increase the risk of coronavirus. The government guidance on how to safely continue supplying school meals is available here:

Government Guidance on School Meals

Packed lunches provide a unique connection between the school, parent and child. They allow for open communication between the parent and child about food preferences. Studies have found that children have more control over the content of their packed lunch than the parents! (Elsevier 2018)

However, only 1.6% of packed lunches meet the food standards that school meals must adhere to (Evans et al 2020). There is a common misconception that school meals are unhealthier than packed lunches.

Whereas school meal menus allow the child to make their own decisions about their lunch, and the parent can rest easy knowing all choices adhere to the government healthy eating guidelines.

School meals can offer a wider range of nutritionally balanced food to the children, without adding extra stress to parents who are already time-poor!

Historically, the mum has always been the main caregiver and food provider for children. But progress in female employment and changes to family structure over the years have led to many people juggling both a career and a family, decreasing the time available to cook at home (Savage et al 2007). An increasing amount of food that children eat is outside the home - stressing the importance of nutrient-dense options available at school.

But we all know how fussy children can be…!

Food preferences and dietary habits are established very early on in life - in fact, some studies show the mother’s diet while pregnant will impact the baby’s future likes and dislikes! (Bellisle 2015)

Children are actually biologically programmed to prefer sweet and salty flavours during their early years - sweetness increases the palpability of food and therefore increases consumption (Scaglioni et al 2018)! But you can have too much of a good thing…high sugar intake has been directly linked to the increasing obesity epidemic we see in our school children.

According to Public Health England, more than 1 in 5 reception children are overweight or obese, which increases to 1 in 3 by the time they are 10-11 years old.

Another infant behaviour is food neophobia, the rejection of unknown foods, which is a normal developmental phase that typically peaks around 2-6 years of age. Food neophobia should decrease as they get older and have more exposure to new foods. The most commonly rejected food is vegetables, due to their slightly bitter taste. (Cole et al 2017)

Studies show that repeated exposure to foods, such as vegetables, is the best way to promote healthy eating choices and diverse intake of food as they get older. This is where parents’ patience comes in handy ??" it can take up to 15 exposures of the same food before it can be ‘trusted’ by the infant, and then a further 10-15 exposures before the food is liked. (Palfreyman et al 2015)

The likelihood of a food being offered this much depends on the parents’ preferences and whether it is something they regular have in the house. Whereas having meals outside the home, like school meals, exposes children to different dietary patterns and ingredient combinations.

Repeat exposure to new foods has also been shown to develop social skills, as the children learn it’s ok to take a little while to get used to something.

The parental role in food choices is complex and puts a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Research shows they should exert some control over their child’s dietary choices but should not go as far as to restrict any foods. Restriction has been scientifically proven to promote excessive consumption of the same food later in life, which often causes excessive weight gain. (Scaglioni et al 2018)

One of the most successful interventions in child dietary decisions is covert control. This is a method of controlling a child’s food intake in a way that cannot be detected by the child.  For example, unhealthy foods are not forbidden but they are just not accessible at home or school. This type of parenting does not make the child feel restricted and will encourage healthier choices later in life. (Scaglioni et al 2018)

This type of gentle parental control on meal choices can be facilitated by schools. For example, online payment systems like SCOPAY can display pictures and descriptions of meals so parents and pupils can make decisions together. They can also display a calendar of the rotating meal cycle so parents can plan ahead.

Classroom Edition, an interactive whiteboard system, allows children to choose their meal in class each morning - all the parents need to do is top-up their online dinner money account. This encourages children’s autonomy and decision-making skills. Parents can check the payment history online and have discussions with their children about their food choices.

Packed lunches are another great way for kids to get involved with their food. The British Nutrition Foundation explains exactly what makes a healthy packed lunch and some recipes for parents to try out:

Healthy packed lunches - The British Nutrition Foundation

To find out how the Dinner Money module can help your school, call us today on 02380 016563 or book your free demo.

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