Strategies to avoid the mealtime blues

Rebecca GolleyIt is one of the great frustrations of parenting that children will eat fruit and vegetables at childcare then refuse to do so at home, often quite theatrically.

Dr Rebecca Golley is about to test whether that “puzzle” can in fact be part of the solution to the broader issue of encouraging healthy eating habits.

An Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Dr Golley is preparing to run a trial program to see if childcare centres can be a viable conduit for passing on information and intervention strategies that will work in the home.

“It will be the first study of its kind that we know of in terms of actually providing some quite tailored information for parents that links to what is happening in childcare centres, rather than the centres simply passing on basic tips or recipes,” she said.

“Just providing people with information doesn't necessarily lead to different behavior. You need to draw on psychology around how to facilitate meaningful changes in dietary behavior by drawing on age-appropriate theories.”

Dr Golley, who holds a National Heart Foundation public health postdoctoral fellowship focusing on nutrition interventions to support obesity prevention and nutrition promotion in young children, will herself draw on a range of recent experiences.

For the best part of a decade she has been developing and teaching strategies to help parents encourage healthy eating in a world full of unhealthy options, mass marketing and well-meaning relatives.

Her PhD thesis became a successful book published by the CSIRO, with whom she later worked, and she also spent time with the UK School Food Trust, helping to implement the radical changes to British school lunches pioneered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

More recently she helped evaluate the Start Right Eat Right program run by the South Australian Government in a number of childcare centres. The results were encouraging.

“We found that where centres had embraced the program by adopting a nutrition policy, training staff and modifying their menus that it was an effective intervention in improving what children ate,” Dr Golley said.

All 20 centres selected for the trial program will have been involved with Start Right Eat Right. They will pass on the formal materials that are part of the program as well as their own ideas and experiences from working with the children each day.

“It’s not about lecturing parents or making them feel like failures,” Dr Golley said. “It’s a matter of saying ‘here’s what we can achieve for your children while they are in care, how can we bring some of those principles about buying food, planning meals and interacting with children around meal times into the home’.

“There are strategies you can use to calm mealtimes down, make them a little more neutral, and take some of the emotion out of it.”

For Dr Golley, the overriding strategy is to treat food as you do other aspects of parenting.

In the same way that we teach children to brush their teeth, don’t let them play with scissors or have expectations around things like wearing helmets when riding a bike, we can have rules, limits and expectations around what food is in the house, and when certain foods are offered.

Children eating chips at parties or lollies at grandma’s house is less of a problem if they know and accept that those foods won’t be available at home.

“The strategies aren’t new but the application to eating and lifestyle is the novel part of my work,” she said. “Sometimes it is a bit of a light bulb moment for people that makes the challenge of getting children to eat health food easier.”

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