How can we trust children and start having fun with food!
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Episode #88: It is a powerful thing to watch a child discover the magical properties of fruits and vegetables. We eat with our senses and what appeals to us. For younger eaters, allowing a natural curiosity in exploring food is an ideal way to build strong relationships with food and eating. “Eat it because it’s good for you” can backfire as an approach, so Janet Nezon walks us through why having fun with eating, instead of preaching, will help to foster positive relationships with food. A child should be in charge with what and how much they eat – so it’s time to start trusting a child’s relationship with food. If the table is a place of stress and rules then fun and enjoyment can be in conflict with this. “The healthiest ingredient at any family meal is laughter”.
Resources in this episode:
– Janet’s Rainbow Plate Program
Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – March 19, 2018
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When it comes to engaging people of any age, but certainly when it comes to engaging kids, it’s that hands-on piece, it’s that connection with food that I believe is much more powerful than someone standing at the front of the room talking about nutrition or vitamins and minerals.
Janet, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Thank you so much, and thanks for having me here.
It’s our pleasure. So, Janet, you’re a healthy eating expert, and the founder of Rainbow Plate. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and what Rainbow Plate is all about?
Absolutely. Quite simply we deliver workshops to children and adults – but mostly children – in all the settings where young kids are learning and growing and developing. So childcare centres, schools community, organizations, and we meet healthy eating simple, and we make it fun.
Cool. And I was on your website, and one of the things you mentioned on there about food education for young children is, “Show more and tell less.” And I really liked that. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean with that?
Absolutely. What I discovered, and really why I started Rainbow Plate – is the fact that I came from an academic place with nutrition and nutrition education. And when it comes to engaging people of any age, but certainly when it comes to engaging kids, it’s that hands-on piece, it’s that connection with food that I believe is much more powerful than someone standing at the front of the room talking about nutrition or vitamins and minerals.
And what we have developed, our workshops are very interactive. They’re very hands on for all the people involved, and they’re very sensory-based. It’s the most powerful thing to watch a child discover the magical properties of today’s fruit and vegetables. And so that’s really the core behind the Rainbow Plate approach.
It’s interesting because I think that’s something that would really resonate with our early-childhood educator audience, because also in early-childhood education the philosophy of teaching or preaching is certainly something we try to avoid and have learning experiences that are involving the children through exploration. So I think that’s excellent. Is there a science and evidence behind this type of learning and education with food that’s specific to what you’re doing with healthy eating?
There is, and what’s been really exciting for me is that even in the time since Rainbow Plate began – which is about six years ago – the evidence is increasing around moving in support of this very sensory-based, hands-on exploration type approach for young kids. We actually have our own research; it’s not published yet, it has just been submitted for publication. But I’m ecstatic to be able to share that we did a research project with Ryerson University about a year and half ago. So we actually have our own data showing the impact of our programming with young kids, that we literally were able to demonstrate, quantitatively, a change in kids relationship with food.
So after participating in our programs, children given the opportunity selected more fruits and vegetables, they eat more fruits and vegetables and they actually were more willing to try new foods. So it’s really exciting to see that we can actually demonstrate the impact that this approach was with young kids.
Very cool. And there’s another thing that I read on your website that you said. So we mentioned we don’t preach nutrition, and it also said, “We don’t tell them it’s good for them. We just have fun.” So I’m curious to know, is there also a psychological thing maybe of… it’s like when you tell kids to do something because it’s good for them or you have to do it – “know you have to eat your – veggies before you can have your dessert,” or whatever – is that something at play, maybe, as well?
Absolutely, because when you think about it… think of yourself. You open the fridge, you’re hungry, you’re not thinking, “Okay, I need some vitamin A.” We eat with our senses and we eat what appeals to us. And our approach is to really help children develop this connection and to discover the appealing properties in these foods that we know form the core of a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables. We don’t really get into it… older kids, of course, we build in you know some of the science behind the approach. But with younger kids it’s really creating this environment. It is very joyful. Is very exploratory, and really allowing the child’s natural curiosity to discover the marvellous flavours and fragrances and textures and tastes of simple foods like fruits and vegetables.
And it’s very powerful, and it takes away really something that I think is behind a lot of the struggles that parents and childcare providers often grapple with, which is that whole, “Eat it because it’s good for you,” because that often does backfire when you approach food that way with children.
So I want to dive a little bit deeper into some strategies and approaches and tactical tips that we can take away related to healthy eating. But before we do, I want to ask you why you’re doing this. Why is this important to you?
Well, is it cliché to say that I’m trying to change the world? I think at the heart of many entrepreneurs – which, reluctantly, I am an entrepreneur as well – but I started this because I was I was an academic lecturer teaching nutritional science to health professionals, and I had one of those “A-ha!” moments, thinking, “Oh my goodness, I don’t think the world needs another lecture on this high-level academic nutritional science.” Take a look at what’s happening in her world and we have we are surrounded by so much information about nutrition. And yet if you follow the data – and this is going back some years – we’re not doing too well feeding ourselves and certainly nourishing our children. And I made this decision that it was important to back things up and to start with children if we’re going to impact the health of our future population.
And that’s where I started. I took a look at the evidence and looked at an approach that seemed to make sense and seemed to be innovative and I just decided to go for it. And I feel very proud of the fact that I’m making a difference. And I think that since the years that we started, Rainbow Plate has reached something on the order of 58,000 children, just in and around the Toronto area alone, which is pretty exciting.
Very cool. Now let’s talk a little bit about some of the strategies and approaches here. And where I would like to start, actually, is to get some baseline about, What is normal eating behavior?
”Normal” is one of those words that is very powerful word. And, as you probably are aware, normal behavior for children at any age and stage has a very broad range, and a very broad range of behaviors that would fit under it. And in fact one of the things that I do in most of my parent education or my professional education is to help people to get relax and understand what would fit under that umbrella of normal behavior at any particular age and stage.
So we know the typical toddler behavior, we know that the challenges of preschool kids and food of being picky or wanting to be independent or having reactions to new foods and that. And so often it’s the way that we react to that as parents or as educators that can impact that child’s future reaction the next time they see that food or they’re in that situation. So there are developmental stages that we need to be aware of. But within that, so much of those things that frustrate us when we’re trying to get a meal happening or when we’re trying to move ahead is just a normal reaction to being two [years old], or a reaction to the environment in which a child finds themself now needing to sit down and eat.
So is it safe to say that you prescribe to general philosophy of not getting too deep into, like, a very prescriptive planning and nutrition schedule, and focus more on ways to have our children eat more healthy?
I would say schedule in terms of eating and structure is incredibly important. If I follow a strategy that’s very widely used, it’s attributed to a woman by the name of Ellyn Satter. And her approach is really about understanding children, understanding the stages that our kids go through, but recognizing that really when it comes down to fostering the positive and relaxed relationship with food, it really comes down to adults having a job and children having a job. And when we both do our jobs and we relax and we trust children, they kind of roll along and develop their own relationship with food. And it really comes down to adults being in charge of feeding, the sort of the What, the Where and the When feeding happens at any age and stage, and children being in charge of doing their own eating.
So structure around meals and snacks is so key to that. But a lot of what parents need to do then is make food available appropriate food and range of foods, and then relax and enable children to eat what’s on offer. They’re in charge of how much to eat or even if they eat at a particular time.
Okay, awesome. And I like how you’re reiterating so many things that we try to do in early-childhood education, like trusting children as being other important and having them at the table for these things.
So one of the things we talked about was just having fun, and that being a key part of healthy eating. So how do we do that?
A lot of that is how we model our own behavior at the table or during an eating opportunity. So if the table is in place of stress in a place of rules and regulations then a child is going to react to that. If we’re looking at what a child is eating, that’s not fun. So whenever there’s a meal situation we always promote the concept of eating together with children and making it comfortable, making the experience of eating together positive in and of itself and not about what a child is eating or not eating. And it’s okay to laugh and be silly. And we have, obviously, the opportunity to teach manners and behavior.
So no, we’re not looking at food science or what have you. But there’s a quote – I can’t say that it was mine – but there were actually a conference on family dinner some years ago, and I loved this message that came out of there. And that was, “The healthiest ingredient that any family meal is laughter.” When we are relaxed the eating and the food piece tends to take care of itself. And so when we do our workshops, things are… we do that very silly. We encourage children to make faces and explore food and fruits and vegetables. And we cut things up. And when we’re trying to engage children with food we suggest all sorts of ideas for parents and educators to make food look fun and presentable within that realm.
But it’s more than that about relaxing and helping that child to just be comfortable in that context where they are eating and where they’re learning to develop the skills around food, and they’re learning how to develop a relationship of all the different foods we want them to be comfortable eating as they grow up.
Cool. And I watched a video on your website and I noticed that singing was also something that you seemed to use a lot. Is that another approach that you recommend?
Yeah, we do, absolutely. We have a couple of songs and the ones that are part of our program that help to communicate our message. And I think singing is a wonderful thing for children, to engage them whether it’s at the table or not. But to make any experience, whether it’s with food or the eating routine or getting to know their bodies and the sensations and that, that songs and rhymes are just another tool that we have that can be very engaging.
And they’re also things that we can come back to. We have a rhyme that we teach our children through our programs, and that’s, “Rainbow plate, rainbow plate / tell me the colors that you ate.” And we chant that and we get over it with kids looking for those colors and chanting that rhyme, and it’s a very powerful moment for a child to feel that they can master this concept. And they get delighted in being able to discover the colors of food on their plate. And it’s a very simple tool that actually comes from a place of science with nutrition, in fact.
Awesome. So a lot of really good tips here. If you were to leave us with a final thought for people working in a childcare or early-learning environment about how they can improve healthy eating in their environments, what would you leave them with?
I would say that the greatest thing is to focus on that behavior and the attitudes and the relationship with food, as opposed to the nutrition piece. Of course you’re bound by regulations; you’re dealing with that nutrition piece in creating the meals that you’re delivering. But when it comes time to feed children and sit with them and the interaction piece, I would say focus on the atmosphere and the environment, and to make that relaxing and positive and pressure-free, and to make it fun. And the eating piece tends to take care of itself when we do that.
That’s awesome. I love it. And if I want to learn more about healthy eating and what you’re doing at Rainbow Plate, where can I go to find more information?
You can find us at www.RainbowPlate.com, and we’re also on Facebook where we tend to post a lot of things, and on Instagram. But start with the website and you can connect with us there, or people can always reach out and e-mail me, as well, if they want more information at Janet@RainbowPlate.com.
Janet, it’s been so cool having you on the show. What really resonated with me was that a lot of your strategies and approaches with healthy eating are exactly what we’re trying to do as early-childhood educators with learning and development in the classroom with children generally. And so I can certainly see why there’s so much science and evidence behind your approach. And thank you for doing what you’re doing, and thank you for coming on the show today, Janet.
Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure chatting with you.