Interview: Little People Nutrition Founder, Mandy dos Santos
“If children learn to love and respect food when they are young, the relationship and habits they will develop with food will blossom as they grow”
This sounds like a wonderful theory, but how do educators encourage children to like eggplant, or deal with all the latest “food fads” they are presented with? The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas, spoke with Little People Nutrition Founder Mandy dos Santos about how early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals and families can work together to tackle these “food fights”.
Interviewee: Mandy dos Santos, founder Little People Nutrition
Organisation: Little People Nutrition
Topics: healthy eating, fussy eating, childhood nutrition, menu planning
Freya: Hi Mandy, thanks for speaking with me today. Can you tell me more about how you became interested in the nutrition field?
Mandy: I have always loved food and cooking with family friends. My mother never involved me in the cooking but she was (and is) always experimenting in the kitchen with whole foods.
While studying my first degree in food science, I came across Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden program in primary schools. The relationship between education, health, cooking and children made so much sense to me.
When I finished university I worked with some large multinationals and gained a lot of experience and understanding of the food industry, which was challenging, interesting and exciting. Yet my love always lay with community health, nutrition, children and families.
After my first daughter was born I enrolled into a Masters in Human Nutrition which I naively thought I would complete on maternity leave (as well as cooking three course meals each night and learning Portuguese!) We then moved out of Sydney for my husband’s work and I resigned from my corporate job, and the rest is history.
Freya: Thanks Mandy, can you tell me what your motivation was for preparing your Little People menu series for ECEC services?
Mandy: For the last six years I have worked with my own business, Little People Nutrition. One arm of the business is running workshops and incursions with educators and children in preschools and childcare.
I have written a lot of menu plans and nutritional content for smaller businesses over the years and I could see first hand how childcares, educators and childcare cooks could also benefit from some simple guidance.
We all need inspiration in the relentless role of cooking for children, be it at home or at school. Yet childcares also have a unique opportunity that approximately 50 per cent of children are in some form of care. For some children, they may be in five days of care. Therefore many, if not all of their communal eating experience is at school, not at home.
Nutrition in the early years is about, of course, the child’s health, food intake and nutrition, but it is also about setting a positive relationship with food and how that child will perceive eating and mealtimes as they grow older.
“What children eat is one component, but how they eat is just as important, if not more.”
That is why I created a menu plan with recipes but also incorporated food education activities and some guidance around serving food.
I had the opportunity to work in a childcare kitchen for two months and I knew that this resource could support childcare cooks and educators that needed help.
Freya: ‘Fussy eating’is a common problem in young children – can you offer any tips about how educators can support families to overcome this issue?
Mandy: Fussy eating can be incredibly stressful for many families and children. And many families can get into the trap of the “nugget cycle”.
I firmly stand by the eating theories that align with the set responsibilities of adults and children at meal time. For otherwise healthy children, without any development issues or conditions, an adult’s role in a child’s eating journey is to provide regular meals from a variety of nutritious foods.
“We also need to learn as adults to respect the inner compass that children have in regards to their appetite.”
Of course this is over-simplified, but a child should be able to express when they are full without pressure and an adult has the responsibility to say no to crackers and chocolate at breakfast. Or snacks 30 minutes before dinner is served.
Have a look at Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. It is a great focal point for eating with children.
We also need to remember that the nutrition of our child is not made from one meal. That it is the trend of the week or even month of what they eat. For instance a child might only eat rice and cheese for dinner one night but the next eat cucumber and fish. And for a toddler, that’s pretty good. Four different food groups and a variety of macro and micronutrients.
Simplicity with children is key.
Freya: Agreed. Thanks Mandy. The rising rate of childhood obesity is a concern for many governments, educators and families. What do you think are some of the causes there, and how might ECEC services support to overcome them?
Mandy: Obesity is multifactorial and is the result of food, physical activity, town planning, food manufacturing, changes in family dynamics, social demographics and education, to name a few.
Some factors from a food perspective that do contribute to this obesogenic environment are the availability of highly processed, convenient foods which have low nutritional density and higher energy density. This means you don’t get the nutrition or the satiety from the nutrients in the food, but you do get the energy, which doesn’t sustain you for as long. You therefore eat more food with a higher energy content to feel full, which means that you end up putting on weight unnecessarily.
Processed foods can also have artificial ingredients which aren’t beneficial to children’s development and health. In particular artificial colours.If we can develop a child’s preference for more wholefoods in the natural state, they will then grow up with the advantage of choosing these foods which are more nutrient dense.
The prevalence of “‘sometimes’ foods in children’s everyday diets is overwhelming. This includes foods such as high sugar yoghurts, highly processed smoothies and juice. Biscuits in prams to cure boredom is also a frustration of mine – Boredom eating.
In regards to how ECEC can support positive healthy experiences for the children, some suggestions are:
- Provide meals cooked from whole foods, with minimal sugar and salt added.
- Invite the children to play with food at meal times as well as on a play and sensory level to assist with building trust with a variety of food groups in a non confrontational way.
- Add more vegetables into the meals, even if the children do not eat them at the beginning. Exposure is key and it takes time and patience for trial and acceptance by children.
- Learn more about nutrition through nutritional education and support. Many parents rely on the educators for eating and health advice for their children, yet many educators do not have any extended training or further study in this area.
Freya: How can educators and parents more accurately know what appropriate portion sizes are? Do you have any easy ‘rules of thumb’ to share?
Mandy: A guide for educators would be to align themselves with the Get up and Grow guidelines on what they should be giving the children each day.
You can also look at a plate and think, “does half of it have veggies, a quarter protein and a quarter carb based foods?” That is a good guide. There’s an example to print out too, of the perfect plate.
Unfortunately though, portion sizes are more of a guide than an exact as they are based on averages and no child is truly average. Start the serving small and let the child express if they are still hungry and then they have the opportunity to eat more.
Our role as educators and parents is to have the variety of nutritious foods on the table. That might be rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish and perhaps even some fruit (yes fruit can be offered at the main meal too!) A child then decides what and how much they would like to eat. If they eat half a cup of meat and two tablespoons of pasta, that’s ok. If they eat fruit and rice, that is okay too.
Of course you don’t want to be serving endless barrels of white pasta to children, even though they probably would eat it. We as adults, need to provide the variety. The nutritional difference between rice and pasta might seem unimportant, but it is different and that is why variety is important.
Babies are born with the ability to self regulate their feeding based on hunger and satiety. As children grow older, they lose this ability due to pressure at meal times by mainly adults. We need to give children the opportunity to understand their appetite so they learn to know when they are full and avoid over-eating.
Freya: Thanks Mandy. Can you tell me more about the supports do you offer to education and care services?
Mandy: I have released my first seasonal childcare menu this summer. The autumn one is in production now and these will continue to be released alongside the seasons of the year.
I run incursions for children: mini cooking and a foodie literacy program.
I also have a foodie music adventure which I have collaborated with a musical therapist on (Musical Kitchen). These are all centred around the Central Coast, Newcastle and the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Our foodie music adventure, Musical Kitchen, is going on regional tour this winter around NSW.
I also offer educator and or parent workshops covering topics such a menu planning, developing positive eating habits in children, fussy eating challenges in childcares. These can be run in person but also via video and online conferencing.
Freya: One issue for many centres is managing the dietary needs of children- such as cultural or religious preferences away from some foods, or allergens – any advice you can offer here?
Mandy: It’s important to have fluid conversations with the parents and their health professionals. All allergens, food intolerances etc. need to be fully understood and supported with official documentation to ensure that the menu can cater for the child with the dietary requirement safely but also not reduce the nutritional variety for other children in the centre.
Freya: Wonderful, thanks Mandy. Just before we finish, can you tell me what’s on the horizon for your business in 2019?
Mandy: We are excited to extend the seasonal menus and increase the support I can give to educators and childcare centres to create simple, nourishing menus and food environments for the children in their care.
We are looking forward to broadening our video library to be able to support these menu programs as well as delivery nutritional information and guidance to educators and families.
I also am looking forward to working alongside more children and understanding their needs more as well as educators to be able to understand and support their challenges in the food environment further.
I also can’t wait to go on tour and sing all the beautiful songs I have written with my colleague Phoebe. I love getting up on stage and watching the children engaged and in tune with music and message we are giving around food.
Freya: Terrific. Thanks for speaking with us Mandy.
More information about Little People Nutrition can be found on their website.