What is the role of the ECEC leader in supporting healthier choices?
Leaders in a number of sectors, including early childhood education and care (ECEC) are seeking ways to not only support the health and wellbeing of their teams and the children in their care, but ensure that these measures are sustainable long term.
Many health initiatives may start with a focus on healthier eating and nutrition, but with the many different needs within a team, how can leaders support and promote healthier eating to children, their families and team members?
ECEC settings are uniquely positioned to support children to establish healthier eating habits. There are a number of opportunities for ECEC services to support a lifetime journey towards embracing healthier eating through explicit and implicit health promotion – but how can decision makers, such as operations managers, regional coordinators, service owners, company CEOs and CFOs from the early learning space drive change in this space?
Partners within communities and organisations
There are a number of organisations and brands within the community who have initiated programs, events and professional learning experiences for educators, families and service leaders to understand important aspects of nutrition and healthier eating more deeply. Many of these are offered free of charge, and are a perfect opener to critical reflection on health promotion.
Woolworths at Work, for example, recently partnered with Nutrition Australia to deliver “Fuss free ELCs”, a free webinar on evidence-based strategies for reducing food refusal and fussy eating in children. The webinar outlined a number of tips to support healthier eating at a service and organisation level, as well as showcasing the importance of good nutrition for young children.
Those who accessed the webinar learnt more about:
- Common patterns of eating and ‘fussiness’ in children
- Approaches ECEC services can use when preparing meals and feeding children
- Policy development and the benefits of embedding strategies to introduce new foods and create supportive mealtime environments
- Why it’s vital to aim for progress, not perfection
“We believe that nutrition plays such an important role in the health of an organisation” Brady Dennett, Head of Marketing at Woolworths at Work explained. “To support the unique needs of the early childhood sector we partnered with Nutrition Australia, to kick off our Fresh Thinking series focused on nutrition, wellness and sustainability.”
“Our first free virtual event focused on strategies for reducing food refusal. We hope that sessions like these help those working directly with children to implement and create positive eating habits in their services”
Service leaders and decision makers can support in this space by being aware of these opportunities, promoting them to staff, and supporting them to attend learning sessions online or face-to-face.
As well as the Australian Dietary Guidelines, there are a number of resources which can help decision makers guide their staff teams on their journey to supporting healthier eating choices for children, such as:
- Munch and Move
- The Healthy Eating Advisory Service
- The VegKit project
- Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Program
Local councils will often provide useful information sessions for parents and families which educators can refer to, and many services forge partnerships with community gardens to encourage children to learn more about where their food comes from, to expose children to a wide variety of new flavours, colours and textures of food, and to allow children to be active contributors to the community around them.
Lead by example
Children learn by what they live, as the adage says… and so do employees. Service leaders and decision makers should carefully consider the way in which team members are supported to make healthier choices, so that they, in turn, can be role models for the children they care for.
Some simple ideas to boost the profile of health and wellness within early childhood settings include:
- Supporting staff to access allied health care. Perhaps staff could receive discounts on private health insurance, services could have a list of known providers, or incorporate access to mental health support for teams through an employee assistance program
- Allowing staff to take fresh produce which is not being utilised at the end of the day or week, or which is surplus to the needs of the service.
- Help make healthier easier by pursuing partnerships with organisations like Woolworths at Work.
- Reflect on how mental health and wellbeing of leaders is impacted by the administrative burden of their roles. By actively choosing ways to streamline their admin, consolidate the functions of their day, and quickly solve problems, leaders free up space for the things that really make a difference.
The low down on language
Language about food is powerful. How many of us are guilty of using phrases which group food into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Likewise, many educators can express and pass on their own preferences about food either verbally or with their body language.
To encourage healthier eating in children, and to minimise ‘fussiness’, it’s important that those working directly with children are aware of the impact that spoken and body language has on children’s comfort levels with trying new foods.
Alongside using positive language, it’s important, at a senior level, for leaders and decision makers to drive change by sharing fundamental messaging and information with teams, and to have clear expectations around what is and is not acceptable when it comes to communication about food. Some simple ‘rules of thumb’ may be:
- As highlighted in the Fuss Free ELCs Webinar, Educators decide what food is offered, children decide if and how much they eat
- Have a whole service (or organisation) approach that helps management, chefs and cooks, educators, parents, and children to be on the same page about food
- Children are given time and space to explore flavour and texture
- Food can be fun! Educators and leaders are encouraged to make food a safe and fun experience for children
- Food is fuel, not a moral choice – some foods provide healthier fuel for our body, but foods are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Positive and encouraging language about food supports children to make this distinction. For examples of food positive language, please see here.
When decision makers determine that health – of children, employees and families – is a priority, everyone benefits. Healthier teams may be absent less often, and provide wonderful role models for children. Healthier habits that begin in early childhood may carry into adulthood, setting our children up well for the world that awaits them.
Woolworths at Work provides a procurement solution that works around your business. They are dedicated to making healthier easier by delivering everything you’d expect from The Fresh Food People, combined with smart business solutions designed around the needs of your organisation.
To find out more about how Woolworths at Work can support your ECEC service, please see here.