Children learn very quickly which foods are 'good' for you and which are 'bad', fresh fruit and vegetables are good, chips, crisps and sweets are bad. Find a home or cooking magazine and cut out a library of pictures of different foods. Look at which ones are healthy and which ones are less so. Explain to older children why each food is good or bad, and explain what goes into processed foods such as jam, fish fingers, chips or butter.
You may not have thought about it, but so many foods that we eat today are processed in the sense that they are factory-produced. This doesn't automatically make them bad for us although processed foods do have a propensity to have higher levels of salt, fat or sugar, even all three!
Older children can be taught about salt, sugar and fat levels in food. Explain how to read the nutritional breakdown found on nearly all products and have them start comparing different foods. Take a nutritional value, such as salt, and explain that high salt levels are less healthy than low salt levels. Pick out five products from your kitchen cupboard and have your little ones place them in order of salt content, from low to high. Reiterate which end is more healthy and which are less healthy. Do the same for fat and sugar levels too.
This exercise will quickly teach about food health in a basic way as well as an ability to understand quantities, and it's fun to play along the way!
When childminders give children snacks and meals, the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework requires that they be 'healthy, balanced and nutritious'. It's fairly easy to whip up a meal that fills the criteria because you can balance a meal with fresh vegetables and use fresh ingredients.
If you are providing processed foods such as sausages, ham, nuggets, fishfingers or burgers then check the ingredients and the nutritional breakdown of the foods you are buying. To buy the healthiest options, compare the fat, sugar and salt content. Processed foods are often far more laden with salt and sugar to create flavour than if you were to make the same fare at home. When comparing fat content of products, go for ones with the least saturated fat which is more harmful than unsaturated fat. Better still, try make your own products at home and then you are aware of their contents. You can easily make burgers, fishcakes and breaded chicken or turkey nuggets - slightly time consuming but not difficult.
Try to ration meat to two or three main meals a week, offer vegetarian options (eg. jacket potato and baked beans, mild vegetarian chilli, vegetable lasagne etc.) and fish (fishcakes, jacket potato and tuna, breaded fish etc.) on other occasions.
Processed snacks can also be much less healthy than you might imagine. Snacks are often packaged to make them appear to be healthy but when choosing snacks, again, make sure you compare the fat, sugar and salt content. It's very easy to give children a high salt diet without realising and some healthy looking snacks contain more saturated fat than a packet of crisps! Better still, make snacks yourself. Fruit and vegetables chopped into portions perhaps make the best snacks. Buy yourself a hot air popcorn maker and make fresh popcorn but without the salt or sugar.
Providing healthy, balanced and nutritious food isn't difficult but it can be deceptive if you are offering factory processed foods. Check the food labels and know what you are feeding your little ones.