In January I had the immense privilege of spending 3 weeks in a local primary school as part of my final dietetics placement. At KCL, everyone studying dietetics currently completes a 3-week public health placement which could mean working with local councils, charities, or some people on my course even went to work at Public Health England. I think I got lucky and was sent to a South East London primary school.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with UK schooling lingo, primary school children are aged between 4 -11 years. Our main aim of the placement was to increase children’s dietary variety and appreciation of foods, with a focus on reducing ‘picky/fussy’ eating behaviour. This is something that many parents are often concerned about, and I had seen a fair few families in clinic on my previous community placement for this very reason. Up until this moment, though, I hadn’t worked with children in a group setting before.
The school in itself was immensely impressive. The children had weekly (age appropriate) cooking classes with the school’s teaching chef, forest school where they’re taught in an open-air space, and we were lucky enough to visit the school community garden. Here the children have the opportunity to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs which are used by the school dinner chef for their lunchtime meals. The school dinners were also incredible, and I looked forward to lunchtime every day I was there!
First step was understanding our population.
We started by sending a questionnaire out to parents to ask about the most frequently used shops in the area, as well as whether parents were already getting their kids involved in food preparation and cooking.
Trip to the green grocers & tasting sessions
There were some particular children who teachers or parents were worried about having a limited diet and seemed to be displaying ‘fussy’ eating behaviours. We developed a series of small group sessions to focus on reducing anxiety around trying new foods with these children.
The first session involved a trip to the local green grocers where we chatted with the kiddies about the colours, flavours and the smells of the different fruits and vegetables on offer and introduced the idea of ‘Eating the Rainbow’ – that eating a variety of colours of fruits and veggies throughout the day provides us with all the nutrients our bodies need. The children were encouraged to pick out a fruit or vegetable that they had never seen or tried before to use in our explorative sessions the next day.
In the follow-up explorative session, the children had the opportunity to feel, smell and taste a variety of different fruits and vegetables which they had bought at the green grocers. The older children were encouraged to write lists of the foods that they liked and foods that they didn’t like on this occasion but would like to try again. Among the (surprising) favourites were blood oranges, raw beetroot and sugar snap peas. I think the fact that the beetroot stained everyone’s lips and fingers provided a great amount of amusement!
We discussed the fact that food may taste different or our enjoyment of it may differ depending on how it’s cooked, how we’re feeling, what it’s been cooked with, the environment in which we are eating it etc. We also ran a crafty session where the children cut out pictures of different fruits and veggies and stuck them onto a rainbow template to take home with them.
Parent & teacher talks
We also ran talks and Q&A sessions for parents, teachers and lunchtime supervisors. In these sessions we covered the current ‘fussy/picky’ eating guidelines, reducing stress and anxiety around mealtimes, sugar intake, dairy, calcium and breakfast ideas.
We spoke about creating a mealtime environment that is conducive to helping children feel relaxed around mealtimes. We also suggested ideas to encourage kids to explore and get used to different foods in low-pressure ways.
Whole school challenge
Following the introduction of the ‘Eating the Rainbow’ challenge to the smaller groups, we decided it would be beneficial and have a possible positive impact if we adapted it into a whole school challenge.
With the help of a designer we made a poster to be placed in the school’s dining area and each child received their own weekly ‘Eating the Rainbow’ activity sheet. These listed a variety of fruits and vegetables within each colour category (red, yellow/orange, green, blue/purple, white) and enabled the children to tick off the different colours each day. We created two versions of the activity sheet to ensure that both the younger and the older children could participate in the challenge.
I thoroughly enjoyed working at the school and felt fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work with children and their parents and teachers. It was incredibly useful to engage with parents and staff to develop my awareness of age appropriate nutritional advice and activities – not having children of my own or knowing anyone close to me who does, it took a small amount of adjustment to reconsider how I phrased things so that the kids would understand!
Many of the things that we were doing in the group sessions were the sort of activities or tips that dietitians may give to parents in clinic if they were struggling to get their children to eat a greater variety of foods. We had the opportunity to experience some of the challenges such as repeated refusal to try new foods and lots of “Yuk!”s first hand!
It was also great to see that some of the kids were starting to branch out and try a wider variety of the delicious foods available to them at lunchtime. It made me appreciate the large impact that a seemingly small project can have.
For more info about the school that I visited on placement, check out their website here. You can also visit their cafe, Sweet Pickings, on a Saturday morning – my personal recommendation is to go for the cinnamon buns!
P.S. This isn’t sponsored post – just me sharing my placement highlights & cinnamon bun recommendations!