Nutrition Australia’s National Nutrition Week (October 16-22) is an important time to promote healthy eating behaviours by encouraging people to eat more vegetables. It is also a time to foster discussion between parents and children. However, with one in four of Australian children between the ages of 2 and 17 years overweight or obese and less than 1 percent meeting recommendations for vegetable intakes, it is not enough to leave discussion surrounding health and nutrition to just one week in October.
Making it sustainable
Embedding nutrition education within the school curriculum alongside reinforcement of healthy eating behaviours and sustainability practices within the home, can help raise awareness and provide students with lifelong skills that allow them to create healthy food choices and sustainable environments for their future.
Nutrition and sustainability go hand in hand with research showing a significant proportion of water, energy, carbon dioxide and land use is required for the production of discretionary or ‘junk foods’ compared to fresh, plant-based foods including vegetables.
By promoting healthy eating practices and reducing the amount of unhealthy foods purchased and eaten, benefits are seen to both an individual’s health and the environment by reducing the prevalence of obesity and its related diseases and reducing the negative environmental impacts of highly processed foods.
Education about nutrition and sustainability complement each other too. With children spending the majority of their waking hours within schools, schools are an ideal setting for nutrition education with teachers identified as key players in promoting health and sustainable environments. Research has shown that while nutrition education programs are increasing within the school system and well-intended, more focus is needed on sustainability practices.
School garden programs such as the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Program, are highly valuable for combining nutrition education and sustainability practices and have been shown to have a positive impact on children’s nutritional status and on environmental behaviours. This has been demonstrated by reports from teachers of schools involved in the program regarding the noticeable differences in the nutritional quality of the foods children bring to school after program implementation.
Increased knowledge in relation to sustainability and environmental behaviours has been seen through program evaluation with students identifying water conservation, composting methods and natural ways to control ‘bugs’ in the garden without using pesticides as key learning outcomes. These programs encourage students to be actively involved in practices that promote sustainable environments through planting and harvesting seeds while increasing appreciation for fresh, seasonal ingredients used throughout the kitchen and food preparation aspect of the program.
It is important for nutrition education to include a focus on the benefits of consuming the correct amounts of nutritious foods from each of the five food groups in order to meet energy needs for their age group as per the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Alongside this, students should be encouraged to try new foods though activities that support and encourage evaluation of foods through their sensory properties including touch, taste and smell; a key message of this years’ National Nutrition Week.
Students should also be educated on the benefits of consuming vegetables of differing colours and encouraged to ‘eat a rainbow’ when choosing and consuming their five serves a day in order to obtain increased health benefits, another key message of National Nutrition Week. This could be done by teaching students where and how food grows and giving them seeds to plant and take home to care for and maintain, by provide examples of how foods can be prepared to maximise nutritional value and also by demonstrating how to dispose of waste through composting and recycling methods.
How to do it
In order to be effective and create lifelong habits and skills, nutrition and sustainability education should also be reinforced and practiced within the home. To encourage and support healthy eating and sustainability practices taught in schools, it is ideal for parents and caregivers to be included in the learning process to enable skills and knowledge to be further developed within the home environment as parents are one of children’s’ biggest role models particularly in the early years.
Examples of sustainability and healthy eating behaviours that can be encouraged and supported in the home include composting and recycling with active discussion surrounding the correct bin for different products. Encouraging children to put waste in the correct place (even labelling bins with words or pictures for younger children) is also a positive behaviour. Taking children grocery shopping and allowing them to help choose fresh products rather than those in packets (where possible of course) or by creating small garden beds and planting seeds at home that children can care for can also be done with children.
Involving children in meal preparation can also be a great way to encourage healthy eating behaviours by letting them help with planning family meals, allowing children to wash or chop vegetables (dependent on age) and talking to them about how the foods they are eating help their bodies and minds grow. Children are also more likely to consume foods they have been actively involved in preparing, due to a sense of pride and therefore less likely to waste it.
National Nutrition Week is a fantastic opportunity to encourage healthy and sustainable eating practices both within schools and households and is a great starting point for discussion between parents and children to allow these practices to be strengthened and maintained on a permanent basis. Therefore, by actively including children in food and sustainability practices through a range of education tools and strategies, small but significant changes in behaviours and attitudes can be developed during an important life stage to encourage lifelong behaviours that result in better health and environmental outcomes.
Third year, Bachelor of Nutrition and Food Sciences