Food and Health in Early Childhood: A Holistic Approach


Deborah Albon & Penny Mukherji

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    About the Authors

    Deborah Albon has worked as a nursery nurse, teacher and manager in a range of early childhood settings. Her research interests are primarily around food and drink provisioning and play in early childhood settings as well as in the home. Deborah has published a range of articles in this area and is currently engaged in research for a PhD. She works as Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at London Metropolitan University.

    Penny Mukherji is an established author who has been involved in the education and training of early childhood professionals for over 20 years. After setting up a Foundation Degree in Early Childhood in a further education college, Penny is now lecturing on the Early Childhood Studies Degree at London Metropolitan University. Penny has a health background and her areas of interest include the health and well-being of young children and care and education of children under 3.


    We would like to thank our families for their endless encouragement and support when writing this book.

    We would also like to thank the Pre-School Learning Alliance, Alicha Doyle and Jan Turner for their initial help with the book and the Food Standards Agency for their assistance with Chapter 3.

    Finally we would like to thank the team at Sage for the enthusiasm and support they have given in the writing of this book.


    Food and eating, for many people, is regarded as one of the great pleasures in life. It is something that is shared, albeit differently, across cultures and throughout human history. Understanding, preparing, cooking and sharing food for and with children from birth to 8 years is something that we as authors wish to celebrate in this book. However, we recognize that issues relating to food and eating are various and complex. After all, knowledge of nutrition and a healthy diet does not guarantee that people's food-related behaviour follows suit. Food and eating is a complex interplay of physiology, psychology, ethics and values, cultural expectation and symbolic meaning, to name but a few. Thus, it is an area that crosses many professional disciplines as well as theoretical approaches (Albon, 2005). As many of you will be aware, multidisciplinary approaches to working with children and families form much of public policy at the present time. This book is a timely look at an important area of practice through a variety of theoretical lenses.

    Aims of This Book

    In order to explore a range of perspectives on food and health in early childhood, this book aims to:

    • develop your knowledge and understanding about the crucial role food and drink play in young children's health and development. Children's earliest years are known to be the optimum time for developing healthy eating habits as well as for laying down the foundations for good health as an adult
    • introduce you to a range of perspectives on food and eating, drawing on approaches from health studies, nutritional science, education, psychology, anthropology, social policy, sociology and cultural studies, for instance. In other words, this book is broader in scope than purely being a book looking at health and nutrition: our aim is to encourage you to think about food and eating through a range of theoretical lenses
    • consider issues of equality and inclusion in relation to food and eating, such as how gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion and disability, impact upon our understanding and practice in this area
    • encourage you to reflect on your professional practice with young children in relation to food and eating. In addition, you will be encouraged to reflect on your own attitudes towards food and eating
    • encourage you to reflect on the increasing number of policy initiatives around food and health and the implication of these for early years practice, not least the need for multidisciplinary working.

    A key aim for us is to convey our enthusiasm and commitment to developing quality provision for young children and their families in the area of food and eating – an area, we feel, that has tended to be neglected until recently. The concept of ‘health’ that underpins this book is a broad one. Generally, most health practitioners believe that health is not just the absence of disease, but includes the presence of the social, cultural, spiritual, mental and emotional aspects of life (Mukherji, 2005). We hope this broad conception of health is reflected in the range of material we have drawn upon in writing this book.

    Organization of the Book

    The book is organized into eight chapters, each reflecting different perspectives on food and health in early childhood. Throughout the book you are encouraged to make links between your own beliefs and values, early years practice, and the theories introduced in the book in the form of reflection points, case studies and activities. Each chapter identifies key learning that will be introduced, further reading and useful web sites, and there is also a full glossary near the end of the book (glossary terms are emboldened in the text). We use the term ‘early years practitioner’ in the book to mean teachers and nursery nurses, that is, professionals who work with children under the age of 8 years in contexts such as nurseries, children's centres and schools.

    We hope that this book will quite literally provide ‘food for thought’ in relation to young children and their family's diet and dietary behaviours, and encourage you to think about a range of perspectives on food and eating. We further hope that in reading this book, you will be inspired to reflect on your own attitudes towards food and eating as well as early years practice and share our passion and commitment to developing this fundamentally important area of early years practice.

  • Glossary

    • Absolute poverty. A family is said to live in absolute poverty if family income is insufficient to meet the basic needs of life, such as food, shelter and clothing (Townsend, 1979).
    • Adipose tissue. A collection of cells storing fat.
    • Agency. Whilst you may be familiar with the term ‘agency’ in relation to an organization you work for, in this instance, the term, is used to denote the way that children are not passive recipients of food; they have their own perspectives and actively influence the people around them with regards to their diet.
    • Anti-cariogenic. Something that protects against dental caries (tooth decay).
    • Atopic. An individual is said to be ‘atopic’ if they have inherited a tendency to develop allergies.
    • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is a condition in which children (and some adults) find difficulties in concentrating (are inattentive) are physically overactive and impulsive, compared with other children at the same stage of development.
    • Ayurvedic. Relating to the Ayurveda; ancient Hindu teachings about medicine and health.
    • Body mass index (BMI). A formula to calculate the proportion of body fat in an individual. The BMI is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in metres (kg/m 2).
    • Cardiovascular disease. Disease of the heart or blood vessels.
    • Cross-cutting review. A review of policies that cuts across a number of different government departments.
    • Dental caries. The formation of cavities in the teeth by the action of bacteria.
    • Diabetes. Diabetes is a condition where the blood sugar level is higher than normal, which can cause long-term ill health.
    • Dietary reference values. Dietary reference values (DRVs) are estimates of the amount of energy and nutrients needed by different population groups in the UK.
    • Dyads. Two individuals regarded as a pair.
    • Empirical. Knowledge based on observation and experiment.
    • EpiPen. One of a variety of products available on prescription, which delivers an anti allergic drug through the skin in emergency situations.
    • Food group. A group of foods, such as butter, margarine and sunflower oil, that contain the same type of nutrients (fats and oils).
    • Food poverty. ‘The inability to obtain healthy, affordable food’ (Sustain, 2007).
    • Foucaultian. In the style of Michel Foucault, a post-structuralist writer.
    • Globalization. The term ‘globalization’ describes the increased mobility of goods, services, labour, technology and capital throughout the world. Although globalization is not a new development, its pace has increased with the advent of new technologies, especially in the area of telecommunications (Government of Canada, 2007).
    • Gross domestic product. A way of measuring a country's economy and a measure of all the goods and services produced by a country in a year.
    • Homeostasis. The mechanism by which our bodies try to keep internal processes in balance.
    • Hypothalamus. A part of the brain that is involved in the regulation of certain bodily processes including temperature regulation, water balance, blood sugar and fat metabolism.
    • Indices of poverty and disadvantage. These are descriptions used to indicate if an individual or family is at social disadvantage. For instance, one sign of poverty may be the receipt of benefits or eligibility for free school meals. Low social class or lack of education are other signs of disadvantage.
    • Individuation. The process of becoming aware that one is an individual and distinct/separate from others.
    • Lymph. A clear, almost colourless fluid that contains white blood cells. Lymph travels around the body in a similar way to blood and has its own separate system of lymphatic vessels. It is part of the body's defences against infection.
    • Macronutrients. Substances such as protein or carbohydrate needed in relatively large amounts to keep us healthy.
    • Majority world. A term used to describe the two thirds of the world that are less developed than Western countries (the minority world). See Dahlberg et al. (1999) for further discussion.
    • Malnutrition. A state of poor nutrition resulting from the insufficient or excessive intake of nutrients. Malnutrition can also be caused by an inability to absorb nutrients.
    • Micronutrients. Substances such as vitamins or minerals that are needed in minute amounts in our diet to keep us healthy.
    • Morbidity. Illness or disease.
    • Mortality. Death.
    • Mortality rate. The numbers of individuals dying from an illness/condition; for example, infant mortality rate.
    • Neural tube. A tube running along the back of an embryo that will later form the spinal cord and brain.
    • Nutrient. In the science of nutrition a nutrient is a chemical compound found in food that is used by the body to promote growth and development.
    • Nutrition transition. The change in diet, resulting from globalization, where the consumption of foods high in fats and sugars is increasing, the consumption of cereals is declining and the intake of fruit and vegetables is inadequate.
    • Obesity. Being well above the weight expected for one's height. In adults obesity is defined as having a body mass index of over 30 (about 30 lb overweight) but different definitions apply for children.
    • Obesogenic. A description of anything likely to increase the risk of obesity, for example, an obesogenic diet is one that is energy dense, rich in fat and sugar. An obesogenic lifestyle is one that combines a diet likely to cause obesity with a lack of exercise.
    • Obsession. An abnormal preoccupation.
    • Perinatal mortality. The number of stillbirths and deaths of infants around the time of birth per 1,000 births.
    • Physiological drive. A strong need or desire, such as hunger or desire for sleep, that is the result of internal bodily processes.
    • Post-structuralist. A point of view that was derived as a reaction against structuralism (see below). In direct contrast to structuralism's claims of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as inseparable from meaning. In addition, power and discourse are of key importance to post-structuralists such as Foucault (for a fuller discussion, look at Dahlberg et al, 1999).
    • Pre-eclampsia. A condition in pregnancy that can lead to high blood pressure with a risk of the mother fitting. If untreated the condition can be fatal to both mother and baby.
    • Public service agreements. Public service agreements (PSAs) set out the key improvements that the public can expect from government expenditure. They are negotiated between each of the main Departments and Her Majesty's Treasury during the spending review process. Each PSA sets out a Department's high-level aim, priority objectives and key outcome-based performance targets (HM Treasury 2007).
    • Reinforcer. Something that reinforces a behaviour (increases the likelyhood that a behaviour will be repeated). This can be something pleasant such as a reward, or the removal of something that is unpleasant, such as hunger.
    • Relative poverty. A family can be considered to live in relative poverty if they have sufficient income to meet their basic needs but, compared with others around them, have insufficient money to supply other goods and services that are considered ‘normal’ for the community in which they live. For instance in the UK it is considered normal to have a television and telephone, wear up-to-date clothes and to go away on holiday (Townsend, 1979).
    • Social anthropology. A branch of anthropology (the scientific study of the origin and behaviour of humans) that deals with human culture and society.
    • Structuralist. This relates to structuralism, the school of thought that stresses that human actions are guided by concepts and beliefs, and that underlying these are structures of thought which are culturally independent.


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