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A UN ADVISOR ON WHERE WE'RE GOING WRONG WITH FEEDING OUR CHILDREN

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Cat Gazzoli, former United Nations food educator and CEO of Slow Food UK, carves up the issue...

What is your first food memory? I believe that for most of us, the earliest memories of food involve other people, often our family.

Mine is of making gnocchi at home in Italy with my family. Gnocchi are fun for children to make, you need to roll them then twist each one with your thumb; it’s a bit like playing with edible play-dough. I make them now with my daughter, hopefully creating some early food memories for her, too.

I don’t think about government taxes or how businesses should be behaving, when I am asked what we should be doing about childhood obesity. I think about that first moment, and wonder how the two square up.

The recent UK government report on dealing with childhood obesity (Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action), sparked Cancer Research UK to react with a shopfront showing school uniforms in XL sizes, complete with overweight child mannequins. Much like Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me helped bring to life the impact of an unhealthy diet, the image of these overweight schoolchildren really grabbed our attention, so much more than a reel of statistics will have done.

The report focussed on school-aged children, but research has shown clearly that food behaviours are determined in the first two years of a child’s life, which I believe is when food education must begin.

With one in five children already overweight or obese before they start school,  and many of their food habits already established, it’s food education from these early stages that can build lifelong habits. The baby food company I founded, Piccolo, is based on these principles, and we work with Home Start and community centres to help deliver food education workshops to new parents. We also work in partnership with the National Childbirth Trust, which provides support and information to parents in those crucial first 1,000 days.

The first two years of a baby’s life is the ‘golden window’ to try out a variety of foods with them.

In my work of reaching out to pregnant mums, to talk about healthy eating in pregnancy, and to provide useful information about the weaning journey and beyond, I feel as if I am helping to set the blueprint for a healthy eater. The first two years of a baby’s life is the ‘golden window’ to try out a variety of foods with them. Yes, they may go through stages of fussy eating, but by providing a base of different flavours from an early age, you are more likely to establish lifelong eating behaviours that will take them beyond these picky stages.

Even small babies watch and understand what to eat from those around them.

A recent study from Cornell University, showed how even small babies watch and understand what to eat from those around them. Food choices are influenced heavily from the family and culture around them and what they see being eaten around the table. Which is why I believe regular family dinners are so important.

Unesco recently wrote a piece about the disappearing Mediterranean approach to food and diet, an approach that I was brought up on myself. Their findings sum up what I feel about food and the importance of socialising around food in those early years. ‘Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity.’

The statistics are scary, and the burden is falling hardest on those children from low-income backgrounds. Obesity rates are highest for children from the most deprived areas and this is getting worse. But it’s not a level playing field. It’s education that is the key to turning the obesity statistics around and that starts with us and our approach to community.

So, what can we do? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question: do you start with pregnant mums, parents of young children, or even teenage girls to talk about food and healthy eating? If we all start reaching out to each other in our own families, that is a great start. Beyond our own families, there are some fantastic charities and groups out there in the community that you can get in touch with and find out about getting involved and helping. Become an ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, help with local school events and put together food fairs. You can also find out about your local food co-operatives and food banks, great ways to get healthy food available at good prices for all the community. It is also important to get involved with your local community centres such as children’s centres. It is such a shame that these wonderful places are losing so much of their government funding, as they are a great vehicle for making sure programmes that the government does support, like the Healthy Start voucher scheme, are being used, and given out alongside recipes and cooking lessons in order to make sure the food is being used to its fullest potential and enjoyed as a family.

We talk a lot about the importance of variety, patience and persistence when it comes to introducing foods to our little ones in the workshops we give, but the influence of those around us, what our children see us eat, and the social aspect of sitting around the table is where it all starts. Like charity, healthy eating begins at home.

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