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Encouraging to eat well

Early food experiences can have a significant effect on food likes and dislikes and eating habits in later life...

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Adopting healthy eating and drinking patterns for CiC from an early age can promote good health and well-being in later life. Food intake is influenced by family eating patterns and through interaction with peers. Early food experiences can have a significant effect on food likes and dislikes and on eating habits in later life.

10 ways to encourage children & young people to eat well

As a carer, you should aim to offer tasty, nicely presented and well-cooked foods that will be enjoyed by the children and young people. Meal times should not be rushed as a relaxed approach to eating can pave the way for healthy attitudes to food. It is important to make eating a pleasurable experience. Food can be an enjoyable, social activity. It is equally significant to recognise the importance of eating well for good health. Changes can be made gradually and, small changes to foods that are eaten regularly have the greatest effect on eating well. Some useful tips:

1 - Cook from scratch

Home-cooked food is healthier than ready-meals or convenience foods. You control what goes into your body by measuring the oil, salt, sugar, and other ingredients in each recipe. You can also select the fresh, organic, seasonal or other preferred ingredients you want to add. It doesn’t have to be too onerous!

  • stock up your store cupboard - include reduced-sugar-and-salt baked beans, tinned tomatoes and dried pulses, which all count towards your 5-a-day. One third of your daily food intake should be a starchy carbohydrate, preferably a high fibre,  wholegrain variety, so stock up on brown rice and  whole-wheat pasta
  • avoid using stock cubes and salty sauces. Look for low salt stock and use herbs and spices to add flavour to foods instead
  • cook in bulk and freeze healthy meals for later – this will save you time and money
  • a healthy mash-up. Save energy by pre-cooking a batch of jacket potatoes in the oven. Reheat in the microwave later or use as mash to top a fish or cottage pie
  • use vegetables as the main component of the meal to get your five-a-day
  • use low fat cheese in cooking or use smaller amounts of strong cheese – the stronger the cheese, the less you need
  • use low fat natural yoghurts and fromage frais in cooking instead of cream (but remember that children under two need full fats in their diets)
  • use lean meats where possible and skim the fat from stews/casseroles, or replace the meat with beans, pulses or lentils. You can buy beans and lentils in tins as well as dried. Look for those in water rather than brine/salted water
  • in general, grill, bake, steam, poach, slow cook or boil instead of roasting/ frying food, this will reduce the fat content
  • use dried fruit in puddings, cakes and biscuits to reduce the  sugar content
  • uook for vegan and vegetarian recipes when baking as those are often lower in sugar and fat

British Heart Foundation (BHF) has on their website a recipe finder that contains hundreds of healthy recipes with full nutritional analysis. You can filter your search by cuisine, dietary requirements and condition so there's something to suit all tastes and diets.                                    

Cooking from scratch can be easy, quick and can be also a good fun and will more nutritious. Watch the video on ready-made vs. homemade chef

2 - Offer a variety

It is important for children and young people to eat a varied diet, and carers should encourage young people to try different foods. Be creative when serving food as the same food can be served in different ways. Another idea is to mix foods, e.g. carrot mash with potato mash. Tasting sessions are also a useful way to get children and young people to try new foods. Involving them in the selection and preparation also encourages them to try the foods they haven’t tried before, or have perhaps tried but didn’t like.

3 - Listen & involve!

Communication between carers, children and young people about food preferences is essential, and asking children and young people their views on food and food-related issues should be a fundamental part of everyday care. This allows young people to voice their feelings and concerns over food, if they have any. At the same time, it is essential that carers actively encourage the involvement of children and young people  in planning menus, food shopping and in preparing and cooking food as this can also provide a useful framework for communication.

Encouraging eating well does not mean forbidding certain types of foods or facing young people with foods they do not like. Eating a healthier diet is about keeping the right balance and eating more of some foods as well as eating less of others. Inspire children and young people to talk about or draw pictures of the foods they like to eat, and to plan menus themselves. Engage them in food shopping, preparation and cooking. Having access to a range of cookery books helps. You can also find recipes on the internet. It can stimulate discussion and young people can identify foods that they would like to try. Looking at food labels can help to explain the differences between foods and to compare similar products.

In order to avoid conflict around food, such as when foods are rejected or demanded, it can be effective practice for carers and children they care for to agree boundaries together around eating. This might prompt discussion about which snacks are freely available, which foods or drinks could be saved for special occasions, and who takes the lead on menu planning – either each day or each week.  Carers may find it helpful to negotiate a ‘Food Agreement’ with the children and young people in their care.                         

Sample of food agreement sheet:


  • we will all have the opportunity to comment on, and take part in, the weekly menu planning
  • people with special requirements will have suitable food available for them
  • we will all sit together at mealtimes
  • we will each respect other people’s choice of food and manner of eating, and positive table manners will be promoted
  • we will encourage good social skills during meals
  • everyone will be given enough time to eat
  • food will never be withheld as a form of reward or punishment
  • everyone will be encouraged to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • and any other examples you and the young person can think of

Adapted from Caroline Walker Trust (2001) “Eating well for looked after children and young people”


Click here to download a PDF of the Food Agreement sheet...


Involving young people in food activities such as cooking and shopping not only enhances food and social skills but also appears to provide a comfortable situation in which young people can talk to adults.

4 - Keep food records

A detailed nutrition information record should be kept for each child in your care. This should include essential information on the individual’s food preferences, eating habits, food-related concerns, cultural/religious requirements, special dietary needs, any food intolerances or allergies, eating problems or eating disorders. This information should accompany the child if he or she moves from one care placement to another. If possible and appropriate, the record could be held by the child or the young person. The nutrition information record could form part of the records kept for all CiC and be part of their care plan.



Food preferences:




Special dietary needs:

Food intolerances or allergies:

History of eating problems or eating disorders:

Dietary needs in relation to culture or religion:

Adapted from: Caroline Walker Trust (2001) “Eating well for looked after children and young people”  

Click here to download a PDF of the Food Record Sheet


5 - Young people & food skills for life

Involving children and young people in cooking can encourage healthy eating and improve communication. Teaching children to prepare their own food gives them a sense of accomplishment which can boost their self-esteem. All children in the care system should be supported and provided with opportunities to participate in cooking, regardless of their skill level. Through assisting in all aspects of food preparation – planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning up – young people learn important life skills including:

  • budget management (shopping, comparing food prices)
  • maths and language skills (measuring, counting, estimating quantities)
  • reading recipes (planning, following instructions)
  • responsibility (making decisions and following them through)
  • safety, cleanliness and food hygiene
  • social skills (working together, considering other people’s requirements)


  • keep recipes simple and choose them together
  • encourage children and young people to do as much of the cooking as they can
  • make planning, preparation and cooking fun so they will want to keep on cooking
  • talk about the food while cooking – a great opportunity to learn together, explore new foods and pass on healthy-eating tips
  • expect some mess – and encourage children to share in cleaning up
  • don’t expect things to always turnout perfectly – skills will improve with time and practice – and new recipes often develop when things don’t go as you expect

Of course, safety is important, so make sure you help children learn safe knife skills at an appropriate age, and keep sharp objects away from younger children. Also ensure safety around the cooker and always make sure children are supervised when cooking.


If you want to find out more about safety rules and ‘First Aid’, go to the NHS choices website

Food-related activities

These fun ideas can encourage children and young people to enjoy healthy foods and try new foods:

  • world food tour - Celebrate the various cultures with a 'world food tour'. Once a week or month, with the help of the children, create a healthy dish from a different culture. Encourage children to keep a record of recipes in a booklet that they can keep
  • field trips - If possible, go on a trip to the local farm or farmers’ market. Have children and young people pick out one new ingredient and search online or in a cookbook for a healthy recipe that uses that ingredient. Or, if you are feeling confident and adventurous, make up a recipe!
  • read about it. There are many fun and educational books that explore food. Ask your local librarian for suggestions. Magazines are also a great way to get inspiration and learn about food


  • for recipe inspirations go to BHF recipe finder
  • go online. For information about healthy eating that children and young people can explore, visit Yheart & CBHF

6 - Swap snacks

Healthy snacks can keep young people going between meals and help them to get the variety of food they need. But when busy, tired or bored it can be easy to slip into bad snacking habits. Use the guide below to swap the snacks you offer to children and young people for healthier versions to help improve their diet: Follow these tips:

Instead of... Try...

Breadsticks, dry cereal, rice cakes or crunchy vegetable sticks.

Cream cakes                                       Toasted currant buns, teacakes, crumpets or English muffins with a little unsaturated spread.
Boiled sweets Dried fruit such as raisins, dried apricots, dried figs or dates.
Slice of pizza Wholegrain pitta bread dipped in hummus or tzatziki. Alternatively make your own pizza using tomato puree, vegetables, and lower fat cheese options like mozzarella instead of hard cheeses.
Bar of chocolate A banana or some chunks of fresh pineapple.
Biscuits Fresh or canned fruit in its own juice, such as peaches or pears.

Ice cream

Low fat yoghurt or rice pudding – but make sure it doesn’t contain any added sugar. You can sweeten plain yoghurt with fresh fruit such as blueberries or pineapple


Rosie explains how changing from a diet of daily mash to different and interesting foods made her feel better.

7 - Healthy lunchboxes

School lunches are an excellent way of ensuring children have nutritious food in the middle of the day. Most CiC are eligible for free school meals – encourage them to sign up and take the free lunch. However during holiday times or if school food is lacking you may want to make up a lunchbox.

Packing a healthy lunch for children and young people is vital for making sure they get the right energy and nutrients they need for lunchtime play and afternoon lessons. Making an interesting and nutritious packed lunch every day can be a difficult task. But don’t resort to pre-prepared lunchbox foods, sweets and crisps! To give you a hand, the British Heart Foundation has developed a week of lunchbox ideas using tried and tested favourites that children and young people will love.


Healthy lunchbox ideas for the whole week

Remember that no matter how nutritionally balanced your lunch box is, there will be no nutritional value to it if it remains uneaten! Tips to make sure it comes back eaten:

  • keep it cool – few schools have refrigerated areas for lunchboxes, so use mini lunchbox coolers or freeze cartons of juice or bottles of still water to put in the lunchbox and keep it cool
  • avoid soggy sandwiches – put wet vegetables like tomato slices between your main fillings and use lettuce to protect the bread
  • make fruit and vegetables easy to eat – cut them into chunks, sticks or shapes
  • make it fun – decorate sandwich bags or yoghurt pots with stickers or draw funny faces on fruits like bananas, oranges and satsumas, which have peel that is removed before eating
  • let the child or the young person choose their lunchbox and add brightly coloured napkins and plastic cutlery
  • involve children and young people in deciding what goes into their lunchbox

8 – Reduce sugar

Why does it matter?

Foods that contain large amounts of added sugar are high in energy but provide very little nutritional value. Nowadays, children and young people tend to eat more sugar than is recommended, which can affect both their body weight and their teeth causing dental decay. It can lead to a host of other health problems in later life.

Ideally, no more than 5% of the energy we consume should come from ‘free sugars’
Free sugars mean any sugar added to food or drink products by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, including those naturally found in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juice.

young person holding sugar cube
1 sugar cube = 4 grams


children aged 4 to 6 19g/day or 5 sugar cubes
children aged 7 to 10 24g/day or 6 sugar cubes
11 years and over 30g/day or 7 sugar cubes



  • use the food label to help you choose foods lower in sugar
  • swap sugary breakfast cereals for plain cereals such as plain porridge, whole-wheat biscuit cereals, or no added sugar muesli
  • cereal bars often contain high levels of free sugars* too, so remember to check the label
  • swap flavoured yoghurts for low fat, lower sugar yoghurts, adding fresh fruit for variety. Be sure to check the label for added sugar (but remember that children under two need full fats in their diets).
  • adding sugar to tea, drinks and on breakfast cereal should be discouraged. Sugar should only be given on request and not freely available
  • as much as possible, desserts offered should be fruit- and/or milk-based, and served occasionally, and if offered, should only be served as part of a meal
  • desserts can be made more nutritionally beneficial by modifying recipes to include fresh fruit, canned fruit in natural juice or dried fruit, or include nutrient-rich and fibre-rich ingredients such as oats and wholemeal flour to reduce the fat and sugar content
  • limit the portion size of desserts. Serving in smaller dishes can be an effective way to reduce portion size without it being too obvious
  • if you are purchasing any manufactured dessert products, e.g. ice-cream, fruit pies and sponge puddings, look at food labels and opt for lower sugar and fat varieties
  • cocoa powder can be used in cakes and biscuits as an alternative to confectionery or chocolate.



There are number of great resources to help you and the young person to choose a less ‘sugary diet’.

  • GULP – Giving Up Loving Pop is a campaign from Food Active which aims to raise awareness of the health harms associated with over consumption of sugary drinks. GULP website
  • Designed to show quickly and easily how much total sugar is in the things you’re buying, eating and drinking, to help you spot it more easily so you can make healthier choices and cut your sugar intake. Change for Life SUGAR SMART APP
  • Information sheet from The British Dietetic Association Sugar facts
  • How much sugar is in different foods. The results may shock you! Take a look at BHF infographic

9 - Cut down on saturated fat

Cutting down on saturated fat can help to lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Most people in the UK, including young people, eat too much saturated fat. The average fit active man should have no more than 30g saturated fat a day. The average fit active woman should have no more than 20g saturated fat a day. Children should have less saturated fat than adults. But remember that a low-fat diet isn’t suitable for children under two.

One of the easiest ways to cut down on saturated fat is to compare the labels on similar products and choose the one lower in saturated fat. Always check the sugar content too, and watch out for foods that are high in saturated fat, including fatty cuts of meat, sausages, butter, cream, cheese, chocolate, pastries, cakes and biscuits. You don’t need to stop eating these foods altogether, but eating too much of these can make it easy to have more than the recommended maximum amount of saturated fat.


Find out more on the NHS Livewell site


  • go for lower saturated fat foods, for example, toasted English muffins or crumpets with spread instead of pastries, and low fat Greek yogurt/ natural yoghurt instead of cream
  • try to replace butter (high in saturated fat) with spreads and oils high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as rapeseed, olive, sunflower, soybean, safflower or flaxseed oil
  • cut fat off meat and, where possible, grill, bake and poach meats and fish rather than frying them. Reduce your intake of processed meats like pork pies, sausage rolls and salami

10 – Read food labels

Lots of pre-packaged foods have a food label on the front of pack which shows the nutrition information per serving. Food labels can help you to choose between foods and pick those that are lower in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Where colour-coded labels are used, you can tell at a glance if they are high, medium or low in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. For a healthier choice, try to pick products with more greens and ambers and fewer reds.


To find out more about food labelling you can visit the NHS Livewell website



More information from the Eating Well category

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The ‘Care for Something to Eat’ PDF provides a detailed insight into the needs of CiC, and a comprehensive understanding of practical tools and ideas that carers and other professionals can use in everyday situations when providing child care.

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