Children’s nutrition: Working with children

Young girl and boy preparing food and laughing

Are you interested in broadening your potential client reach? Maybe you enjoy working with children – or perhaps you’ve always wanted to. But, what does it actually take to provide nutrition services for children?

This week, Nutritionist Resource member Aliya Porter answers our questions.

What would you say are the key skills needed to provide nutrition services for children?

In addition to a sound knowledge of the evidence base around nutrition, I would say the most 5 important skills are:

  • Being adaptable – children won’t necessarily stick to the plan
  • Being patient
  • Being able to get on your hands and knees (and play)
  • Being able to answer their questions in very simple terms without being patronising. Children won’t understand complex answers and parents need quick, simple advice they can take in whilst they have one ear already occupied with their child’s activities!
  • Being understanding of parents’ time restraints, budget restraints and how difficult it is to be patient and perfect all the time.

What challenges do you face in working with children? How are you able to counter these?

One of the main challenges can be children not opening up about how they feel or what they are eating. This is particularly difficult for school-age children because parents won’t always know exactly what they are eating at school. Other challenges include children wanting to be in control, parents not having the time to implement changes, and parents wanting to change their children’s eating habits – but not their own.

It is important to be patient, to ask questions of the child and perhaps think about their other interests – for example, can they draw what they ate? It is good for children to have some control, so it is about giving some without giving control of every decision. Young children could choose which vegetable out of a choice of two, or which shape of pasta to have for instance.

Time is very precious and you need to have a bank of recipes which are quick, easy, inexpensive and tasty. If parents don’t want to change, you need to assess where they are on the behaviour change cycle and see if you can move them on. Getting them to do things for the benefit of their children may be the way forward but it is important to remember that small steps are more sustainable than a radical overhaul of diet straight away.

What has working with children taught you?

It’s taught me that we leave far too much nutrition education to big food companies. Parents need more information right from the very beginning. There is also far too much information on the internet, which is just opinion and not based on sound evidence. Parents hear conflicting messages all the time.

Parents generally want the best for their children, but we have moved to a very short time view of this i.e. what is best is what makes them happy now. We need to think more long term, i.e. what is best is what will help them have a healthy and happy adult life.

I used to think I was patient before I had my own children – then I realised how hard it is being a parent. We can be very judgemental of parents who are less than perfect, but the truth is we are all less than perfect. We need to be better at listening to parents and supporting, rather than judging them. I love doing what I do and find it very rewarding, especially when I see a weight lifted off a parent’s shoulders.

What are the best steps to train in order to provide nutrition services for children?

I would advise finding a degree course in nutrition which is accredited by the Association for Nutrition (AfN). These courses will give you a good grounding in nutrition for all ages and are evidence based. When you finish, I would encourage you to become registered as a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr) with the AfN to show your clients you have the knowledge to be able to support them with sound advice, and they are safe in the knowledge that you have to keep to a strict code of ethics – I always tell my clients that they could get me struck off if I don’t stick to it!

In addition, I would recommend looking into getting some general experience working with children. Volunteer at a sports club, help with Brownies or Cubs, assist at a toddler group. All this will help you gain an understanding of how children tick. Spend time listening to parents about what life is like with children. I would also suggest trying to shadow another registered nutritionist or dietitian in the field.

In addition, keep reading and keep looking out for conferences – we never stop learning. An example: The British Nutrition Foundation has lots of information and events about school age children.

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Becky Wright

Written by Becky Wright

Becky is a Content Producer for Happiful and writer for Nutritionist Resource.
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