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Empowering child nutrition
It’s not enough to tell parents to feed their children healthy food, says nutrition expert Anthea Brand. Primary health care nurses also need to look for ways to empower healthy eating – by targeting food storage, shopping habits, and other less obvious enablers.
Healthy eating is so much more than looking at food, says Anthea Brand, whose work with families in remote communities in the NT influenced her PhD thesis topic.
“We need to talk about a myriad of other factors that influence what parents feed their children,” says Anthea.
“Parents know their children should not be eating lollies and lots of fruit drinks. Perhaps they had the intention of carrying that out, but when they went shopping with the children, they’d have a tantrum at the shops.
“Solutions can be, give them a healthy snack before you go shopping so they’re not hungry, have someone else do the shopping, get someone to look after them while you do the shopping. Dilute the fruit juice.”
Anthea has worked in rural and remote communities for more than 20 years, firstly in far west NSW and western Victoria, before going to the NT about 10 years ago.
Working in a health promotion and preventative health role, Anthea began to see that eating habits and food preferences really started right from the moment a baby is introduced to solid food.
“The first two years are crucial, an opportune time to shape what a child prefers in terms of taste and food choices, how regularly they eat and patterns of food eating,” she says.
“[Working in family health centres] I could see it was so important to stimulate casual conversations, to step away from your own agenda… You sit and have a conversation about their needs, backing away from the traditional feeling of needing to come up with solutions to what you see are the issues. It works much better.”
Anthea gave the example of concern around children choking, which can conflict with other advice that parents should be giving their children iron-rich foods like meat, which can be one of the trickiest foods for young children to eat. “Then that could lead into discussions about safe eating environments, rather than children eating while they’re walking around,” Anthea points out, “which can then lead onto other discussions such as the gag reflex.
“Then perhaps the discussion will go into increasing textures of food, as speech is related to the development of oral motor skills. Talking and eating are connected. That potentially might lead to a child being taken care of by a speech pathologist or an occupational therapist about sensitivity to foods, and aversions to certain foods.”
Anthea, who completed her PhD in 2020, is now involved in education and student placements for nurses and says this move has given her opportunities to be in contact with stakeholders who can influence the necessary changes. Among other roles, she is now a project director for the Remote Primary Health Care (CARPA) manuals.
“Comprehensive primary health care is talked about, is promoted – but in many instances it’s not carried out,” says Anthea.
“Don’t bombard parents with nutritional knowledge. Maybe the issue for them is a fridge that’s not working well, storage containers that aren’t properly sealed against insects.
Maybe the family doesn’t have a decent knife and chopping board. That’s why they buy prepared food.
“Perhaps set up a programme of community cooking, a community kitchen area, access to storage containers. The store may be throwing out fantastic storage containers that they’d received their bulk food in.
“Many health professionals have established relationships with other organisations in the community – schools, childcare centres, councils,” says Anthea.
“Think about how those associations can be used to improve diet. Identify who you need to be working with across different levels to help create an environment that supports healthy eating.”
For more information on child health and nutrition, you can watch CRANAplus’ free, on-demand, three-part Child Health webinar series, which features Anthea.