A Unique Child: Nutrition - A Finnish first

Monday, March 5, 2018

In Finland, pre-school children have become the focus of nutrition guidelines for the first time.

Finland’s National Nutrition Council has issued advice on serving ‘nutritionally adequate and health-promoting’ meals and providing food education in early years settings. Advice had previously been released for higher education institutions and schools only.

Research professor and Nutrition Council member Suvi Virtanen, of the National Institute for Health and Welfare, says, ‘Finnish children eat far too few vegetables. Early years education provides an ideal opportunity to promote the use of vegetables in meal planning.’

The report says that while the majority of Finnish children enjoy high standards of nutrition, school-age children eat just one half of the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day. Their diets deteriorate significantly after their first year at school as they start sharing family meals and consume more sugar, salt, saturated fat and animal proteins. The guidance adds that families with low incomes, little education or where the parents are very young were most likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles. It highlights the importance of early years settings in levelling out nutritional inequalities caused by family background.

HOME AND AWAY

The guidelines suggest children attending nursery often have healthier diets than those cared for at home. However, shrinking budgets have meant many Finnish care providers struggle to meet the highest nutritional standards, particularly with special dietary requirements.

Ms Virtanen explains, ‘Ministers’ children and children with unemployed parents get the same services. There are practically no private kindergartens. In Finnish schools and primary education services the food is free of charge and should be planned according to our criteria. The same goes for the three meals in primary education services. The price is the main challenge for childcare providers.’

The recommendations provide recipe suggestions to help practitioners put together balanced meals for young children, and emphasise the importance of helping children develop positive eating habits and get used to new foods.

In the Finnish system, food plays an important role in the curriculum, with home economics and health education as school subjects. Education Ministry senior advisor Pia Kola-Torvinen says, ‘Mealtime is an important part of early childhood education. It is part of day-to-day pedagogical activity, but also a key element in a child’s healthy growth and development. Taste preferences and eating habits are formed early on and extend far into the future.’

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