Child Care Providers' Strategies for Supporting Healthy Eating: A Qualitative Approach

Article excerpt

Recent research has revealed child care settings and providers to be important influences on children's developing behaviors. Yet most research on children's nutritional development has focused on home settings and parents. Thus, through semistructured interviews with child care providers, this study aimed to develop a better understanding of the strategies they perceive to encourage healthy eating in child care settings. Results revealed that providers employ a range of strategies, many of which focus on short-term goals that do not promote the development of healthy long-term nutritional behaviors. By using a social ecological lens, the authors found providers use these strategies due to a combination of pressures from the personal and societal levels of influence. Furthermore, the method of semistructured interviewing allowed for a better understanding of child care settings not achieved through quantitative research. These findings can be used to improve nutritional information sources aimed at providers by considering the challenges specific to child care settings.

Keywords: child care staff, qualitative research, social aspects, child development


Research has revealed Canadian children's diets to be lacking in fruits and vegetables but plentiful in candy, chocolate bars, and soft drinks (Taylor, Evers, & McKenna, 2005). Such dietary behaviors should be concerning, as healthy diets have been linked with healthy weight status, improved cognitive function, physical performance levels, and psychosocial health (O'Dea, 2003). Early childhood experiences are pivotal in developing children's food preferences, which is significant because it is believed that all food preferences and nutritional behaviors are learned (Hendy, 1999; Liem & Menella, 2002). How children actually learn these behaviors is not well understood (Cashdan, 1994; Hendy, 1999; Paquette, 2005). What has been well established is the social environment's paramount role in shaping children's nutritional behaviors, particularly in the development of self-regulation of food intake. Young children are capable of self-regulating the amount of food they require based on their physiological needs (Johnson, 2000). To foster children's development of self-regulation, research recommends that parents employ such strategies as allowing children to eat when they are hungry and allowing children to serve themselves (Birch, 1998; Birch & Davidson, 2001; R. S. Strauss & Knight, 1999). Conversely, when children, especially those between ages 3 to 5 years, are socialized to ignore their internal hunger and satiety cues and instead rely on external cues, such as adults controlling the amount of food they eat, they may lose their capacity to self-regulate (Birch & Davidson, 2001; Birch, McPhee, Shoba, Pirok, & Steinberg, 1987).

Still, to date, the majority of research examining the impact of the social environment on nutritional behavior development has centered on parents (Moore et al., 2005; Story, Kaphingst, & French, 2006). Considering the impact of other significant social influences in the lives of young children is crucial to gaining a fuller understanding of how healthy dietary behaviors are shaped (Lumeng, Kaplan-Sanoff, Shuman, & Kannan, 2008; Lytle, 2005; Moore et al., 2005; Needham, Dwyer, Randall-Simpson, & Heeney, 2007; Story et al., 2006). Further, a qualitative research approach has been recommended to develop a more well-rounded understanding of how people perceive food and nutrition (Matheson, Spranger, & Saxe, 2002; Taylor et al., 2005).

Over the past decade, the number of Canadian children in child care has risen significantly, and thus child care providers have become important influences in the lives of many children. More than one half of Canadian children between ages 6 months to 5 years, regardless of their demographic background, typically spend more than 27 hours per week in child care (Statistics Canada, 2005). …