• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 08th February, 2008

There is such a thing as a free lunch – incredible!

When the Incredible Years program was implemented in parts of Wales under the aegis of Sure Start, it included a simple dietary component – lunch for children and their parents and group leaders before or after the sessions. Everybody sat down to eat together. A detail it may have been, but this aspect of the program had very positive feedback from parents as well as group leaders and seemed to add significantly to the value of an initiative whose success and expert evaluation have been widely reported. [See: Sure Start made more credible by success of Incredible Years, How Wales gave Sure Start a convincing beginning and Learning the moral of the Sure Start story?]Group leaders said the lunches created an an opportunity to develop relationships with the families – and gave parents a gentle inducement to attend. For some parents the occasion also amounted to a small financial bonus because it was one meal fewer that they had to buy and prepare themselves. For others on the verge of social exclusion, sharing a meal allowed them to feel they were participating and it helped their children to develop new social skills.As for what was being eaten, an observed mealtime made it possible to introduce children to healthier foods and to show parents their children cheerfully eating things they might normally reject. Other potential benefits were to do with the dietary components. Copious amounts of research highlight the importance of a well-balanced diet in the promotion of good physical health; the government’s “five-a-day” message is an example of the kind of output being generated. It is likely that diet has a wider impact on mental health and possibly affects behavior and cognitive skills. There are strengthening grounds for suggesting that nutrition contributes to depression and schizophrenia, aggressive behavior and concentration and reading ability. Consider the goals of Incredible Years – to strengthen social skills, promote self-control, boost academic success, reduce aggressive behavior and increase self-esteem in children – and it’s easy to see where a dietary component might fit the plan.Other programs recognize it, too. The Nurse Family Partnership and Mind, Exercise, Nutrition…Do It! (The MEND program), for example, both contain a dietary component. However, the focus in these cases tends to be the physical benefit of appropriate nutrition; they rarely consider other possible gains. Other child well-being programs are slowly catching up, but doubts remain about the significance of the impact of nutrition – especially in relation to community (rather than clinical) populations.In the future it is possible that good nutrition becomes something in which the whole family and all families have a common interest. Including a dietary component in child well-being programs and making food education compulsory once again in schools (as is already happening in Scotland at least) is only the beginning. ReferencesVan de Weyer, C. (2005) "Changing diets, changing minds: how food affects mental well-being and behaviour", London, SUSTAINRichardson, A. and Montgomery, P (2005) "The Oxford-Durham study: a randomised, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with development co-ordination disorder", Pediatrics, 115, 5, pp1360-1366Gesch, B., Hammond, S., Hampson, S., Eves, A. , and Crowder, M. (2002) "Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the anti-social behaviour of young adult prisoners", British Journal of Psychiatry, 181, pp22-28

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