Birtenshaw School in Bolton won the Tes Healthy School of the Year Award.

The school caters for up to 60 pupils aged 3-19 years old with special education needs and or disability.

It places a premium on ensuring that its children eat healthily, exercise well and are supported to make healthy life choices.

This can present a particular challenge for a school serving pupils with additional needs who may find mealtimes difficult or distressing.

Here, head of school Kaylie Crompton shares the school’s five top tips for ensuring pupils with SEND can eat healthy diets.

1 Separate foods

You need to always consider the reasons why some children are not eating certain foods. You need to think about sensory processing needs. If you can imagine eating something like a cottage pie which has meat in it and mashed potato and peas in it and gravy – all of those of textures and tastes can be a little bit too much, so try separating food and putting mash in one bowl, mince in another, gravy in another so that they can slowly start to try out different types of foods rather than them being in one bowl together. It really works.

2 Don’t forget flavour

You may have found that children with special educational needs and disability and particularly autism will seek crunchy foods, beige foods, burnt potatoes or toast. Sometimes this is linked to sensory processing needs and seeking that really crunchy texture, so we have introduced carrots and peppers onto our salad bar and a bottle of hot sauce at the side so they can get that punchy flavour [that] encourages them to eat different foods.

3 Take the stress out of new foods

It is really important that children are relaxed and comfortable when you are introducing new foods. If mealtimes are stressful then children will associate food with feeling stressed. Let children play and explore food when they have already eaten and feel full up and comfortable. This way they can explore new foods without feeling like they are pressured to eat them. You may use vegetables or raisins as counters in maths or use some foods such as honey for messy play.

4. Give children time to get ready for mealtimes

Always make sure children have enough time to process what is happening and when. Telling a child it is breakfast or tea time and then expecting them to be there ready to eat is only going to cause anxiety and stress because they might feel rushed. Try using verbal prompts or visual prompts such as sand timers 10 minutes before mealtimes. Give the prompt or show the child the timer, say “dinner time, 10 minutes” and walk away. Allowing children time to process what is happening without feeling stressed or rushed will prevent that feeling of stress being associated with food.

5. Never make food a reward

Never, ever use food as a reward. If children think of food as a reward or something they have to work towards or something that they don’t get because they have presented a particular challenging behaviour, they are always going to associate food with feeling stress and anxiety. You need to find something else to use as a reward. Never, ever use food.