Guide your kids to eat better

PUNCH Newspaper

Healthy eating is essential for your children’s growth and development. It will stabilise your children’s energy, sharpen their minds, and even improve their congenital and cognitive development.

Experts have linked poor nutrition in children to poor academic performance. While peer pressure and TV commercials for junk food can make getting kids to eat well seem impossible, there are steps parents can take to instill healthy eating habits without turning meal times into a battle zone.

By encouraging healthy eating habits now, you can make a huge impact on your children’s lifelong relationship with food and give them the best opportunity to grow into healthy, confident adults. Children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most; so, the challenge for parents is to make healthy choices appealing.

Of course, no matter how good your intentions, it’s always going to be difficult to convince your eight-year-old that eating beans is as sweet a treat as a cookie. However, you can ensure that your children’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing for some of their favourite treats.

The childhood impulse to imitate is strong, so it’s important parents act as a role model for their kids. It’s no good asking your child to eat fruit and vegetables while you gorge on potato chips and soft drinks.

It is especially more difficult for parents to get their toddlers and teenagers to eat a balanced meal. A nutritionist, who’s also the mother of seven-year-old triplets, Dr. Shirley Smith, says toddlers should be introduced to new tastes and textures as they transition from baby food to “real” food.

Smith says, “Parents must keep in mind that toddlers have very small stomachs. It may be better to feed them five or six small meals a day, rather than three large ones. Depending on age, size, and activity level, your toddler needs between 1,000-1,400 calories a day. It is perfectly normal for your child to be ravenous one day and shun food the next. Don’t worry if your child’s diet isn’t up to par every day — as long as he or she seems satisfied and is getting a well-rounded diet.”

The nutritionist warns that parents should avoid giving their kids processed, packaged, restaurant, and fast food. Smith adds that processed foods like canned soups or frozen dinners contain hidden sodium that could make them hypertensive and obese as they grow older. “Try as much as possible to cook fresh meals for your kids,” she counsels.

She also gives tried-and-true tips for getting children to eat vegetables, drink milk, try new foods, and more.

•Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since kids who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.

• Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for kids about the importance of food. Restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. Save dining out for special occasions.

• Get kids involved. Children enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It’s also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels.

• Make a variety of healthy snacks available instead of empty calorie snacks. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) around and easily accessible so kids become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of empty calorie snacks like soda, chips, or cookies.

• Limit portion sizes. Don’t insist your child cleans the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe. As hard as this may be, try not to comment on what or how much your kids are eating. Be as neutral as possible. Remember, you’ve done your job as a parent by serving balanced meals; your kids are responsible for eating them. If you play food enforcer — saying things like ‘eat your vegetables’ — your child will only resist.

• Make mornings count. Most families don’t eat enough fibre on a daily basis, and breakfast is an easy place to sneak it in. Look for high-fibre cereals for a quick fix or sneak in soy. Even if your kids don’t have milk allergies, soy milk is a terrific source of healthy phytochemicals. Kids don’t like soy milk, but they also don’t notice when it’s hidden in a recipe. Use the low-fat, calcium-fortified kind in some recipes that call for milk, such as oatmeal, mashed potatoes, and sauces.

•Get kids cooking. If your children become involved in choosing or preparing meals, they’ll be more interested in eating what they’ve created. Take them to the store, and let them choose produce for you. If they’re old enough, allow them to cut up vegetables and mix them into a salad. Although they may refuse to eat fresh fruit, blend it as a juice.

•Cut back on junk. Remember, you — not your kids — are in charge of the foods that enter the house. By having fewer junk foods around, you’ll force your children to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.

•Be a role model. If you’re constantly on a diet or have erratic eating habits, your children will grow up thinking that this sort of behaviour is normal. Be honest with yourself about the kinds of food messages you’re sending. Trust your body to tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full, and your kids will learn to do the same.

•Adjust your attitude. Realise that what your kids eat over time is what matters. Having popcorn at the movies or eating an ice-cream sundae are some of life’s real pleasures. As long as you balance these times with smart food choices and physical activity, your children will be fine.

Remember, they may protest at first, but they will get used to the routine. Cook some soul-food for your family this weekend.


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