It’s horrifying to imagine that any good parent would ever knowingly harm their children. The harsh reality, however, is that this is distinctly possible and it’s happening all of the time. Sadly, it is possible to harm our children by consistently feeding them low nutrition food, junk food, throughout their essential formative years.
As we are facing a global epidemic of obesity, “globesity”, there has therefore never been a more appropriate time to start considering what and how we are feeding our children. We all know how hard it is to change our eating habits in adult life so the most logical way to help prevent further obesity is by instilling good habits at an early age. Simple right? If only ….
Why aren’t children eating healthily?
Bringing up children to eat a healthy, varied diet is not a new concept; I don’t know about you but I certainly remember my mother and her mother before that trying to get me to eat more fruit and veg so what went wrong? Why are so many adults today unable to make consistently sensible nutritional choices? Well firstly we can’t escape ‘fast’ foods; they are becoming more and more prevalent in our every day lives. The rat race has become faster, more competitive; women are working harder and no one has the time (or inclination) to dedicate to home cooking that our ancestors did. Combined with an increased availability of processed foods and there you have the recipe for ‘globesity’. If we as adults are struggling to eat fresh, whole foods, what kind of eating habits are we promoting? So imagine how much more difficult it is going to be for our children to make the choices that will enable them to live long, vigorous lives.
Trying to get children to eat healthily isn’t working
But we all know this; ‘healthy eating’ campaigns aimed at parents are not new and the media has had a field day of late. Yet how many of these strategies are practical or even based on sound evidence? They may have snappy slogans and catchy jingles but have you tried limiting your active 7 year old to 2 100 calorie snacks a day? I have and trust me it was hell on earth! Therefore, it is very common for parents to put pressure on their children to eat more fruit and vegetables and/or restrict ‘unhealthy’ foods.
Furthermore, many parents will reward their children with sweets and treats in a desperate attempt to get them to eat better. Hail confused little ones!! But a comprehensive research review has revealed that these approaches actually have the opposite effect and negatively impact on children’s eating behaviours; ironic hey?! I mean who wants what they can’t have….??
Tip 1 – One mouthful rule
If you are serving something your child doesn’t like, have a one mouthful rule. This way they are not being forced to eat but are learning to try new things. The more often we try things, the more palatable they become.
Tip 2 – Let them go hungry
I know this seems to go against the grain but this has really helped with my boys. If they could, they would graze all day. I fell in to the trap of allowing this but then would get frustrated and irate when they turned their nose up at my home-cooked meals (yes despite working full time, I do try my best….). Snacks still have their place but choose them wisely…a carrot will keep them happy without filling them up 10 minutes before a meal. Not only have I found that they eat more as a result, they are more willing to try the different foods I put in from of them when their tummies are rumbling.
Tip 3 – Eat as a family
We hear this all the time and I know that it isn’t always possible but even if it’s just once or twice a week, it will make a difference. Give them that carrot when they are ‘starving’ after school and then sit down as a family once you have had time to cook (and breathe…). Not only does this avoid you cooking twice, it makes eating a social occurrence where children are often more relaxed and willing to push their own boundaries. You don’t always have to eat the same; in fact I often find then when I have something different my children are more likely to want to try it! The key is that we are eating together.
Tip 4 – Make healthy choices available
I always make the fruit bowl accessible for my children and have carrots, cucumber, celery and tomatoes available at the drop of a hat. If they ask for a snack, I default to those. Granted it doesn’t work every single time but more often than not it does! I have also started to challenge my children to eat as many different coloured fruits/vegetable as they can a day and they have created a chart to record this. Also try to prepare as many crisp and sweet alternatives as I can at the weekend. For example I make dried fruit chips; apple and banana work really well, just slice and bake, voila! You can add cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla essence or they are just yummy as they are. I also use stale bread or wraps to make ‘crust’ bread or tortilla crisps, this are a huge hit and are much healthier than a bag of crisps!
Tip 5 – Involve them
Let your children be involved in preparing food whenever possible. I must admit that this is something I struggle with as I hate mess but every now and then I bite the bullet! Being involved in the process not only give them more intrinsic motivation to eat the food, it also encourages them to try new tastes, combinations of flavour and texture (often children don’t like the texture of food rather than the taste). Something else I have found useful with my youngest son is letting him see food as it is cooking in the oven or on the hob. Approach this with caution of course, you don’t want them to hurt themselves, but this intrigue in how food cooks is good and should be exploited!
Tip 6 – Modelling
A study revealed that mothers who eat more fruit and vegetables are less likely to have to pressure their children eat. A high quality maternal diet combined with reduced pressure led to less picky eaters who ate more fruit and vegetables. Win win!! Modelling positive eating behaviours has a much more powerful impact on our children than insisting they eat certain things.
Tip 7 – Let them grow!
This is work in progress for me but another study has found that engaging children in growing and cultivating their own food not only promotes healthier eating habits, it encourages critical thinking and planning. I did this recently with my boys. We created a small patch in the garden and I asked my eldest to think about what he wanted to plant and how he would do it. We then all dug and planted the seeds together and even my husband got involved; it has become a family project. Admittedly we are still waiting for our vegetables to grow but it has been an invaluable learning experience for us. Being conscious of and learning about nutrition has become a family aim.
I could go on but these are my top tips that have not only been tried and tested in my home, they are also backed by research. They won’t work for everyone and you will have to think about how you as a parent approach things but we owe it to our children! No matter how busy life gets or how ingrained in our own habits we are, our children are our most precious gift.
This was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery, Specialist Nutrition Coach at Transformational Nutrition.