As a mum who is fanatic about food, I am always thinking of ways to ensure my boys are getting everything they need from their diet whilst making it fun and enjoyable. In fact, here is my son Luca making some great fruit collages today which he is excited to be serving us all for pudding later this evening:
One thing I am often asked is whether there are any specific nutritional guidelines for children that parents should be following. As most guidelines are actually proportionate to body-weight, the answer is no. In fact, we should spend less time thinking about which particular macro-nutrients or how many calories we are providing our children with and should instead focus much more on the environment that we create and the language we use when it comes to food and eating. In order to encourage nutritionally literate young adults, we need to make food fun! We need to avoid demonising any foods and make a variety of fresh, whole foods available to them.
It is important that we encourage healthy behaviours and allow children to experiment and listen to their own hunger and fullness signals. This is not always easy if you were brought up in a household where you could not leave the table until your plate was clean as I was! But the truth is that children will naturally eat until they are full and/or when they want to if they are provided with a good variety of nutritious foods and nothing is overly restricted. As with anything, balance is the key and if we allow our children to become more intuitive eaters then we will avoid them experiencing psychological issues that can lead to disordered eating in later life.
Top Tips To Encourage Healthy Eaters
So, how do we go about this? Well we all know how important it is to make sure our children are eating enough fruit and vegetables so here are my top tips to get children wanting to eat more of the good stuff! Empowering them to make healthy choices themselves rather than inflicting it upon them not only makes our lives easier, it will instil the habits necessary to avoid obesity and disease either in childhood or later life.
- Let your children choose fruits and vegetables that appeal to them when you go shopping. I often do this and it usually means that I am not left with unwanted fruit in the fruit bowl! Children’s tastes and preferences change all the time, what went down well last week might not this week. But if your children are involved in the process, they are much more likely to want to eat that melon or those runner beans that otherwise may have seemed boring!
- Make food look fun! You can either do this yourself by using cookie cutters to make shapes out of fruit, sandwiches etc for their lunchboxes or you can encourage your children to make their own food fun like I did above with Luca or in my previous fruity snacks post.
- Involve your children in the food preparation process. This doesn’t mean handing them over a knife and praying they don’t lose a finger! You can do this by asking them to peel fruits, wash the potatoes or even just watch you. It is all too easy to shoo our children away when we are cooking because they ‘are in the way’ but satisfying their inquisitive minds will encourage them to eat what is on their plate!
- Offer a raw or cooked vegetable option. This is again something I do regularly. Before cooking my carrots, peppers, even broccoli stalks, I ask my boys how they would like them today. This helps to keep their interest and stops the inevitable ‘oh not broccoli AGAIN mum…’ Simply varying how I serve things ensures I get vegetables in to most main meals and avoids a lot of resistance.
- Be persistent. It can take 10-15 times attempts to get children to try new foods so don’t give up. But equally don’t force them! Just keep offering the foods they are reluctant to try and the chance are that they eventually will.
- Let them feel and smell foods. My 4 year old does this ALOT! When introducing something new, he first has to look at it in detail. He will then smell it and feel the texture before deciding whether he will try it. I often have to repeat this process a few times but 9/10, if he has shown the initial interest, he will eventually give in to his curiosity. And if he still doesn’t like it, I don’t pressure him to finish it but I will sometimes revisit it further down the line.
- Be a positive role model. Children love to mimick us and feel more grown up so let them see you eating a variety of fresh fruit and veg. I often have a ‘healthy’ snack time where we all eat together.
- Have lots of food variety. Including lots of different coloured fruits and vegetables in their diet is another good way to stop them getting bored with the same tastes. I get my boys to count the number of different coloured fruits and vegetables they have had at the end of most days. It is also a great way of making sure they are getting as many vitamins and minerals as possible.
- Start your own fruit and veg patch. Not only will this educate them on how different fruits and vegetables grow, it will make them feel proud to be eating things that they have had hands on experience with. It also a great way to keep them occupied during the summer holidays!
- Always have fresh fruit and veg available. Keep a fruit bowl out on your kitchen table and have cucumber, carrot and celery sticks stocked up in your fridge. You can also freeze things like grapes – they are a great alternative to Haribo that my kids love! This is not only creates a positive food environment, it makes it much easier for you to select healthy snacks for them when they get peckish in between meals.
- Make healthy dips with them. In order to make those vegetable sticks or fruit chunks more appealing, make dips like hummus or fruity yogurt and encourage them to be involved in the process.
- Praise your child. When they are eating healthy food, make sure you positively reinforce it. Explain that it will help them to grow big and strong, will help them play football better and make their brain work faster!
- Don’t demonise. On the flip side, if they do have treats etc then do not make them feel bad about it or tell them it will make them ‘fat’. Let them enjoy what they are eating without making it seem naughty or a ‘one-off’. The chances are they is they don’t feel restricted or pressured when having less healthy food, they wont want it as much!
I could go on but I will it there for now! Fundamentally these ideas are intended to help you empower your children to make healthier choices by creating a positive food environment both physically and through the language we communicate with. Excellent food literacy is what we should be aiming for with our children. This means allowing them to understand what is good for them and why whilst also demonstrating that balance is important and treats are OK within the context of a nutritious, healthy diet.