In modern times we are becoming increasingly aware of the shortcomings of the foods we are feeding our children. Surveys show that children and teenagers are eating higher levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fat than government guidelines recommend, and are failing to reach the recommended target for fruit and vegetable portions. This means that they are potentially missing out on vital nutrients that contribute to optimum development.
So, in practical terms, what can parents do to ensure children develop healthy eating habits?
Here are 10 tips to follow when considering your children and their nutrition:
- Eat with your children. Children learn by example — so unfortunately if you scoff down junk food in front of the TV, they will soon learn to do the same! Make mealtimes enjoyable: set the table, discuss the day’s events, turn off the TV and put on some music or enjoy the silence. ‘Family’ eating not only promotes home-cooked (and therefore usually more balanced) meals, it also fosters a sense of routine and encourages social interaction — all of which lead to better eating habits later in life.
- Make food fun! Experiment with new foods and make meals as colourful and as rich in variety as possible. We are naturally ‘turned on’ by diversity — so the more visually stimulating a meal appears, and the more textures it incorporates, the more likely your children will be to tuck in!
- Include veg in evening meals. This will help ensure that your children get the bulk of their recommended vegetable intake at dinnertime, even if lunch has been less than ideal.
- ‘Hide’ fruit and vegetables if necessary. Blend it into soups, chop it finely into lasagne and bolognese, make strawberry ice cream, and whip up fruit smoothies.
- Encourage children to drink water or sugar-free diluting juice between meals. This will help prevent dehydration, which can lead to constipation and poor concentration.
- Try serving the same foods in different forms. If you have a fussy eater in the household, don’t give up hope. Children’s tastes often change as they grow older. Keep trying, but don’t focus too much on the issue. For example, people who dislike the texture of broccoli often find it more palatable in a sauce or soup.
- Include a portion of lean meat or another protein in every meal. This will help keep children fuller for longer and will discourage snacking later in the day/evening. Red meat will also provide iron — which is particularly important for girls, who tend to eat less red meat of their own accord, yet whose iron needs increase as they begin menstruation.
- Serve oily fish twice a week. These are a rich source of omega oils, which can help keep heart and mind healthy; try salmon, fresh tuna and grilled sardines. If your children find the taste too overwhelming, add seeds to their breakfast cereals for plant versions of these oils.
- Pack a healthy lunchbox. ‘Disguise’ vegetables in sandwich fillings, vary the fillings as much as possible, provide plain yogurt and a piece of fruit that’s easy to eat. Children can be very particular about fruit; often if it is too messy or difficult to prepare, they won’t bother eating it. Aim to give them small apples, bananas and grapes, which are easy to hold, peel and eat.
- Make sure your children eat breakfast. This will ensure a steady supply of energy to get them through the morning, help maintain attention span and discourage snacking. It will also help them to develop a habit of breakfast-eating that will hopefully spill over into adulthood. Studies have shown that adults who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight than those who skip it. Fortified breakfast cereals can also be a good source of iron and B vitamins.
Minerals to consider
Two particularly important minerals for school-aged children and teenagers are calcium and iron, which help strengthen teeth and bones and prevent anemia, poor concentration and lethargy respectively. To ensure that children’s needs are met, include milk and other dairy products, pulses, lean red meat and green leafy vegetables frequently in meals. Foods containing Vitamin C — such as orange juice — can also increase iron intake if drunk alongside iron-rich foods.
Making mealtimes fun
Keep food and mealtimes enjoyable! Encourage a healthy attitude towards food as well as a healthy diet. A little of what you and your children fancy will do you no harm as long as it is eaten as a small part of a diverse range of foods. Avoid focusing on weight, size or body image, and instead concentrate on the benefits and pleasures of eating well and plentifully.