Whatever is presented on a child’s plate and the way a child is encouraged to eat will define their relationship with food.
Creating Healthy Eating Habits for Kids
“Open wide for the airplane”… “Eat your greens”…”Waste not want not” ….“Think of all those starving children”…
How many times do you think a parent coerces a child into finishing a meal? From persisting with a baby’s bottle of milk, to obsessively shovelling mushed up sweet potato into a toddlers mouth, parents are exhaustingly committed to ensuring their little ones eat and thrive. Some parents are great meal planners, whilst others look despairingly into the fridge for a quick fix inspiration when their children are already crawling up the walls with hunger. Whereas some children eat whatever they are given, others will put up a good fight. Either way, whatever is presented on a child’s plate and the way a child is encouraged to eat will define its relationship with food.
Modern family life is faster paced than ever before. Families are rushing around, ferrying children to multiple activities, travelling abroad and eating out. Parents are often overstretched and underfunded, resulting in cheap unhealthy fast food for their kids. As such, we are seeing an unprecedented rise in child obesity and diabetes. “If Obama wanted to make radical changes to America’s health long-term, all he has to do is treble the price of sugar and salt” says Jamie Oliver, British celebrity chef. Documentaries such as Food Inc. highlight the culpability of corporations and the US government in their promotion and subsidy of unhealthy agribusiness over organic and natural farming methods. For example, the US production of corn is heavily subsidised, making it and its cheap derivative products the main ingredients of fast food. The film states: “The price of an organic broccoli in the US is the same as a family meal at Taco Bell.” Go figure…
However, there is an increasing backlash against bad food, with consumers wising up to the ethos, ’you are what you eat’. Many parents are desperate to get their kids eating well and want to know that each bite they take is going to help their physical and and mental development. A rise in ‘health casual’ restaurants and a flourish of ‘intelligent’ children’s food companies, bring high hopes for the next generation of fast foodies. Companies like ‘Ella’s kitchen’ and ‘Smart Infused Fud’ pack a nutritional punch, mixing superfoods into kids quick meals. “If you eat smart, you think smart!” says Hattie Mauleverer, founder of Smart Infused Fud.
However, nothing can provide a better basis for good eating habits than having a child involved in the creation of its own meal, and the earlier the better. If they are involved in the cooking and preparing, they are most likely going to want to eat it too. Getting them to choose a recipe or a cookbook doubles up as both a fun activity. And understanding where their food comes from is invaluable. Picking out fruit and vegetables at the supermarket for their own meal empowers them and is a great way to teach new words, colours, and numbers. Even better than supermarket shopping is seeing food at its source. Organising a trip to a farm so a child can understand that milk comes from cows and that eggs come from chickens (or indeed that chickens come from eggs…) is a great start in their relationship with food. If a farm is unrealistic then planting a kitchen garden or herb pot so they can grow their own food is also a good idea.
With fussy eaters, parents have to get creative and be persistent. It can be time consuming, and extremely frustrating, but like most things, the more you put into it the more you will get out. Rather than punishing or bribing (or giving up!), presenting the food in different ways can work well. Most children need multiple exposures to try new foods. Sneaking greens into a meatball, smoothie or a homemade ice lolly often works a treat, or presenting food in the shape of a face, airplane etc.. can distract them from what is inside! Try giving them a choice so they become master of their own food universe… will you have grapes or apple? Broccoli or carrot? This works as long as you don’t cave in with a cookie!
Celebrating food as a family at mealtimes is an important way to nurture healthy eating habits. Children watch and learn from other children and adults about food choices. The focus at mealtime with adults is not on finishing your plate, but on the enjoyment and social interaction that food can bring. “Children’s bodies are little temples; fostering good eating habits early on will carry them through life”. says Lohralee Astor, nutritionist & author of “Feeding the Future.”
For many families, price will dictate what ends up on the table, but good food does not need to be a luxury. Researching cost effective and smart natural food choices can make a big difference, as can making a weekly meal plan that makes good food stretch further. Children love routine, and knowing which meal is coming next. Ensuring that their meals and post activity snacks are well anticipated to avoid any sugar lows will make both of your days a smoother process. Stocking up the fridge with cucumber and carrot sticks (and dipping in hummus) is always a good idea. If you make sure your kitchen is void of unhealthy food, you are much more likely to set a better example of healthy snacking.
Adults are such important role models for children and are responsible for shaping the future of the next generation. It is more important than ever to teach a child’s eating habits at home and at school so they can grow up to instinctively make healthy choices.