It’s a sad fact, that kids (along with the rest of the population) are getting fatter. I think it is so important that we start re-establish what is normal and healthy and to help our children to live long, fruitful, healthy lives.
I know it can be tricky to get kids eating healthily, they are bombarded with adverts and shops shelves lined with sugary snacks and they want what everyone else is eating. As a parent its difficult to know what to give our ever hungry nippers. Even the more ‘healthy’ options are usually still full of sugar that it’s difficult to know which way to turn. This isn’t new of course – I was brought up on sugary, frosted cereals, crisps, biscuits and cakes as regular snacks, chocolate bars and sweets before school… But it is getting worse, dietary excess is taking over, general activity levels are going down and the working lives of parents are getting longer, which means less time for making and enjoying home cooked family meals. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are things we can do to help.
I’m don’t want to claim that I have ALL the answers when it comes to kids and their eating habits, but I have got a few tips and insights that might help you if you want to get your kids on board with a healthier lifestyle.
To gain ignite your motivation, ask yourself why you want your children to eat a healthy diet (then you can remind yourself of this when they’re testing your patience and resolve!!!). These are just a few of the things that are important to me:
1. I’m too busy, and frankly too lazy to cook one meal for me and one for them!! I cook one meal and we ALL eat it. I really don’t believe that children need a special ‘kiddy friendly diet’. Depending on what the meal is, I might sometimes add something to theirs such as a little rice, GF pasta or sweet potato if its a very low carbohydrate meal or maybe add a bit of yoghurt to dull a very spicy dish but really that’s it.
2. The potential health benefits your children will gain are immeasurable – from maintaining (or obtaining) a healthy weight, to improved immune system functioning, improved behaviour and of course reducing their life long risk of certain diseases.
3. If they have any particular symptoms such as eczema, asthma, gastrointestinal discomfort or behavioural or sleep problems then cutting out potential allergens and high sugar foods could just be the key to solving these issues.
4. Sugar is completely unnecessary to human life. It provides no nutritional value and neither adults, nor children need sugar as a pick-me-up, an energy booster or mood lifter. If we eat a healthy, sugar free diet our blood sugar levels should be properly balanced so that we don’t depend on sugar highs for this purpose. We have to change our mind-set from thinking that sugar is a treat, to something that can do us huge amounts of harm. I constantly remind myself of this when my kids are pestering for sweets, cakes and biscuits!
5. You will be setting them up for life with the tools they need to continue to lead a healthy and fit life AND a mature and varied pallet.
Now, I know that the little lovelies can be fussy, stubborn little tinkers at times (I have one in particular who likes to test my reserve with pretty much every meal), so here are some tips to help.
1. Explain why it’s important that they eat a certain way. Stick to the basics and even very young children will understand – food contains nutrients that help our bodies to grow, stop us from getting ill and to do things like learn, run, dance… (appeal to whatever they’re into). Certain foods are rich in these nutrients and help us to be our best and others are full of things that can do our bodies harm – like sugar! Don’t assume that older children just know this either – I didn’t fully understand this basic fact until only recently, but once you do, it really does make you think twice, don’t you think?[As much as my children understand this concept, I am also mindful that I don’t want them to become too obsessed with food. So, I try to set a balance by explaining that they can have things that are bad for them occasionally, as long as they have the good stuff and as long it doesn’t become a main part of their diet.]
2. Be consistent. It would be really confusing to a child to stop them from having something one day and then the next allow them to have that very same thing, particularly as a reward or a ‘treat’. If you are allowing something that you wouldn’t normally (parties are a perfect example of when they, and you, will be put under pressure to conform to the sugar norm), then explain that it is ok to have it occasionally as long as they have eaten their ‘good stuff’ as well.
3. Be firm (but fair). My absolute sticking point is that if somebody refuses to eat a meal, they don’t get offered an alternative and they don’t get a dessert or any snacks until their next meal. This usually does the trick and I’ve only once had to follow through on a threat to go to bed without anything to eat (#nobodystarved!!). In the interest of fairness and also allowing them some autonomy, if they genuinly don’t like something (consistently) then I don’t force them to eat it as long as they are eating a good variety of other things. What I do do is encourage them to try if every now and again and I tend to find that they usually come around (kids are funny creatures!).
Also, if you’ve said ‘no’ to a request for something don’t give in to head battering pleas (it’s tough I know, but), we all know that if you give in once they will know that this is a good tactic to use and they will try it EVERY time!!
4. Ignore the bad and praise the good. A ‘good parenting’ course I attended once taught me a great trick that really does work! If you have a particularly fussy or stubborn eater, instead of giving lots of attention to the ‘bad’ or unwanted behaviours try your best to ignore them and instead give lots and lots of praise to ANY positive behaviours. Even those as basic as sitting at the table or holding a fork – be as enthusiastic as you can and use reward charts if this works for you. For example, you can dismiss moans and refusals to eat easily by saying things like “that’s fine but if you don’t eat X then you won’t get Y” or “yes I heard you but I won’t discuss it”. Then when they get bored of being ignored and start to eat you can say “oh wow look at you being a great eater, look how much you’ve eaten…” Changes might not happen overnight but they will happen.
5. Set good examples. I believe that it is so important to eat with your children whenever you can. I appreciate that this can be difficult if you’re a working parent but doing so whenever you can, can bring great rewards. I hear so many people talk about how their children will eat things at nursery and school that they won’t eat at home – why do you think this is? It’s because they mirror those around them. If they regularly see you eating a balanced diet then hopefully they will follow suit. Can you find 10 minutes in the morning to eat breakfast with them? At weekends, can you make it a priority to eat together? Most importantly, don’t let them see you reaching for the biscuit tin after you’ve told them they can’t have one!!
6. Create a culture of food. Talk about food; discuss their favourites (or their least favourites), tell them about strange things you’ve tried, ask them what they had at school; make it fun – get them to help you in the kitchen, make food look funny by making it into faces or other shapes. If you have a problem eater, rather than constantly criticising them, use other children as a lead example i.e. I really like it when X comes for dinner, he/she is such a great eater, he/she never moans and always eats everything on their plate.
7. Be patient. It can take time to change our habits – none of us really like change, but hopefully you should find that children are better at it than the rest of us!! When I decided to cut sugar out of our food at home and started to make homemade snacks instead of the sugary shop bought ones I was met initially with protests and upturned noses and polite ‘no thank you’s’ but I persevered and I genuinely think it only took a few weeks until their tastes had adapted. Granted, my children are young and impressionable and I don’t doubt for a minute that the older they are the more resistance you will meet but if you believe in it, stick with it and at the very least you will be providing them with an awareness and the knowledge to make the right decisions when they’re ready.
Lastly, good luck and if you have any successes or further tips please share them here!