Nourishing children is a topic dear to my heart … and as such, one I am going to have to break down into little bite-size pieces to cover. Welcome to my first post in a series called ‘The Well Nourished Child.’ After many years of treating children, and then raising my own as well as socialising with many children, I have come to realise several trends in the development of poor eating habits amongst children. Poor health and nutrition levels in children is worrisome – how is it that we have well fed, but malnourished children in our developed country? This post is where I tackle the issue of childhood nutrition and how to develop healthy eating habits in children. Please help me shape the content by commenting and asking questions. Enjoy.
Family meals matter – in ways that you may have never considered.
I believe there are many aspects to feeding children well and avoiding the endemic food fussiness that places so much stress, on so many families. As every child and family are different, I am going to start with the basics, and in subsequent posts, address the details. I really hope that my approach doesn’t appear preachy – I don’t have all of the answers but I hopefully have some useful suggestions. So before I delve into the nitty-gritty of this topic, I need to convey the single most important thing required to develop a healthy relationship between your child and the food they eat…
To begin with…
I am going to ask all parents to consider their food philosophy? What role has food in your family? Is dinner a time to relax, enjoy a meal together and share the day’s events; or are meal times a battlefield with children and adults eating at different times, in front of the television, or children holding parents to ransom with fussiness? If it’s the latter, then you need to read on.
Be a role model
Eating food is so much more than a nutritional or biological necessity. Historically, eating was not only about nourishment but desire, pleasure and a link to the family culture and the social or celebratory aspects of one’s life.
Role modelling the enjoyment of eating a healthy meal to children begins with parents. If you are not eating with your children, then this is the first and most important change that you need to make. Please make a commitment to eating your meal in a relaxed environment. Yes, I understand that ‘relaxed’ and ‘children’ don’t often go hand in hand…
So when all is not going to plan?
Disruptions during dinner can be minimised by –
1) Avoiding any distractions like television or toys at the table.
2) Make sure your children are hungry. If they’ve been given a snack too late in the day and they have no appetite, then dinner won’t be appealing (and they’ll fuss twice as much). My general rule is no snacks at least 2 hours before meal times. If my children are moaning for food whilst I’m preparing it, then I often give them a little of what I’m preparing. For example, if I’m cutting carrots, then I will hand over a piece of raw carrot. If they baulk at it, then they are obviously not that hungry!
3) If chaos starts to erupt during dinner, try diversions first. Initiate conversation about topics of interest to your child. Discuss how great the food tastes, what your favourite part is – genuinely engage in the pleasure of sharing a meal (just no bad acting please)! My family often have competitions trying to guess the ingredients in the meal I’ve made. This is a great tool to develop food awareness in children.
4) Like any part of child rearing, children need boundaries, even at meal times. In our house, it may seem old fashioned, but my kids do not leave the table without asking. If we are not onto this I find they are up and down like yoyo’s, distracting one another and a relaxing dinner just goes out the window. So yes, there is some discipline involved in meal times and like any form of discipline, persistence pays off.
5) Please try not to stress at the dinner table – I will post soon on what to do when kids don’t want to eat what you’ve made. This seems to be one of the biggest stressors for parents. I understand how frustrating this is though the way you deal with fussiness will either perpetuate it or resolve it. Another big topic to cover!
Why do family meals matter?
Sharing mealtimes with your children will positively impact on all of your eating experiences and can dramatically improve the health of the whole family. Children who eat, as many meals as circumstances allow at a table with their family, are more open to trying new foods and develop a healthy relationship with food. A Harvard study confirmed that children having dinner as a family most days were also more likely to consume more fruit and vegetables and generally have a higher intake of nutrients. Another study proposed that sharing just three meals a week, reduced the odds of children becoming overweight adults by 12 percent. Once more, the health benefits extend beyond the physical. Dining together as a family is often the time we socialise and converse with our loved ones. As parents, we not only demonstrate the values of healthy eating (hopefully) but teach social values, table manners and the art of conversation. This is so simple but so very important for the health of the family unit. Studies have confirmed that sharing meals through the teen years will reduce the likelihood of the development of eating disorders and depression, as well as children being less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or try illicit drugs.
So try to share at least dinner as a family. Most of the families I’ve worked with who’ve had issues with fussiness have often resolved these issues by simply sharing dining experiences with their children. It’s important that you are sharing the same meals, and finding even just a little genuine pleasure in the experience.
Don’t expect fusspots to come around immediately, persist and I promise they will find the same pleasure in eating healthy food as you do.