Every parent wants to raise kids with a positive attitude towards food. Paediatric nutrition expert Debbie Iles shows you tactics to give your kids good food habits for life.
When television personality Chrissie Swan spoke out last year about her shame and anguish that her three-year-old son was seven kilos overweight, it unleashed a heated public debate. Some people accused her of failing as a mother, while others were sympathetic and supportive.
It certainly touched on a raw parental nerve. Because, right up there with wishing that our kids turn out to be popular, successful at school and grow into happy, well-adjusted adults, is a deep-seated desire for them to have fit, active bodies and to grow up with no weight issues or food hangs ups. Yet, a quarter of children in Australia are now overweight or obese.
As Chrissie touchingly described, having an overweight child is not for a lack of love or good parenting – or even eating too much junk. More often than not, it's down to mixed messages, too much of a good thing (in Chrissie's son's case four bananas, three mandarins, a punnet of strawberries and four cheese sticks as snacks a day) and not enough emphasis on physical activity.
So, how do we best deal with the whole subject of food in a delicate and healthy manner that will encourage body love and a healthy attitude towards food in our children?
Eating well for a healthy weight
Teach by example
Children learn by example. They need to see their parents display healthy and positive attitudes to food as well as body image. This includes watching their parents eat and enjoy fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods.
Teaching children moderation and that all foods can be enjoyed at the right times is the key. That is, some foods are everyday foods and other foods (like chocolate, chips or creamy pasta) can be enjoyed without guilt as occasional treats.
As adults, we need to carefully consider how we critique our own and others' bodies around our children. We should also try to avoid showing any negative emotions in response to the foods we eat.
Try to avoid
Giving foods negative names, eg. 'chocolate is a bad food
Saying you feel fat after a big meal
Talking about feeling guilty after eating
Teach them about how food affects their bodies
Teaching children about food and why their bodies need food may help them to relate to food in a positive manner. That can be as simple as talking about the foods you're packing in their lunch and explaining how different foods have different purposes, like helping them grow strong or run fast. Teenagers may like to know that eating breakfast will help them concentrate better for exams, or prevent them from being too hungry throughout the day.
Keep chats about food fun, informal and age related. Here are some examples of what you might like to discuss:
When you serve bread, potatoes, cereal, pasta, crackers, rice, porridge (carbohydrates) You say, ‘It's fuel for the brain, helps us concentrate, gives us energy to run and play hide and seek’
When you serve chicken, eggs, fish, tofu, beef (protein) You say, ‘This helps our muscles grow strong’
When you serve oily fish, nuts, avocado (good fats) You say, ‘We need this for our brains and eyes, and to help us absorb some vitamins from the foods we eat’
When you serve milk, cheese, yoghurt (dairy) You say, ‘This helps our bones grow strong’
Encourage appetite awareness
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the ability to feel and trust their own appetite. A recent study in New Zealand suggested a link between eating for hunger (responding to satiety) and a lower Body Mass Index.
Listen to your children when they tell you they are hungry or full and allow them to eat as much or as little as they like.
The Division of Responsibility is now a widely recognised, healthy approach to family eating. The principles are simple: you, as the parent, decide which foods to provide your child. And it is then up to your child to choose how much they eat. It is up to you to serve your child a nutritious dinner, stock the fridge with lots of vegetables and healthy snacks, pack their lunchboxes with fruit, wholegrain cereals and water. If you don’t want them to eat doughnuts and chips, it is your responsibility not to make them available to your child.
The responsibility of the child is to decide how much of those nutritious foods they want to eat. Let them practise eating to their own appetites, rather than making them finish everything on their plate if they say they're not hungry.
Plan meals and snacks
Snacks play an important role in a child’s diet, but there's a huge difference between planned snacking and constant grazing. Try to avoid providing your child with a constant stream of food throughout the day to distract, entertain them, or just in case they are getting hungry. Snacks should be planned and eaten in a single sitting, just as you would a main meal.
Do not be afraid to let your child feel some hunger. It's good to feel hungry before your meal as this is an important signal to begin eating.
Encourage mindful eating and enjoy food H2
Keep mealtimes about food and family. Avoid the use of TV, iPods, toys or anything else that might distract them at the table. Encourage conversation and a relaxed pace of eating (a normal meal should take about 20–30 minutes to finish).
Make mealtimes stress-free and enjoyable. Food is the centre of so many important social interactions and we should teach our children to enjoy meal times.
But we should also help them to be mindful of what they are eating and why. It can help to talk to them about where the food comes from, how it was made, or get them to think about why they like it.
Your common questions answered
1. Should I make my child eat everything on their plate?
Encourage your child to stop eating when they are full. Serve small meals appropriate to your child’s needs and use your parenting intuition. For instance, most parents know that small children can be master manipulators and you will know if they are feigning fullness to leave the broccoli behind on their plate. Teach your children that it is okay to leave food behind if they are full, but not if they are hoping to eat something else (like dessert!) instead.
2. Should food ever be used as a reward?
It's best to avoid using food as a reward. Food can be enjoyed, but children need to be taught that the main reason for eating is for hunger, not for doing something outstanding. There are so many other rewards that children and teenagers respond well to, like stickers, seeing a movie, a new book or sleepover.
3. How do I encourage healthy, active play when all they want to do is play with their Xbox?
Physical activity is paramount to good health and it is recommended that 5–17 year-olds do at least 60 minutes of vigorous (huffing and puffing) exercise a day. Strolling to school is not really enough. They need to be running, jumping, or playing fast and hard every single day. Planned or structured sports can help, but it’s still important to allow free play, particularly in small children.
Make exercise a family priority. Get active on the weekends with your children when you have time, such as having a day at the beach, throwing a ball together in the park, visiting the zoo or taking a scenic walk together.
Lead by example. It can be hard to convince your child to go outside to play when you’re not doing the same. Take the kids for a bike ride after dinner or walk part of the way to school with them.
Invite their friends over to play after school.
Limit screen time to a set amount each day, only available after a certain time so they are more likely to be active before.
Reward kids for being active (non-food rewards of course).
4. My child is overweight, but won’t eat vegies
The most important thing to remember with fussy eaters is that a healthy child will not starve. Yes, children can be very stubborn, and they can put their foot down and go hungry (while getting more irritable!) but they will not starve. Begin with portion sizes. Make sure meals are an appropriate size for your child and give a small amount of the food you know they will eat. The rest of the meal should be what you want them to eat.
For very small children, it's okay to replace vegies with fruit, but make sure you move beyond this compromise by school age. Persistence is the key!
When weight’s an issue
It's important to begin by pointing out low-fat or restrictive diets are not recommended for children. This applies to children who are overweight, too. Children and teens need a balanced and varied diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as appropriate servings of nutritious foods from all the different food groups. The following ideas can help to encourage healthy eating.
Address portion distortion
Portion size is important. And so is the proportion of different foods at mealtimes, not just for children – for adults, too! The proportion of carbohydrates relative to protein and vegetables is also off kilter in many households. A lot of the time, the 'meat and potatoes' portions overtake the vegie portion when it should be the other way around. Also, our perception of an appropriate serving size has changed.
Consider this – 20 years ago the average dinner plate was 10 inches wide, now it's 12, and this has distorted our idea of what a normal helping of food looks like.
It’s often said that a good rule to preparing a nutritious dinner is to aim for a variety of colours in your vegies. And while, for adults, that often means three colours, a new study has found that pre-teen children preferred as many as six colours on their dinner plates.
It’s also important to consider that different children need different amounts of food.
Larger and more physically active children may eat more food. ‘Growth spurts’ occur periodically in children and may also account for changes in a child’s appetite and also their body shape. Because of this, it can be difficult to recommend specific serving sizes for particular age groups. This is another reason why it is better to let your child eat according to their appetite.
Five tips for healthy habits in kids
Make water the drink of choice. Juice is for special occasions (and preferably diluted). Make water appealing with a special drink bottle, ice-cubes or chilled fruit slices in summer.
Try to recognise when your child is eating out of boredom rather than hunger. Talk to them about ways to identify real hunger, for example, a rumbly tummy. Help them come up with other fun things to do that don’t involve food.
Base snacks on fruit and vegetables. If you have fussy dinner eaters, try offering only fruit snacks after lunch and allow a couple of food-free hours before dinner.
Base family meals around healthy cooking methods like grilling and steaming (rather than frying), trimming fat, and using low-fat dairy foods. Get your child involved in the food prep or cooking.
Plan snacks and mealtimes and try to have sit-down meals together where possible. Avoid grazing or using food as a distraction in small children.