Most parents hit hurdles when encouraging healthy habits in their kids. So what do you do when your child resists vegies, brings home an uneaten lunch or starts to look overweight? Relax — paediatric dietitian Debbie Iles has the answers.
Q. How do I know if my child is a healthy weight?
Weight alone is a poor indicator of health, so dietitians advise against regularly weighing children. Height, fat distribution and lean body mass can differ significantly among children of a similar size, and this variation means that kids come in a wide range of healthy weights.
To ‘size up’ most children, you can usually just look at the way their clothes fit and keep track of their height. Pay attention to where your child is outgrowing his clothes the fastest — is it at the waist or in the legs? If you begin to notice that he’s expanding sideways more quickly than he’s shooting up, it could be time to talk to a health professional. He or she can use a child-specific body-mass index (BMI) scale to determine whether or not your child is a healthy weight.
Q. Is a fat tummy OK?
Children come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be perfectly healthy as they are — tummy and all. Many small children sport a rounded little belly, which is no cause for concern when the child is a healthy weight. It’s normal for tummy shape to change throughout the day, especially in relation to food intake and toileting. If you’re worried that your child’s tummy is excessively bloated, see your doctor or an Accredited Practising Dietitian, as a ballooning belly can also indicate a food intolerance.
Children as young as eight years can develop concerns about the way their body looks. To counteract this possibility, parents need to set a good example and be willing to discuss the unrealistic images of perfect bodies that saturate the media. Older children who express worries about their changing body shape may need your support to build their self-esteem. Still, kids can be highly impressionable at any age, so it’s vital to establish the following habits:
Talk about your own body as being beautiful and accept any compliments you receive. Children learn by example, and they pay closer attention than you think. Don’t let them hear you complaining about the shape of your own stomach or judging anyone else’s size.
Introduce your kids to the fact that the pictures they see on television and in magazines can be very misleading. They’re usually unrepresentative of most people, and can even be totally fake. Sometimes it helps to give children an example: Show them how easy it is to digitally alter photos on your computer.
Q. Should I put my child on a diet?
The word diet tends to foster a negative attitude towards food and body image in all of us, so avoid using this term when discussing dietary changes with your child.
Try to boost his intake of fruit, vegies and wholegrains while simultaneously limiting his access to sugary snacks and refined carbohydrates. This is a much better approach than labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Healthy eating is a way of life, so make it a positive and enjoyable experience for your child.
At the same time, keep an eye on your child’s level of daily physical activity, along with the amount of time he spends sitting in front of screens. School-age children should enjoy at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and more than this is even better. Exercise benefits not only the body, but also the mind, according to studies that suggest active kids display better concentration and improved learning ability at school.
Q. How can I get my child to eat vegetables?
Many children dislike one or two specific vegetables, and in some cases this preference can grow into a rejection of all veg. Happily, with enough encouragement and constant exposure to veg, most kids will eventually begin to eat and enjoy this valuable food group.
A picky-eating phase is a natural part of development for toddlers and pre-schoolers. If your child is refusing to eat his vegetables, give him a little extra fruit, but never stop offering him vegetables. (Although technically a separate food group, fruit provides many of the nutrients that vegetables do.)
Increase your child’s vegetable intake with the tasty ideas below.
Happy little vegies!
Try these easy ways to boost kids’ daily veg.
Add puréed vegetables to sauces
Make kid-friendly salads: chop and toss colourful foods, such as cucumber, iceberg lettuce, avocado, chickpeas and red capsicum
Offer crudités with tasty dips
Stir up winter soups with croutons or tofu boats
Mash cheese with potato and cauliflower
Layer spinach leaves in lasagne sheets
Cook vegetable bubble-and-squeak pancakes
Blend a frozen banana with berries, a dash of maple syrup and a few spinach leaves for a delicious green smoothie
Q. Should I listen when my child says he’s full?
Be sure to urge your child to stop eating when he feels full, but use your common sense, too. Children have an innate ability to recognise their own hunger and satiety, but they can lose this instinct if parents use certain forms of discipline. Never force your child to finish what’s on his plate, and try not to fuss if he brings home a half-eaten lunch from school. This behaviour could simply be the result of his listening to his body’s hunger cues. If the thought that your child is eating too little is becoming a worry, remember: If he’s a healthy weight, he’s probably eating enough.
Trust your parental instincts, too. You know your child, and you can usually tell when kids are feigning fullness to avoid eating vegetables. Children have smaller stomachs than adults do, so you can expect them to fill up quickly at mealtimes. Offering them vegetables first (before pasta, rice or bread) can be a helpful tactic, especially when you know they’re hungry. Remind children that if they’re not hungry enough to eat vegetables, they must be too full to eat the pasta, meat, milk or whatever else they’ve left on the plate.
Q. Should I feed my child any low-fat foods?
The science on fats has changed considerably over the past decade, and as a result, so have our views on the subject.
We once thought that every child should drink low-fat milk from the age of 2, as full-fat milk contains saturated fat. However, we now know that the fat in milk doesn’t raise cholesterol the way we initially thought.
Fat is also essential for the transport and absorption of some vitamins and other key nutrients. The fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in fish oil, for example, are both particularly vital during the early childhood years.
Nevertheless, fat is high in kilojoules, so eating it in large amounts can promote weight gain. If you and your family already consume low-fat milk and other dairy foods, continue to enjoy reduced-fat versions. But you don’t have to seek out low-fat versions of other foods for children, such as low-fat yoghurt, low-fat muesli bars and other low-fat processed snack foods. In fact, low-fat packaged foods are often higher in refined sugars than their counterparts.
Q. My child has started bringing his lunch home. What should I do?
Your child doesn’t have to lick his plate clean or eat everything in his lunchbox. Be consistent in communicating this message. However, if lunch is returning home intact on a regular basis, you may want to do some investigating. Start by asking your child the following questions:
Is someone else giving you food?
Are you spending money at the canteen?
Are you really hungry when you get home after school?
Is there something about your lunch that you don’t like?
Does your lunch stay cool throughout the day?
Do you forget to eat because you’re playing?
The answer could be as simple as your child disliking what’s in his lunchbox. The humble sandwich isn’t universally popular, and neither are leftovers for that matter!
Another reason for this behaviour is that children are easily distracted by friends and can head off to play before eating. (Kids in kindergarten and year 1 are notorious for doing this.) Of course, children don’t always give you straight answers, so you may want to take a more practical approach. Why not let your child take responsibility for packing his own lunch? This might also coax him into talking about what’s going on at lunchtime.
If your children are packing their own lunchboxes, be firm about their options, but let them make their own choices and be open to compromise.
Q. Should I talk to my kids about their food?
Yes! In fact, it’s never too early to start. When you raise the topic of healthy eating, keep it factual and try to avoid using words like good or bad.
To help kids relate to what they put in their mouths, explain the connection between food and the body. Talk about how the fibre in apples keeps their tummies healthy, for example, or about the way salmon has healthy fats to help their eyes and brain work properly.
Kids are naturally curious, and this love of learning helps them absorb a surprising amount of information. It makes sense to tell your children why you want them to eat an apple, rather than just insisting they do so. Explain your reasons in detail, and you’ll be surprised by what sinks in — and at the positive impact this can have on the way they eat.