Children and Nutrition
When it comes to kids, the secret is to keep things alive and exciting…
Creativity is not always top of mind when you’re rushing to get the lunchboxes ready in between a myriad of other activities – but without variety, kids soon get bored and suddenly their lunchboxes start coming back with half the contents untouched.
That said, it’s almost impossible to try and be creative at 6 o’clock in the morning when you’re trying to get everyone ready, including yourself. Rather pack the lunches the night before if you can and plan the week’s meals ahead of time so that you have all the necessary ingredients readily available.
Kids love different shapes – sometimes simply changing the way you present the same food is enough. For example, instead of blocks of cheese, try some grated cheese or slice them as thin sticks. Instead of a whole banana, slice the banana into small circles. When it comes to older kids, let them make up their own sandwich/roll – just provide the ingredients in their lunchbox and let them do the rest. Make it simple enough so that they are not required to spread anything or spend their whole lunch break designing the perfect sandwich.
From a young age, children should understand that certain food items are classified as ‘treats’ because of their high sugar content and/or lack of vitamins/minerals and fibre – and that ‘treats’ as their name implies, should only be eaten occasionally.
If you’ve fallen into the trap of providing your child with a sweet treat every day (we all know how easy that can be) try and undo this gradually – perhaps initially reduce to only twice per week and then to one weekend day and/or special occasions only. The easiest way to enforce this is to make sure that you don’t stock any treat items at home.
Besides the high sugar content and all the potentially negative effects of consuming too much sugar and/or refined foods, the bigger potential problem is the replacement of nutrient rich foods with foods that provide empty calories, not necessarily resulting in overweight children (although this can often also be the case), but causing deficiencies in important nutrients including protein, healthy fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
There are many naturally sweet foods that add goodness rather than empty calories to your children’s lunchboxes (whilst satisfying their sweet tooth) -some examples include strawberries, bananas (try slicing them and freezing them to add a different spin – kids love it!), raisins, red/yellow or orange peppers or the much loved watermelon in summer.
When it comes to treats and portions sizes, timing is also important – treats should always be given after a healthy meal – that way, you can often get away with a much smaller portion of the treat item, due to the fact that their stomachs are now relatively full.
If you struggle to get your child to drink water during the day and/or they are used to drinking juice or other cooldrinks, try and meet halfway and add only a small amount of juice to the water for some extra flavor. Alternatively make some ice-blocks out of pure juice and add them to a glass of water.
Most importantly… lead by example – it’s difficult to expect your children to eat healthily when mum and dad are not doing the same.
Whether it’s playing with their friends outside or running on the sports field, kids typically spend a lot of energy every day. Unfortunately, the amount of energy spent often decreases as outside play is replaced by screen time, especially over the colder winter months and as with adults, the total amount of food that a child eats every day should be dependent on how active they are on that particular day.
It is important that your child eats sufficient protein, carbohydrate and fat every day. It is equally important to select the right type of foods from within each of these categories to ensure a sufficient intake of high quality protein, fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Some examples of healthy carbohydrate foods include whole-grain pasta, brown/wild rice, whole-grain/low GI bread, high fibre cereals, whole fruits and some starchy vegetables including potato (with the skin), sweet potato, carrots, peas and butternut. Some examples of healthy fats include olive oil, avocado pear, raw nuts and fish (tuna and salmon come out tops, but even regular hake is a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and way more affordable).
When it comes to protein, the secret is in the preparation – eggs, cheese, tuna, fish chicken and beef are all good sources of protein, as are dairy products (with the added benefit of having lots of calcium, which is all important for developing bones). Plant sources of protein include dried beans, lentils, soya and nuts. For maximum goodness, prepare your meals using the original whole foods, rather than purchasing a highly- refined version of the food and bake, grill or stir-fry rather than deep fry where possible.
Combining carbohydrate with some protein and healthy fat at each meal helps better control blood sugar levels, reducing the number of ‘spikes’ and ‘dips’, which are often associated with changes in behavior and/or concentration levels.
Water is another important item that we often forgot about – especially in winter – sufficient fibre and water are both important ingredients when it comes to ensuring a healthy digestive system.
A healthy relationship with food
Food should be enjoyed and children should be encouraged to taste and explore new foods over time. Being forced to eat a food that you don’t enjoy may have negative consequences especially when it comes to eating meals together as a family. You are also less likely to be able to re-introduce that food at a later stage (as their taste develops), as the negative memory of being forced to eat the food still lingers and is likely to prevent them from ever trying it again.
It’s a lot easier if it’s a specific food item that your child really can’t stand the taste, smell or texture of, for example a certain vegetable like broccoli. In situations like this, one can experiment with different vegetables and where possible, avoid dishing up the offending vegetable on its own, but rather include it as part of a stir-fry or hidden inside a stew (if at all).
It’s a different story if it’s an entire food group that they avoid, for example, all vegetables. As soon as this happens, it becomes a whole lot more challenging and it is important that you constantly introduce and re-introduce new types of food within the food group, rather than simply labelling them as ‘the kid that doesn’t eat vegetables’. It often also means that you need to get more creative when it comes to presenting the food. As soon as they’re old enough to understand, you can start explaining to them why, for example vegetables, are important to eat, how they contain lots of special ingredients that make their bodies work better, their minds sharper and their tummy’s happier.
Ideally parents should remove all their emotions when it comes to their children’s eating habits – easy to say, but not quite how it works in practice! The problem is as soon as food becomes a bargaining tool, it becomes a slippery slope and one that is difficult to get off. If your child can see how upset you get when they refuse to eat their broccoli (or conversely how happy you get when they do eat their broccoli), it becomes a very handy tool to negotiate with, as it clearly means a lot to you. By then rewarding them for their efforts, you are only affirming this and suddenly eating any meal becomes a lengthy negotiation process.
Every child is unique with their own set of requirements and their own personalities. It is important that you lay down a strong foundation when it comes to eating healthily, but at the same time, it mustn’t be too rigid, resulting in your child thinking they can use food as a negotiation tool or feeling deprived or guilty when occasionally eating treat foods.