We may be forgiving when it comes to improving or preventing problems with our own health, but when it comes to our children we will spare no effort. We want them to be healthy, physically and mentally, and for good reason. They are our nearest and dearest, and we are responsible for caring for them since they are not yet able to do so themselves. Besides, as any parent who has had the experience knows, it’s no fun having a sick child!
That nutrition has a huge role to play in the health and vitality of our children is nowadays almost an axiom. By now so much research has been carried out linking, to name but a few obvious examples: food additives to behavioural problems; current eating habits to the marked increase in child obesity; and a high fat diet to high cholesterol levels at an ever earlier age. Few are the parents who have not been exposed in one way or another to media coverage of the subject of children’s nutrition. Yet, despite the plethora of information, parents seem more baffled than ever.
If you are looking to improve your child’s diet, you may well be at a loss as to where to begin. So here are my Top Ten Tips for bringing up healthier children.
- Increase water intake – this is the oldest trick in the book, and it always works. A child’s body is 80% water – that’s a bottle of water 4/5 full!. It needs pure water for good functioning of all its systems. Offer your child plenty of water instead of juice, sugared or carbonated drinks, and reap some unexpected benefits. Use still mineral water if you can.
- Cut down substantially on sugar – sugar is the number one enemy of the immune system; it can compromise its ability to function properly by up to 50%. It’s addictive, and can easily wreak havoc with young minds and nerves, which is why it is so closely associated with behavioural problems. And it’s hardly kind to teeth, either. You’ll do well to cut down substantially on all the sweet stuff (biscuits, cakes, desserts, sweetened yoghurts and drinks, manufactured sweets and the like). They provide plenty of calories with little nutrient value.
- Offer plenty of vegetables – they are the mainstay of a healthy diet, as they are both nourishing and cleansing. Offering them from an early age will help your child establish good eating habits, and save you lots of arguments later on. Offer a variety of vegetables with main meals, as main meals and as snacks. If your child will not eat vegetables straight, become the Master of disguise… Mash, blend, grate or mix them with rice or beans or mashed potatoes, for example. Or liquidise them to make a sauce – or a soup that can be drunk through a straw.
- And give them fruit – since they, too, are a concentrated power-house of nutrients. Fruit are especially good for breakfast and as snacks in between meals: offering a piece of fresh fruit is a good snack choice. But do bear in mind that fruit is not a substitute for vegetables, since it is high in natural sugars and is frequently eaten out of season. Both fruit and vegetables are important for a healthy diet. And if I had to choose between fruit and vegetables, then in the colder climates in which we live, vegetables are more nutritionally significant.
- Choose the right fats – they play a crucial role in health, and every piece of research is further proof that fat imbalances can be a serious cause of disease. Make a point of reading food labels and steer clear from anything that says ‘hydrogenated fat’ or oil on it; keep a check on saturated fats, such as those found in red meats, butter and cheeses; and be generous with the unsaturated fats of nuts, seeds, fish or olive, sunflower and walnut oil.
- Experiment with whole grains such as brown rice, pot barley, oats, millet, quinoa and wholemeal wheat for plenty of easily digestible nutrients and warming bulk. The choice now available in the shops makes such experimentation easier than ever – try spelt pasta, whole-wheat pizza base or quinoa flakes, for instance. Gradually replace processed grains such as white pasta, bread and rice with more nutritious options; the former put a great burden on the body for a very small nutritional return.
- Get pulsing – with peas, beans and lentils of all sorts, shapes and colours. They provide plenty of protein as well as vitamins and minerals, and are easy to use as a base for warming soups and casseroles. Kids love to dunk cut veg into houmous, for instance, and you can make houmous-like dips from many pea and bean varieties.
- Offer fresh, home-cooked meals, real food – ah, now that’s a really important one. From a nutritional point of view, nothing on the supermarket shelves beats what comes fresh out of your own pots and pans. True, home cooking requires a bit more effort than just opening a bag or sticking something in the microwave (which you can still do on occasion), but it will cost you less, and will be infinitely healthier for your child. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
- Run away from additives - when shopping for food look out for and avoid flavourings, colourings, enhancers, emulsifiers, thickeners, taste improvers and the rest of the gallery of E numbers. Whilst some of them may be less harmful than others, regular consumption of additives burdens the immune system no end, and interferes with the efficient functioning of all body systems. Is it really worth it?
- Get the kids up and running – literally so. Children need fresh air and exercise no less than they do good nutrition; they’ll have a lifetime to spend in front of the computer when they grow up. Encourage them to engage in sport, take them to the park as often as you can, get them to walk the dog with you – whatever. But get them going, for their own sake (and sometimes, your own sanity…).
© Vardit Kohn, February 2005. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent