With so much information around about what kids should and shouldn’t eat, how much and when, you’d think that by now all parents would be walking experts on kids’ nutrition. You’d also think that most kids would be eating reasonably healthily food by following this advice.
Not so. When it comes to feeding our children, we all suddenly tense up, baffled by conflicting information that often contradicts our gut instincts. And ironically, in inverse proportion to the amount of information broadcast on the subject, today’s children go through more processed food than ever and increasingly snub their noses at the real thing.
Let’s be honest. We seem to have lost the plot when it comes to the most basic of functions – feeding our children. What should have come naturally to us has somehow turned into a complex affair greatly influenced by large food manufacturers with big budget advertising and promotional campaigns. If you, too, are looking for some straightforward answers to your dilemmas, check the article below.
Point number one about kids’ nutrition, eloquently put forward by chef Jamie Oliver in his ‘School Dinners’ series, is that there are some things children must eat, like it or not. What exactly these things are may be open to some interpretation, but the message is clear: just as you don’t ask your child whether or not he or she would like to go to school, don’t ask them whether or not they’d like to eat their greens. Some foods (notably vegetables) should simply be non-negotiable.
Point number two is that ‘difficult eaters’ only occur in a rich consumer society where children are given too much choice. A hungry child refuses no food. If you think I am being extreme, think back 20 or 30 years ago, when you were a kid. We all sat around the table to have a family meal together, and we ate what mum cooked, full stop. There were no special “kids’ foods”, no alternatives, no bribes or prizes and no dessert if you didn’t eat your meal. You either ate what was on your plate, or you went hungry until the morning, and no one made a fuss about it. By contrast, today we have a huge array of foods designated ‘for kids only’; we are quick to offer our children ‘something else’ if they refuse to eat what’s on their plate; and we are nervous, positively terrified, about letting them miss even one meal. We give our kids too much choice in an area where they shouldn’t exercise it and we give in too quickly and easily. So we shouldn’t really be too surprised to find that our clever off-spring has learned the rules of the game and manipulates them to their advantage.
Point number three is that as parents we have the responsibility to educate our children to eat well just as much as to be polite, punctual or non-violent. Up to a certain age children are too young to make the correct choices regarding food, and anyway this is not their role in life: they should be growing, playing, and learning, that’s what they are meant to do; not make menu choices. Our role in life as parents, on the other hand, is to provide them with whatever they need in order to grow, play and learn well – be it the right environment, the right school or the right food. So long as they are young, we are the ones in charge, and eating well is an item which should rank as high on the agenda as other values close to our heart. We shouldn’t expect children to be autodidactic on this subject.
Assuming you agree on the above, the question remains what food children should eat. Most authorities agree on some basics: plenty of vegetables and fruit, plenty of whole grains, some good protein (from dairy, meat or fish) and a minimum of refined and junk food. Any expert you ask (including me) will have his or her own opinions on the minutiae, but most agree that children need good quality nourishment to provide them with all of the important nutrients required for growth. All experts also agree that good food habits are best instilled early on. So far this sounds familiar; the problem is – how do you do it in real life?! Here are some ideas which work. Hopefully they will help you feed your children well, with less trouble.
- Early Starters – the moment you start weaning your child onto solid foods is the moment to start instilling good food habits. Offer water rather than juice and vegetables rather than bread or biscuits. Most babies eat fruit and veg without any problem, then at the age of 2-3 they start having their own opinions (on all matters, not just food). Persistence pays off generously.
- Who’s the leader? It will be a lot easier for you to teach your children to eat well if you do. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ simply doesn’t work here. Don’t expect them to eat their salad when you tuck into a bag of chips. If they see you eat vegetables, fruit, rice and fish, they’ll be more inclined to want them.
- Easy does it – If you are trying to improve current habits, don’t throw out everything you have in the cupboard and start afresh. If you go to extremes, the kids may resent it and it won’t take long before you go back to the old eating habits. Expose them to new foods slowly and gradually, so they don’t feel that all their favourites have been taken away from them in one go.
- Back to the table – eating is a social activity, and eating together is an important part of family life, not least because it encourages youngsters to share their parents’ food. When you make a family meal a regular affair, cook the same food for all (assuming children over 2 years old). If you prepare healthy, varied food for the adults, there is no reason why the children shouldn’t eat it. It’s also less time-consuming. You’ll reduce the chance of picky eating substantially, and will bring up children who take pleasure in and appreciate a variety of foods, flavours and textures.
- Pacts, deals and agreements – getting children involved in decisions over their food will get lots more co-operation around the dining table. It will also make the kids feel they have some control over their food, and might yield some surprising results, too, as often we have pre-conceived ideas about what our kids might or might not eat. Sit down with the kids and make a list of (healthy) foods they like, agree to try, and prefer not to have. Ensure both sides stick to this agreement until the next round of negotiations.
- No more fighting – set clear rules regarding food (whichever ones work for your family) and stick to them. When the rules and agreements are clear, it’s easier to avoid food battles and hassles, bribery, begging and rewards.
- (Almost) the same – substitute favourite foods with healthy alternatives. For instance, offer a bowl of muesli and fruit instead of processed breakfast cereals. Or offer organic baked beans instead of the usual supermarket variety. Try rice pasta instead of the normal white pasta. These days health food stores are so well stocked with superior alternatives, that consuming healthier alternatives to favourite foods can be as quick and easy as picking something off the shelf; it doesn’t have to involve hours of toiling in the kitchen.
- Creative thinking – if your child objects to broccoli on his plate, it doesn’t mean he won’t eat it in a delicious, blended soup. Fish might not go down well as one big chunk, but minced and made into burgers it might. Some vegetables (the all-important food group that tends to present the biggest challenge for parents) are more acceptable raw, hidden in a pizza sauce or served with some melted cheese. Experiment with different ways of food preparation (and disguise), and remember the golden rule: yesterday’s hated vegetable can become tomorrow’s favourite.
- Snack time – when you think ‘snack’, think fruit or veg. Make this automatic link in your mind, so that gradually you (and your kids) stop thinking of a snack as a treat out of a bag. If it works half of the time, you’re doing great.
- ‘Can I help?’ Children love helping in the kitchen and are more likely to eat something they prepared. Make time for it when you are relaxed and are in no rush to make dinner, and use the opportunity to introduce them to one or two new foods.
- Something to avoid, too – side by side with all these positive changes, explain to your kids what’s good and not so good for them and why, and encourage a move away from fizzy drinks, sugary treats and salted snacks. Teaching them what to avoid and what to accept – in food as in life – is part of their education.
- Praise yourself – Peer pressure, advertising power and social demands are likely to combine to make the task of feeding your children healthily quite challenging. It’s impossible to avoid junk food, the temptations of ready-prepared, processed foods are great, and you may be seen as odd by other parents if you insist that plain pasta is not a good enough dinner. Your children, too, may fail to appreciate your efforts. So if you manage to achieve some good results most of the time, congratulate yourself. You’re doing great, and you’re doing your kids a big favour. They’ll thank you much later, when they are parents themselves…
© Vardit Kohn, March 2006. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written consent.