Children’s relationship with food can be our biggest worry. Also, the thing we are most uncomfortable talking about. No child was born with a preinstalled craving for junk food. This conditioning happens over time because junk food has certain qualities both parents and children find appealing. The availability, convenience, and comparatively low prices of junk food make it an attractive option for parents to feed their children, especially when they have to work. And children, unaware of the health consequences, take to eating junk food because it tastes good. Then it becomes a habit, one so difficult to break away from even in adulthood. Although it might seem old fashioned, table manners mean that eating is more conscious and therefore children think more about what they eat.
The food industry’s marketing strategies also play a huge role in affecting children’s relationship with food. Through advertising, the industry showcases its offers, making them as attractive as possible. According to UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, food and beverage companies spend almost $14 billion per year on advertising in the United States. Through their multiple offers, you’d be hard-pressed to find them advertising healthy food for children. More than 80% of their ads promote fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks targeted at children and teenagers. Children begin to form preferences for food in their first two years of life. Parents can start to counteract the effect of these food ads by teaching children healthy eating early in childhood.
Benefits of Healthy Eating for Children in Early Childhood
Eating healthy is crucial to your child’s overall development, both physically and psychologically. Below are some specific benefits. At an early age, we can control what they eat. This helps develop a children’s relationship with food by deciding what ‘normal’ is. If they are surrounded by healthy choices and portion sizes they won’t question it.
- They Develop a Stronger Immune System. Every human being has an immune system that fights against diseases in the body. A weak immune system means that your child’s body might struggle to fight diseases. Good nutrition can help the immune system stay strong and healthy. What’s more, healthy eating keeps cholesterol low, helping your child’s blood pressure stay stable. With healthy blood pressure, blood flows through the veins easily. This reduces the chances of heart disease and stroke.
- Keeps Them in Better Mood. A properly fed and exercised body contributes to your child’s mood. A study led by James E Gangwisch, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, found that progressively higher consumption of whole grains was associated with lower odds for depression incidence. While the opposite was true for refined grains, with progressively higher consumption associated with higher odds of depression. Examples of whole grains include barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, popcorn, whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers.
- They Manage Their Weight. Combined with regular exercise, eating a balanced diet helps your child avoid excess weight gain. One factor that leads to excess weight gain is excess sugar in the blood, converted into fats. One way to increase blood sugar is for you to let your child constantly skip breakfast. Worse still, missing breakfast increases the possibility that they’ll resort to eating junk before lunchtime.
- They maintain Good Energy Levels. Feeding your child proper food helps keep their energy levels high. A proper diet contains fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which are excellent sources of nutrients that supply energy. Combine this with sufficient sleep and regular exercise, and you have a child full of health and vitality.
- Improves Their Memory. Helping your child cultivate a good eating habits in childhood helps prevent dementia. Nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, Polyphenols, and Vitamins C, D, and E improve children’s cognitive ability. Cognitive function includes mental processes such as attention, perception, decision-making, language comprehension, and memory. Eating a balanced diet helps improve these functions. A study led by Elizabeth E. Devore, Associate Epidemiologist at Channing Division of Network Medicine, found that increased intake of blueberries and strawberries slows the rate of cognitive decline by up to 2.5 years. Here we discuss mental health in children.
Nutrients Your Child Should Get Daily
Making healthy food choices for children requires knowing the daily nutrients needed to make a balanced diet. This goes beyond your children’s relationship with food but helps educate them if they ask, ‘why are we eating this?’ Below are nutrients your child needs daily.
- Calcium. Calcium is a mineral found in dairy foods. For children, calcium is essential for maintaining strong and healthy teeth and bones. If the bones aren’t absorbing enough calcium, they become weak. Other foods that contain calcium in smaller amounts include fish, leafy green vegetables, soy products, nuts, and seeds such as sesame and almonds.
- Fats. Healthy fats are very crucial to your child’s development. Fats help grow nerve and brain tissues. The body burns fats as energy or uses them as building blocks. Fats reduce the chances of constipation, and food tastes better with fats, which encourages children to actually eat it. Examples of healthy fats include cheese, yogurt, cashew butter, wild salmon, flaxseeds, chicken, applesauce (fortified), avocado, coconut cream or milk, etc.
- Fibre. Fiber relieves and prevents constipation, lowers cholesterol, and helps prevent diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, it makes children feel full, which helps with weight management. Foods with high fiber content include black beans, lentils, split peas, 100% whole-wheat bread, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, brown rice, and oatmeal.
- Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates help build the body, provide it with energy, and repair tissues. When carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, they get absorbed into the bloodstream. Those sugars are then moved from the blood into the cell by the hormone insulin released from the pancreas. In the cell, sugar is used as energy. Healthy carbohydrates include low-fat dairy, fruits, whole-grain cereals, brown rice, whole-grain bread, and vegetables.
- Proteins. Proteins transport essential molecules through the body and serve as antibodies that fight disease. Food rich in protein includes chicken, fish, eggs, hummus, peanut butter, nuts, milk or soy milk, lentils, or beans.
- Iron. Iron is a vital nutrient. The body uses iron to produce hemoglobin, which helps the body transport oxygen to other body cells. Iron also supports physical growth, nerve development, cell functioning, and muscle metabolism. Food high in iron includes beans, fortified cereals, eggs, spinach, tuna, green peas, raisins, and other dry fruit.
- Vitamin A, B, and C. Your child needs vitamins for health and proper development. Vitamins improve eyesight, immune function, and iron absorption. Food rich in vitamins include carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, meat, milk, eggs, kiwi, orange, citrus, and capsicums.
- Water. Although not technically a nutrient, hydration is often overlooked. It is so important that here we look at how to make sure your child drinks enough.
How to Teach Children Healthy Eating
Teaching children about nutrition from early childhood is important. It helps them stay mindful of the things they put in their stomach, even as adults. Below are some tips for teaching your child healthy eating.
- Focus on education instead of dictation. Lumping each food into the good or bad category does nothing to educate your child. When you talk to them about food, do it with a mindset that shows you’re trying to educate them. Talk about what the food tastes like, how to prepare it, and the nutrient it contains. You can even make comparisons with another food your child knows better. Drawing similarities helps give them a clearer picture of what the food looks and tastes like.
- Offer choices. If you try to force your child to eat certain foods, they will push back strongly. So instead of forcing things, offer them choices from those healthy foods. This way, your child keeps their sense of autonomy while still eating healthy. Also, involve your child in weekly meal planning. But instead of just naming certain meals and sticking with them throughout the week, ask your child to choose. There should be a catch, though. Let them know that they can only select from food that contains certain nutrients. The idea is to make your child feel some measure of control over what they eat. Here we have the article are you forcing your child to overeat?
- Introduce variety in the early stages. Children form food preferences pretty early, which is an excellent time to introduce as many healthy foods as possible. If they get used to eating healthy at this point, the habit sticks. However, don’t bombard them at once. Instead, introduce new food gradually as they grow. To do this effectively, introduce a new food alongside something your child already likes. You can never tell how a child would receive a new food. Mixing new food with something they already like might just be what helps them take to the new food.
- Keep snack portions small. Sometimes parents dole out snacks to their children to get some peace and quiet. Or prevent a tantrum. That’ll just create a craving for snacks. If you must give your child a snack, keep the portion small and avoid doing it close to lunch or dinner. That might affect how they eat lunch or dinner. If you can integrate snacks into lunch or dinner, do it. Also, make sure you go for healthy snacks. Examples of healthy snacks include grapes, boiled eggs, nuts, carrots with hummus, etc.
- Encourage them to look at labels. Children and teens will look at their clothes and shoe labels but don’t do the same for the edibles they buy from stores. Begin early to get them to read food labels. Focus only on vital information like saturated fats, calories, salt and sugar. Reading food labels would help your child decide what goes into their mouth and what shouldn’t.
- Allow them to see how food is grown. Most children love to see things work. It makes them curious. Whenever you can, take them to a farm or local farmers’ market. Allow them to explore the color, texture and shape of different things. Let them pick what they like. Alternatively, you can show them videos on YouTube if you don’t have any farmers’ markets close to you.
- Allow treats. Deprivation has a way of making one crave something more. Allowing your child to have treats from time to time makes junk less appealing. Hence, when the occasion arises, let them have some candy or cookies. You can even treat them to McDonald’s whenever you can.
Final Thoughts on a Children’s Relationship With Food
Teaching your children about nutrients and healthy eating begins with you as a parent. You can’t stay away from veggies and expect your child to eat them. Make a habit of trying out different foods if you want your child to try them. Even then, it’ll take several exposures for your child to try out new food. You need to keep trying and be patient. Never force your child to eat anything or use food as a reward. We were probably brought up in the ‘finish what is on your plate’ generation as our parents were brought up post war. Times have changed now with the amount of calorie dense foods that are on offer. We have an article here on how your upbringing may effect your parenting.