Top tips to encourage children to eat better

Aversion to vegetables? Fussy eaters? Energy requirements? Should food be a reward or a reprimand? Surviving the supermarket trip…

Up to a third of school children are over-weight or obese. The main challenges come from society. Years ago children were much more physically active e.g. walking to school, participating in school sport and after school activity, and as a result it was possible to eat a lot, unlike today where more children are sedentary and not burning off as many calories. In addition, many families have parents who work now and there is less time available to cook from scratch, so processed foods are often eaten. Also, the price of food has decreased as a proportion of our income and consequently ‘treat’ foods are eaten much more frequently. A fifth to a quarter of calories consumed now are thought to come from biscuits, cakes, confectionary, crisps and drinks. It is difficult to provide a single solution to the problem of obesity as the causes are so broad.

Children are growing and developing and need nutrient-rich foods containing essential fatty acids, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Many of the ‘treat’ foods contain a lot of fat, carbs, and salt, but are devoid of other nutrients so should be only eaten occasionally.

When children are pre-school age the important thing is to encourage them to try as many different fruits and vegetables as possible. When children are hungry the likelihood of being successful with them eating vegetables tends to be greater. Try some vegetable crudités and humus or chopped fruit and natural yogurt as an after-school snack. This is a good way to get one or two of the ‘five a day’. Try to increase the child’s repertoire of foods aiming beyond ‘beige foods’ and those which are easy to chew. Frozen veg such as peas and green beans can also be used to avoid food wastage.

Parental example is important to encourage young children to try new foods. Try to be positive about enjoying eating vegetables yourself. Also try to encourage children (under the age of five years) to try foods more than once, as research shows that it may take seven times of trying new foods to decide to like them. ‘Buffet-style’ meals where the food is laid out in separate dishes for children to try can be fun. Another approach can be to make pasta sauces, soups, or casseroles with vegetables such as carrots, peppers, onions or tomatoes blended into them. Alternatively, try adding sweet potato or root vegetables to white potato to make a healthier mash.

Surviving the supermarket

Some people find online shopping beneficial. Having meals planned for the week allows you to order just the foods required, avoiding food waste and unnecessary expense. If you do however need to brave the supermarket with children, try to get them involved in finding the fruits and vegetables and to avoid the influence of the marketing of processed foods.

Should we use food as a reward or reprimand? Research shows that this has a negative effect. Younger children may need to be encouraged to eat and may be daunted by having a mountain of food on their plate. Finishing a plate of food can be achieved by giving young children a small portion to begin with, and if they eat it all you may then give them more.

Lastly, other suggestions for a healthy diet – encourage children to drink water and to eat the wholegrain varieties of foods to get enough fibre.

In summary, encourage a balanced diet based on whole foods including all food groups, minimising ‘treat foods’, and incorporating exercise in everyday life.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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