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In a fast-paced world of convenience, it can be challenging to make sure children eat a healthy balanced diet.
Busy timetables, working parents and jam-packed social diaries mean that, often, mealtimes get downgraded and food that is fast and easy to prepare takes precedence over nutritional goodness.
As a result, most children don’t eat a wide enough range of nutritious foods and are deprived of essential nutrients which aid their growth and development.
Instead of being a chore, food presents an opportunity for enjoyment, social interaction and experimentation so with a few interventions and realigned priorities, meal and snack times will soon become something to celebrate!
What a child eats can influence their physical growth and brain development.
A child should eat a balanced diet comprising all major food groups:
A healthy diet should also contain a range of other nutrients which are fundamental to proper growth.
Calcium promotes strong bones and teeth and can be found in foods such as cow’s milk, cheese, yoghurt, broccoli, butternut squash and tofu.
Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body and can help with brain development. Red meat, shellfish, nuts and beans are excellent sources of iron.
Vitamin A helps to strengthen a child’s immune system, promotes sharp eyesight and assists with the growth of tissues and membranes. It can be found in carrots, sweet potatoes, egg yolks and apricots; some of the easier foods to incorporate into a child’s diet. Vitamin A is among the fat-soluble vitamins (with C, E and K).
Levels of Vitamin C, which maintains healthy blood vessels, protects cells and promotes general health can be boosted by enjoying a diet rich in citrus fruits, tomatoes, cauliflower, spinach and mangoes.
Our bodies produce Vitamin D when they’re exposed to sunlight but you can also get Vitamin D from certain foods such as salmon, canned tuna, cod liver oil, yoghurt and milk.
Many young children don’t receive the nutrition they need to thrive which can compromise their overall health or lead to health conditions, such as heart disease, in later life. Here’s a list of commonly missed nutrients and how to boost them in your child’s food.
Iron deficiency is common, yet iron is essential to the production of red blood cells which carries oxygen around the body. Incorporate meat, poultry, fish, beans, breakfast cereals and bread into their diet to help with this.
Our relationship with healthy food begins at an early age with healthy eating habits established during those formative years.
Exposing children to a range of healthy foods and making intentional healthy food choices will make them more accepting of a wider variety of tastes as they grow up.
Here are our top tips to boost healthy eating in your household:
It’s impossible to reach for convenience snacks or processed foods if you eliminate them from your food cupboards. Swap crisps, sweets and packet snacks for healthy treats such as carrot sticks and houmous, dried fruit, fresh fruit or rice cakes. They’re low in fat and contain no added sugar.
Get in the habit of writing a weekly meal planner. Writing out and committing to a range of healthy meals means that you’re less likely to opt for convenience food or rely on takeaways. Take meal prep seriously and, if you’re pushed for time in the week, batch cook at weekends to ensure you have a stash of healthy and delicious family meals in the freezer!
Does your family sit in front of the TV during mealtimes? Are devices allowed at the dinner table? Do you cook different meals for different people in the household? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, it’s time to shake up mealtimes!
Healthy meals should be served at the dinner table and every member of the family should eat the same meal. After all, mealtimes are a bonding experience and an opportunity for parents to role model a positive attitude towards food. If you’re eating a wide range of healthy meals your child is more likely to do the same.
Plus, at the dinner table, you’re away from the distraction of TV, tablets and phones so family members can debrief on the experiences of the day.
If a meal isn’t a success, don’t scrap it from the repertoire. Keep offering meals and snack foods which challenge your child’s palette. It’s normal for children to go through fussy phases but don’t be tempted to reduce the range of foods to accommodate their fads. Continue to offer nutritious, healthy meals containing the main food groups – fruit and vegetables, dairy, protein and starchy foods such as bread, rice and pasta.
Children thrive when they feel included in decision-making or can take responsibility for a job at home. Ask children to help prepare meals and snacks – it works well with children aged 3 and above who will naturally start to develop an interest in what they’re eating.
Allow children to pick a meal on the planner each week – if it’s something unhealthy discuss ways to modify it. Educate them about the importance of balanced meals.
Parents have a responsibility to close the gap between the food on their children’s plates and where it came from so give your children an opportunity to be hands-on with produce or grow their own so they can appreciate how it grows!
Frozen fruits and vegetables are a fast and effective way of meeting your child’s nutritional needs. The veg takes minutes to boil and requires virtually no preparation and frozen fruit is ideal to use in smoothies.
Convenience foods contain few nutrients. Plus processed snacks are often high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.
Similarly, fizzy and soft drinks contain added sugars which encourage tooth decay. Even fruit juice should be consumed in moderation because of its sugar content.
Water should be a child’s main drink along with healthy alternative options such as naturally flavoured water, unsweetened milk, or unsweetened plant-based milk.
Ways to reduce sugar in your child’s diet:
Remember, creating a cycle of demand for junk food will make it less of a treat and more of an expectation!
Replace saturated fats with vegetable and nut oils which provide essential fatty acids. Seek out other foods containing healthier fats such as olives, nuts, avocados and seafood.
It can be tempting to incentivise behaviour with sweets or treats. However, the problem with doing this is that children begin to associate unhealthy food with positive feelings.
Try offering stickers, hair slides, books or notepads and pens instead.
Forcing a child to eat a food they dislike will create negative associations, not only with the food you’re trying to encourage them to eat but with food in general. This can cause greater problems in later life.
The key to living a healthy lifestyle is a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise. While healthy eating is an enormous part of ensuring your child gets the nutrients they require while they’re growing rapidly, it’s important for your child to keep active.
Download free Stay Active resources to use at home, sign them up to a sporting club or take time to do something active as a whole family, be it a weekend walk or a family game of rounders.
Speak to a health professional or your child’s teacher. They will be able to talk to you about ways to encourage healthy eating or work with you to develop a strategy tailored to your child’s needs.