One of the best things parents can do for their child is to encourage an interest in healthy food. In Long Island and the rest of the U.S., childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last three decades and the number of overweight or obese teenagers has tripled.
By the year 2010, more than one third of children and teens had excess body weight or excess fat, putting them at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and an increased chance of getting diabetes or cancer or having a stroke. Childhood obesity can reduce life expectancy and children’s quality of life if they struggle with medical issues that result from it and the effects aren’t just physical.
Children may be bullied at school, suffer problems with body image and low self-esteem and find it difficult to make friends, so encouraging a healthy relationship with food from the start has the power to transform their life experiences.
Make Your Own Baby Food
Encouraging a love of healthy food begins early. If you introduce good foods from the start, your baby is more likely to accept them. They like what they are accustomed to so if you give them a variety of nutritious foods that aren’t overly sweet then they won’t crave sugary foods for that sweet fix. Avoiding store bought baby foods is also a must. They aren’t as healthy as homemade food and they often don’t taste as good as ‘real’ meals. You might find that if you rely on jars of baby food that it makes it harder to make the transition between them and the regular family meals that everyone eats.
Offer Nutritious Snacks
The normal and recommended amount of food that should be consumed is three meals a day and a snack or two. This quantity of food, if you make healthy choices, should not cause excessive weight gain. Offer nothing but nutritious snack options, like baby carrots, sliced apple, hummus and celery sticks (chickpea dip), dried anchovies and raisins. Make sure, however, that the foods are age appropriate for your child and don’t represent a choking hazard. Don’t introduce potato chips, cookies or sweets into your home and then your child won’t want them and should be happier with healthier varieties.
Use Side Plates
Even if your child isn’t snacking on ‘junk’ food or having too much sugar, they can still become overweight if their portion sizes are too large. You can keep his meal sizes in proportion by giving him his meals on a side plate instead of a full size dinner plate. If he is still hungry afterwards, you can always offer him more. Another way to avoid over-feeding in an older child is to set all the food out on serving dishes on the table and give him an empty plate, allowing him to help himself or tell you what he would like.
Don’t Force Food
If your child won’t finish his meal, don’t try to force him to or ask him to sit at the table until he is finished. Eating when full serves no purpose and may contribute to over-eating or give him negative feelings about food.
Make Meal Preparation Fun
All too often meal preparation can be seen as a chore. If you get your kids involved it’s a great way of spending time together and will bring out their enthusiasm for food if it is something they have helped to create. Get them to choose a recipe from a book and let them join in with cooking it. If you have a preschool child who is just becoming interested in reading, they might ask what the words say on packets of food and so your cookery lessons can double as a reading lesson. Whatever your child’s age, making food preparation a family activity will give you more time together and help foster a positive attitude about food.
Encourage Your Budding Chef
If your child enjoys helping with cooking, you might consider enrolling him at a cooking class. There are many cooking classes aimed at children in the Long Island area and some of them are suitable for children as young as two. If you have a toddler and want help teaching him about food preparation, you could join a “mommy and me” class. Classes are also available for older children who want to try out their culinary skills without parental presence.
Classes often run competitions for the children to motivate them to develop their skills and there are different projects available for them to try out at different times of the year such as making festive food at Christmas. For smaller chefs, you can name any meals they have helped to create after them. This motivates young school children to want to eat their meals. Toddlers can also be enticed by using an array of brightly colored vegetables or presenting them in the shape of a face to make them attractive.
Don’t Have Unhealthy Snacks in the House
If they’re not there, the kids (and you) can’t keep grazing on them and filling up with nutritionally void junk. However, you shouldn’t ban your children from junk foods altogether as people always want what they don’t have, and if it’s forbidden it will be more tempting. Likewise, don’t offer unhealthy food as a ‘treat’ because this gives the false impression that cakes and sweets are good and healthy food is boring.
Practice What You Preach
Finally, practice what you preach. If your child sees you tucking into a burger then he will want to do the same. If you lead by example from the earliest moment, your child will observe your healthy food choices and will be more likely to make his own.
By Claire Pritchard – Guest Contributor