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How can I encourage my children to eat healthily?

28 January 2024

We all want our kids to be healthy. One of the worst feelings, as a parent, is seeing your child ill. We know that nutrition is an important part of maintaining or improving our children’s health. However, as parents, we’re torn between giving them naughty things to eat, and trying to be healthy too.

Encouraging your children to eat healthily is hard. It very much depends on a number of factors, such as the age/development of the child, individual temperament and preferences, and family eating habits. Schools play an important role. Young children will be most influenced by parents, and we have the ability to shape the way our children eat. As children get to teenage years, maintaining healthy eating habits can prove challenging, as the influence of other children can impact our own. Socioeconomic conditions can play an important role. Good food tends to cost more, and eating fresh takes more effort. Families in challenging socioeconomic environments may make certain food choices based on convenience and cost.

Set a good example

Kids will typically copy parents. If you grab a pack of crisps from the cupboard, it’s likely your kids will also grab a pack of crisps from the cupboard and want to eat them. If you don’t, then it’s “out of sight out of mind” for children. I never want to eat crisps in front of my kids, unless at a family party or social situation with others. I don’t want them seeing me snacking on crisps, because they’ll copy me. I’m more than happy to eat an apple in front of them, knowing they’ll do the same. Being a good role model is key. That means we need to clean up our diets.

Six years ago, I decided to give up chocolate. It still hurts. I’ve made it very clear to my kids, “chocolate is not healthy, full of sugar, and can contribute to bad health”. They know I don’t eat it. They also know that I don’t eat ice cream or sweets. It was hard to make the decision to clean up my own diet, but I am sure this will have a positive influence on my kids.

Educate them about food

Educating your kids about food is key. First, you all need to be together, so sit down as a family at meal times at least once every two days. It is a great opportunity to share stories, and provide education on food.

Green makes you strong. From a very young age, I taught both my kids that eating green things made you stronger. I proved it by eating a load of spinach leaves, or veg, then doing press-ups on the kitchen floor. Now they do the press-ups with me. They’ve learned to associate green with being strong. No children want to eat green things on the plate, but when they see it makes you strong, they’re much more likely to eat it.

Healthy Snacking

Snack healthily. Snacks are a big problem. With so much chocolate and sugary things available, encourage your children to eat a piece of fruit or carrot when they want a snack. We have a fruit bowl in our kitchen full of organic fruit that the kids help themselves to whenever they want a snack. Naughty food gets kept well hidden in the cupboard, or given to delivery drivers when they drop items at the door. As I said earlier, out of sight, out of mind. Not having sugary things in the house is even better to stop temptation.

Healthy Drinks

From a young age, once they're weaned, children should be supported, educated, and encouraged to only drink water. As soon as you open the door to cola, it’s a downhill battle. When they get a taste for cola, they’ll have a meltdown if you don’t give it to them. I’m pleased to say both my kids have never drunk cola. We never ever give our kids squash like orange squash, blackcurrant, or any other kind of squash. We do give them an organic fruit juice from Biona, which isn’t great, but at least it’s made from fruit. However, this is at breakfast, and the rest of the time they drink either water or organic coconut water. They never complain, never ask for anything fizzy, and are perfectly happy drinking water and coconut water.

Sugary fizzy drinks will cause awful teeth problems, increase blood sugar levels, contribute to obesity, cause mood swings, and affect concentration levels. Fizzy drinks are bad, actually they are really bad.

Organic Food

There are different camps out there. Those who swear by organic food, those who think it’s a marketing con, and those who don’t care. We sit in the organic food is great category, and we eat as much organic food as possible. We buy all our fruit and veg organic, and it gets delivered in a box to our door each week. It’s more expensive than non-organic, but not ludicrous, and knowing you are investing in your health and your kids’ health gives a great feel-good factor. We buy organic butter, organic drinks, organic humus, and even organic tomato ketchup! Ok, we’re not perfect, and we don’t live like saints, but we try to do good things most of the time.

Other ways to encourage children to eat healthily:

1.   Encourage Their Involvement in Meal Planning and Preparation: Delegate some tasks of grocery shopping and meal preparation to your children. This may involve cooking simple dishes, assisting in the preparation of salads, or even selecting fruits and vegetables.

2.     Introduce a Diverse Selection of Healthy Foods. A child may require multiple occasions to be introduced to a new food before he or she will accept it. They may not take to particular foods, but as long as they're eating a wide range of healthy foods, there's no need to force the issue.

3.     Establishing regular meal and snack times helps children understand how long it is until they next eat, discouraging them from eating too many snacks between meals.

4.     Food Reward Avoidance: Rewarding children with sweets for good behaviour may inadvertently reinforce the notion that these foods are more valuable than healthier alternatives.

5.     Giving your Kids Bad Things: Just don’t do it unless you’ve fully considered what you are doing and why you are doing it. There are so many times where other parents will give your children sweets, chocolate, and sugar, for example, at another child’s birthday party. For this reason, avoid making it a bad habit.

6.     Be Patient with Picky Eaters: When introducing new foods to children, do so gradually; do not force them to eat against their will. Frequently, a child requires several attempts to become accustomed to a new food. Give them time to eat. Don’t rush them.

7.     Grow Food at Home: Vegetables and herbs should ideally be grown at home, if you have space - you can use a balcony, window boxes or even grow some indoors. Children tend to be more excited about trying food when they've helped grow it.

8.     Finish their Plate: Don’t force your kids to eat everything on the plate like my parents did when I was a child. Moderation is key. Stop eating when you are 80% full.

Encouraging children to eat healthily is challenging. Changing dietary habits is even harder, once bad habits have been established. Starting early and sticking to healthy eating from the start is a good plan. With persistence you can change bad habits, and help give your kids a great healthy start in life with good food.

Photo by Jane Doan

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