Inculcating Healthy Eating Habits in Children

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Being a mother of two children, a nine-year old girl and a three-year old boy, both born in different countries (different continents actually), and under different circumstances, I have been through various experiences of how to inculcate healthy eating habits in children. These habits, if formed in childhood, can lead to healthy eating habits throughout their lives. Here are some of the lessons which I have learnt, not listed in order of priority.


Availability

Availability in my opinion means two things. Firstly, food should be made available to a primary school child, and especially to a toddler, before the child feels “very hungry”. If a child feels very hungry, they may reject the food that’s presented to them, and may insist on an unhealthy alternative. For example, they may start screaming ‘Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!’ This is because their brain needs a quick fix if they start feeling very hungry.

So in my case, instead of waiting for my kids to wake up for me to make breakfast for them, I prepare it before they even wake up and lay it on the table, so that as soon as they come out of their room, they can see it.

Secondly, availability refers to what a child will see when they open their home fridge or kitchen pantry. If they are used to seeing bottles of fizzy drinks, ice cream, chocolate spreads and chocolate biscuits, it’s more likely that they’ll ask for it. Instead, they should see dairy products and veggies in the fridge, eggs and fruit on the kitchen counter, and crackers and no-sugar-added cereals in the pantry. The more they see them, they more they’ll get used to them, and the more ready they’ll be to try them out or get into a habit of experiencing them.


Leading by Example

Me and my husband used to have a lot of fizzy drinks – so my older one also picked up on this habit. When my second one was born, we made a conscious habit of having it only on certain occasions. Similarly, I try to eat all the veg that I buy, as much as myself as I give it to them, thus setting up a good example, and also taking care of my own health along the way.


Lunchboxes Are Not Only For School

When my younger one started having solids, I had to go drop my older one at school at his breakfast time. I got into a habit of preparing a lunchbox for him, which he used to munch on while in his stroller as I walked to school. I did the same at school pick-up time, which was his afternoon snack time. I also got into the habit of making a lunchbox for him every time I went out, whether it was to a park, mall or supermarket.

With a lunchbox, you can control what your child eats and keep them busy while you are driving, shopping or talking to another adult (at least for a few minutes, depending on the child’s mood). In addition, with a lunchbox, you can also ensure that your child is having all food groups in their required proportions: carbohydrates (bread based items such as wraps or sandwiches; pastry based items such as spring rolls, dumplings or pies; carb-rich veggies such as potatoes, preferably baked not fried; crackers), protein (chicken or fish in the form of tenders or nuggets, preferably baked not fried; chickpeas or lentils or beans in the form of patties, fritters or dips; nuts), raw or steamed veggies, fruit, dairy (cheese or yoghurt), and treats (biscuits, cookies, chocolates, lollies, candies, toffees and gummies).

But you have to be careful that a child doesn’t get overwhelmed by the variety. I use a lunchbox with three sections, so I put in three groups every day. For example, my two go-to lunchbox meals are: peanut butter (no salt or sugar added) brown bread sandwich, chicken tenders, sliced apples; or, simple wheat crackers, carrot and cucumber sticks, cashews. This technique also helps in following the three day average rule, as discussed below. Of course, some items can’t be put in a lunchbox easily, such as milk or rice.


Milk and Fruit

In some cultures, it is believed that milk and fruit is good – the more the healthier. However, this isn’t true. Milk, especially standard milk, and fruit, especially bananas, grapes, berries and mango, contains a high amount of sugar. Although this natural sugar is much better than refined sugar, and even essential for small kids, quantity of this sugar should be restricted.

Of course, having strawberries is healthier than having a bar of chocolate, but always having strawberries instead of green beans or broccoli isn’t good. Once again, the three-day averaging rule, described below, would help in limiting these. Milk and fruit are also not very good for dental health, as explain below.


Dental Health

Dental health forms a vital part of taking care of a child’s overall well-being. Milk and fruit, as explained above, if taken immediately before sleep, negatively affect oral hygiene. This can cause serious repercussions such as cavities and life-long teeth sensitivity.

For dental purposes, it’s also important to note that ice cream is “better” than chocolate, chocolate is “better” than lollies, candies, toffees and gummies. My personal parenting rule is no lollies, candies, toffees and gummies. If you listen carefully to a child biting into a candy, you will realize just how harmful it can be. So my kids enjoy chocolate spreads, sometimes even with a spoon directly out of a jar, chocolate bars and ice creams, but no lollies, candies, gummies and toffees.

You can have your own rules to suit your lifestyle, beliefs, and the specific needs and ages of your children.


Grocery and Variety

I shop once a week for fruits, vegetables, greens, bread and dairy, and once in two weeks for all other things. And I keep adding to my grocery list during these two weeks, depending on budget, older child’s wishes, younger child’s silent preferences and seasonality. For example, when fresh asparagus is available, I buy it instead of carrots, which are available all year round. When my older one is tired of having carrots and apples all week, I buy green beans and grapes for the next week. This suits my lifestyle, as I don’t have time to go to the supermarket every day or every few days. So I buy every week.

But you can do it according to your lifestyle. Just remember to introduce variety but not to overwhelm your child – if you introduce them to asparagus, broccoli, carrots and beans all within the same week, they may not respond to them well. It also depends on a child’s preference. My children don’t like mixed veggies in the form of a salad, or with a dressing or cooked into curries – they like raw or steamed and individual items. If your child likes mixed veggies, go ahead.

The last point in grocery and variety is to know the limits. I know that my children won’t have eggplant and capsicum, presented in any form, and they will have courgette on the borderline. So instead of fixating on these, I ensure that their veggie portions are completed from the vegetables that they do have. And once in a while, like once in two months, I get a courgette and try a new way to cook it in order to make it attractive for them.


Snacks Versus Family Mealtimes

Inculcating healthy habits in children incorporates paying special attention to snacks. All nutritionists in general suggest that, as compared to two big meals, five small meals are healthier. This means breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner.

Snacks don’t and shouldn’t equate to cookies. Snacks mean anything eaten in between the three main meals. Snacks are actually a good time to ensure that children are having a variety of foods. For example, the lunchboxes as described earlier fulfil my child’s breakfast and morning snack needs.


Three-Day Averaging Rule

This point applies more to toddlers than to primary school aged children. Toddlers have various mood swings. One day, they may eat up three bananas in one go and scream for the fourth one when they are finished, while the next day they may refuse to take a single bite when you especially went out and bought a dozen of them. They may also have baked chicken and broccoli very easily on one day, while the next day, they may just keep screaming for cookies the whole day.

What I have experienced is that if you average out their food intake for any three consecutive days, and if it contains a good representation of all food groups (like I mentioned earlier), then it will be fine. This rule also helps when you are out and about: if one day you are at home, you can pay attention to your child and ensure that they finish their healthy plate. On another day, you may be out for shopping or have work meetings all day; and all you may want is for your child to not scream while you are stuck in traffic, or paying a bill at a shop; or stay quiet while you receive a colleague’s call. On these days, you can use treats to keep them busy.

This rule applies to the above point as well: snacks versus mealtimes. If your toddler wants to eat by himself once in three days, while playing with his building blocks or in front of the television, let him do so. Once again, you need to choose your battles and prioritize. If eating healthy is your priority for a particular day, let it be. If spending quality time with parents and siblings, and learning table etiquette is your priority for another day, you may have to entice them to come to the dining table, by offering a treat. (I have used the example of TV because that’s what I do. Parents have different rules about screen time and that’s a separate topic, which I’m not going to get into right now. But what I mean to say is that – prioritize!)


Special Dietary Requirements

Each parent has their own food ideology. For example, they may exclude some foods due to their religious or ideological beliefs. These include, but are not limited to, not having a specific source of meat or avoiding meats altogether.

Parents may also choose to exclude some foods due to family hereditary health reasons, for instance, if diabetes or obesity run in their family. They may also choose to focus on some foods due to health reasons. For example, if a child is anaemic during their infancy, they may be advised to have plenty of iron rich foods. And finally, they may choose to focus on some foods due to cultural reasons. For example, having ‘chapati’ in South East Asian countries entails a cultural belief that it contains nutrients which are essential for a child’s growth.

Having a basic knowledge of the nutrients contained in these foods is necessary for parents, so that they can measure out food groups and proportions accordingly.


It is also important to note that such articles of advice shouldn’t be replaced with professional medical advice. When in doubt, always consult a dietician, nutritionist, pediatrician, general practitioner or even a nurse.

Finally, just remember that being a mother, or a parent in general, requires you to focus on many, many, different aspects of your child’s life, from ensuring their nails are cut to making sure that they are not being bullied anywhere. Therefore, if you feel that at any particular time period, you aren’t able to focus on their eating habits, because you want to prioritize something else, then that’s okay. It’s not possible to keep track of all aspects of your child’s life at the same time. Parenthood is a journey, each phase has its own challenges, so prioritizing is the key! All the best!

Hina Uqaili

Being an academic at heart, Hina has been working in academic research and training at tertiary level for the past 10 years. She specializes in financial econometrics, financial development, Islamic banking, behavioral finance, microeconomics, insurance and taxation, in Pakistan and New Zealand. On the personal front, she is a mom of two who's always in the lookout for effective and efficient ways to parent, which can increase the chances of success for her children.

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