‘My child has no self control when it comes to food’, ‘If there is junk food, my child is the first one to choose the unhealthiest thing available’, ‘He/She throws tantrums in the supermarket especially in the sweets and snacks aisle’, ‘Feeding my kids is a constant struggle as they complain the healthy food I make doesn’t taste good’.
Are any of the above statements true for your child(ren)? It might be easy to place the blame on the TV ads, their friends, what other moms serve at friends’ homes or the kind of food available at the school (or even college) cafeteria. The fact is, you as a parent are responsible to empower your kids to make healthy food choices for themselves. This ensures they take care of their health and wellness even as adults and pass on this education to their children.
The good thing is that implementing the advice below is not difficult. It does start with your willingness (plus your spouse’s and other family members’) to walk the talk. This won’t work if you make a face while eating your greens and expect your child to love them without question. Good nutrition is good for everyone not only children!
Here are ten pointers to enable them to make healthier choices all by themselves:
1] Let them choose what they want for meals and snacks – teach them the different components of a balanced meal and leave it to them to decide which items they want. The catch? Give them only healthy options! It may not work to give them a choice on a daily basis – get them involved in planning a weekly menu so that you can shop accordingly. Before you do this, you have to teach them the basics of planning a nutritionally balanced meal. Also, keep only healthy foods at home so that those are all they have to choose from – be consistent – don’t buy the unhealthy stuff or allow those that come as gifts to linger in your cupboard / fridge as snack options – give everyone a little bit and dispose of them. Better out than in.
2] Educate your kids before you take them shopping with you. Teach them what ingredients and nutritional components of foods are potentially healthy or unhealthy. Take it one step further to explain how unhealthy ingredients damage our body. Make the whole experience of selecting food a game for them – they get to look at the nutrition labels and choose healthier foods. Start with the relatively healthy foods and end in the snack aisle – they will get the picture. Explain how fresh produce (fruits, veggies, etc), packaged grains, pulses, spices, etc. don’t need labels since their healthfulness is unquestioned. Natural foods are always best.
3] Have them grow something – it could be coriander leaves in one flower pot on the balcony or a whole kitchen garden. Teach them about how much time, energy from the sun, nutrients from the soil and water it takes for the seeds to sprout and grow. Telling them not to waste food because there are other children who go hungry might be a tough concept for them to grasp. When they see how much effort it takes the Earth to produce just one sprout, they will be more likely to clean their plate.
4] Enlist their support in the kitchen. Young children must not come near an open flame or touch dangerous objects such as knives, grinders, mixie blades, peelers, etc. Instead, they can help with mixing, stirring, sandwich making, kneading, washing dishes, etc. Older children can be taught all processes and to be safe while in the kitchen. Always supervise when children are in the kitchen. Teach them about the function and health benefit of each ingredient that goes into making a dish. Start with their favourite foods to get them interested. Children will readily eat anything they had a hand in preparing.
5] Most school curriculums nowadays include food and nutrition topics – sometimes even both theory and practical classes. Correlate what they are learning there with it’s application at home. They will pay more attention in class and appreciate the value of what is taught. Retention improves as well.
6] Inculcate a culture of deferred gratification at home. Have them develop patience with respect to food. Children who have this capacity to wait are more skilful at choosing the healthier food when faced with temptation and are not likely to give in to cravings or binge. While planning a menu with your kids, keep their favourite dishes for the next weekend. Thus they learn to patiently anticipate this feast. With unhealthy food that they prefer (cupcakes / cream biscuits), tell them when you buy it (albeit rarely) that they can have it for their evening snack. Again, your children anticipate their enjoyment which is enhanced because they earned it. It is important while teaching them to defer their gratification to honour your word at all times. This builds trust and reinforces the lesson.
7] Don’t make food GOOD or BAD. Choose words like ‘healthy / unhealthy’, ‘powerful’, ‘energizing’, ‘nutritious / non-nutritious’, ‘body thanks you / doesn’t thank you for eating......’, etc. Teach them the meaning of these terms as well. Unhealthy foods can be enjoyed in small quantities and infrequently just so long as children know there are consequences to their body. Remember never to compare taste or flavour of healthy versus unhealthy foods. Explain that these flavours are just different and teach them to appreciate flavours of natural foods and spices. Taste is fleeting anyway. Food stays in our mouth for hardly a minute but then the body has to deal with it for hours, days, weeks or even months.
8] Try not to BAN or FORBID foods. This only makes the idea of the banned food (not the food itself) more appealing. Similarly don’t label foods as ‘treats’ or ‘rewards’. It’s OK to use words such as ‘like’ or ‘prefer’ or even ‘yummy’ to describe foods but definitely teach them that foods they like are not necessarily something their ‘bodies will thank them for’. Bottom line: don’t use food as reward or punishment and don’t use bribes just to get them to eat.
9] When eating out, create a game of choosing healthy options from the menu. First job is to select a healthier place to eat out such as Subway or that new soup and salad joint. Point out the various nutrients they will be consuming and assess how much oil / fat or sugar will be in each item. When you take them to a pizza or burger joint, do the same thing and compare the nutritional values - they will then understand why this fast food is only an infrequent experience. Even these joints nowadays serve salads and soups – ensure that you, as parents, choose healthily too!
10] Send healthy food in their lunch box regardless of what their teachers or friends say. Empower them by making it a game to explain the health benefits of what they eat to those with less awareness. This builds self confidence and ability to stand up for themselves and their choices and will come in useful later on in resisting peer pressure.
Nutrition in childhood is critical not only for optimal growth but also for mental development which in turn determines academic and social success. Imagine all Indian families eating this way! Incidence of all chronic diseases would be drastically reduced and obesity would be a thing of the past. It all boils down to the healthy choices you make as a family.
This article was published in Parent Circle, March, 2013
This article was published in Parent Circle, March, 2013