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Helping Kids Develop Healthy Attitudes Toward Food

iStock_funfood_1.jpg“Why do I need to eat my broccoli, I don’t like it?” - Sound familiar? We understand because it was exactly those types of comments (as well as full plates of food at the end of mealtimes) that inspired us to look for ways to encourage our children to understand that eating is not simply about filling tummies.
By helping your children learn that eating a balanced diet will give them more energy for playing, help them sleep better and grow into a big person (they all seem in such a hurry to be a big boy or girl), you will not only be growing strong, healthy little people but more importantly instilling positive attitudes toward feeding their bodies that will last them a lifetime. 
As parents that are passionate about food, we believe that the joy of food and a healthy relationship with food is something all children should experience.

Ideas to Help Develop Healthy Attitudes

Below are a few Yum Yum Kids ideas to help develop healthy attitudes toward food and ultimately make eating fun!

  • Teach them why

Did you know that you need protein (such as meat, cheese and beans) to build muscles, calcium for strong teeth and bones and fruit and veges to make you smart and of course those all important carbohydrates for energy? Of course, but do your little ones?   From as early as two you can start to introduce ideas that food is important for growing, having energy and learning. I was amazed at how my daughter responded to this and now regularly says to me “it’s important that I eat my carrots so I can see well isn’t it mummy?” Weather this is technically true, the fact that she now understands that what she puts into her body has implications for how her body works is the fundamentals of an attitude that she will carry with her through her life and hopefully teach her children too.  

Statements such as “one bite of broccoli will help you grow into a big boy so you can start kindy” or “this pasta is going to give you so much energy for swimming tomorrow, we’d better eat some more” start to develop an association with good eating habits.   You’ll even find that helping them understand why lots of coloured, high sugar or salt foods are not good for their bodies all the time does catch on. For instance, “do you know if you only ate biscuits you would have no energy for going to the park, that’s why it’s important to have some food that will make our legs and arms strong, so let’s have a biscuit after you have finished eating your ham sandwich”. There are many wonderful books and games available that reinforce healthy attitudes

  • Presentation of food 

Presentation can make all the difference between whether or not a child will eat food - particularly for those not so exciting foods. Serving foods in funky dishes can encourage consumption as it makes eating fun. Little minds love to be creative and stimulated. Use a funky drink bottle to encourage the drinking of water and a gorgeous lunch box to make home packed healthy lunches fun.  Also you can try cutting food into fun shapes – use biscuit cutters for sandwiches or use a knife to cut into squares, circles and triangles. Make fruit kebabs using straws or put veges, hummus, and cottage cheese in and let your child choose what and how they wish to eat it.

  • Make Food Fun

Food should not only be fun but it should also be about more than just eating. Think about food play, food preparation, growing food, cooking together, the social aspects of food, food stories, food colours, textures and the learning potential around food. It’s about educating and empowering your children with knowledge about food and healthy attitudes which they will carry through life.  For more information and ideas on making food fun, click here.

  • Children take responsibility

Children can be involved in all aspects of food from growing plants/food, preparing dishes, cooking, setting the table and cleaning up. By involving children in the preparation and cooking of meals, you can help stimulate an interest in food and improve the likelihood of your child eating the meal.

Food preparation offers great learning opportunities, socialisation and gives children an appreciation for food. Simple meals that children can create themselves are great such as pizzas and tacos. A safety step, funky place mats and utensils designed just for children makes them feel involved throughout the process and enhances the experience for a child.  Let children serve themselves and determine their own meal size. A healthy child is the best judge of how much they should eat. Children have built in hunger and satiety cues which determine their appetite. By letting them decide on their own meal size you are ensuring they are in tune with their natural appetite and requirements. Plates made just for children are a great way to guide children's serving sizes.  Don’t worry – children generally eat when they’re hungry and won’t starve themselves.

  • Positive reinforcement

Acknowledge good behaviours and ignore the bad - avoid forcing or coercing a child to eat. Try to be calm, firm and consistent.  Children watch what you eat and learn from your relationship with food. Young, children are more likely to want to eat the food their parents eat. As they get older, they tend to want the foods that their friends (and the kids in commercials) eat. Thus, role modelling is one of the best ways to encourage your child to eat well - teaching them to make healthy food choices puts them on track to a lifetime of benefits.

Avoid offering lots of alternatives if the prepared meal is refused. You decide what’s on the menu and if your child doesn’t want it, let them leave the table. They may not be hungry.  Remember children go through growth and activity spurts, so sometimes they are really hungry and sometimes they eat like birds. As long as you offer nutritious food, you can trust your child's appetite to get the balance right.

Offer another snack or meal later on at the right time.  Avoid giving  food like biscuits, chips and lots of milk/juice as alternatives, between or after meals, particularly if your child has not eaten much at that meal. This only encourages your child to refuse food at meal times.

Try to choose healthy snacks – alternatives high in sugar, fat and salt (lollies, chips and cakes) interfere with their natural appetite for nutritious food.  Let their appetite be the guide.

  • Variety of foods 

Introduce children to a range of tastes, textures, colours.  To stay healthy and grow, it’s important young children eat a variety of different foods. Try to choose food from the four food groups, it should be nutritious, low in fat, salt and sugar.   

Children may need to be offered a new food 6-10 times before they taste it and, eventually, eat it. Keep offering a small amount of the food that your child has previously refused as repeated tasting helps them to learn to accept new foods. It helps if they see parents and peers eating them too. A food reward chart is a fantastic tool to help raise your child's awareness of food – it is also a fabulous way to all be involved and helps to make eating fun!!

  • Mealtime routine 

Set up a routine around mealtime so everyone knows what to expect. It helps to eat around the same time and commit time to eating – discourage rushing of the meal to do other things. The mealtime routine can be flexible and fun – try mixing it up a bit – a picnic at the beach or park or outside if the weather’s fine. The aim is to foster a calm, friendly atmosphere – a stressful climate at mealtimes teaches children to regard mealtime as an ordeal, not the fun positive experience that it should be.

Consider that feeling hungry is partly determined by your child's ‘stomach clock’ – how much he ate yesterday at the same time. Meals at regular times actually encourage a healthy appetite next mealtime. You can use this to encourage children who under eat at mealtimes to eat more by limiting ‘grazing’ (or random snacking). On the other hand, regular healthy snacks can be a great way to reduce overeating at mealtimes.

  • Make mealtime a social time – make meals a fun experience.   

Have meals together as a family – involve children in setting the table, use nice crockery and cutlery. Sociable and impressionable, small children benefit hugely by being included in the family meal, absorbing everything from table manners to family dynamics, social skills to an open-minded attitude toward new food.  If children observe siblings and adults eating a range of foods at family meals, they will be more likely to try it themselves.

Eating together as a family whenever you can also helps children understand and pick up a few table manners.  Right from the start, try to encourage your toddler to sit whenever he/she is eating or drinking – its safer and lays the foundation for the development of a healthy appreciation of food and the importance of making time for food/eating. Small children may not tolerate sitting down for an entire meal – but at least encourage them to eat what they wish sitting down and allow them to leave the table when they’ve finished. The finer points of manners, for instance talking with a mouthful or reaching over others probably won’t be grasped by children until they are about five years old, so don’t expect too much - just keep kindly reminding them.  For infants and toddlers, the Metoo, Kaboost or Beetle chair enables all the family to sit together at the same table.

Prioritise mealtime and preparing food – try to make time for food and eating together. Try to plan meals for a time to suit young children (i.e so they are not over tired). Limit distractions by turning off the TV and sitting together –try a picnic in the back yard or in the lounge if the weather isn’t great.

  • A Place for ALL food

As lovers of everything about food, our view on ‘junk food’ is a pragmatic one. If you want your child to have a ‘normal upbringing’, avoiding junk food is almost impossible. So our approach is based on managing it and approaching it in moderation.

In our opinion, the biggest problem with junk food is the fact that generally it is highly processed with large quantities of unknown additives, preservatives, and chemicals. ‘Junk’ food offers very little in terms of benefiting your child nutritionally AND is full of empty calories which can contribute to weight and health problems.

The emphasis for parents should be to empower children with information and knowledge about food to allow them to make good life choices in relation to food. Keep it in perspective – there is no such thing as ‘BAD’ food! Some foods are healthier and should be eaten everyday whilst other foods should only be eaten occasionally.

Make takeaways healthier by the choices you make some – look for lower fat alternatives – kebabs, burgers, grilled fish, rice or noodle based dishes with veges. Request no added salt and no MSG. Another alternative is to make home made ‘takeaways’ – grilled fish and chips or homemade pizza with all your child's favourite toppings.

Try a bit of home baking instead of always offering mass-produced biscuits and cakes that often contain trans-fats, colours and preservatives. You’ll save money too!

  • Snacks

Young children have small tummies and they need to eat little and often. Their fast metabolisms burn food quickly so snacks are important to keep the fuel tank from running on empty.   Children typically need one snack in the middle of the morning and another in the afternoon – to ensure you optimise your child's appetite, offer snacks at least ½-1 hour prior to mealtimes.

Healthy snacks are important but taste will ultimately influence whether it is eaten or not. When thinking about snacking it is also important to think about your child’s teeth. It can be a challenge for many parents but ideal snack foods for children need to be nutritious, not be too sticky and need to help produce saliva (to prevent cavities in little teeth).

Look for foods that are low in fat, salt and sugar. Some ideas - vegetable sticks, fresh and/or frozen fruit, sandwiches or bread rolls, crackers, muffins, fruit bread, cereals, popcorn, pikelets, fruit smoothies, yoghurt, or cheese.

Yum Yum Tips  

  • After School is a great window of opportunity to get your child to eat something healthy. Children come home ravenous and desperate to eat something immediately. Use this to your benefit as a hungry child is a less fussy child.  Avoid your child grabbing a biscuit or packet of chips by a little forward planning.
  • Some ideas for healthy, quick snacks – colourful fruit cut up and presented on a funky plate, mini cheeses, dried fruit, or a bowl of tasty pasta salad. For older children you can keep a low shelf in the fridge stocked with tasty healthy snacks like wraps or pitta pockets. 
  • Overall enjoy the experience of food with your child. Make time for food and all the learning potential of food. Where possible choose whole, seasonal and organic foods which are best for growing bodies and minds. Most importantly children will develop healthy attitudes toward food if you educate them and….. make eating fun!!

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