Winning the food fight

We all know our children should be eating well because food plays such a crucial part in being healthy. However, that’s so much easier said than done. If you’ve spent hours coaxing them to eat their veges or given into their relentless pestering to buy biscuits or lollies in the supermarket, you’ll know that kids tend to have minds of their own when it comes to food. But you can in fact have more influence on what they like to eat than you realise.

You can help them learn good food habits that will stick with them for the rest of their lives, says Dr Carol Wham, a senior lecturer in nutrition at Massey University who is particularly interested in nutrition and behaviour. “We pick our dietary habits,” says Dr Wham. “We learn them in childhood and carry them through to adulthood.” It’s never too soon to start teaching your kids good food habits, but even if they are older, there are still things you can do to encourage them to eat as healthily as possible.

  1. Be a good role model

Your child’s food preferences are learned, and one of the ways they learn to like or dislike certain foods is by mimicking you, says Dr Wham. If they frequently see you tucking into a plate of vegetables they will get the message that veges are to be enjoyed. Similarly, they can pick up your bad habits – seeing you eating lots of junk food will convince them it’s a good thing. These food preferences then become habits and may be with them for life.

  1. Eat together

Try to have at least one family meal together each day. Sharing food is meant to be a sociable event and research shows that the more you eat with other people, the better your eating habits are. Eating together also gives you an opportunity to be a good role model for your kids.

  1. Expose them to foods repeatedly

If your kids turn up their noses at a new food the first time you offer it to them, don’t give up. offer it to them again and again, possibly cooked or presented in different ways. For example, try serving vegetables raw if they won’t eat them cooked. “It can take eight to 10 repeated exposures to new foods for children to get used to them,” says Dr Wham.

  1. Get your child involved in preparing the meal

They’re more likely to eat a meal if they’ve put some effort into getting it on the table. Also, if they learn how to cook a meal from scratch they’ll see this as normal, rather than opening a packet of prepared food or buying a takeaway.

  1. Make changes one at a time

If you’ve decided to replace bad habits with good ones, don’t try to do it all at once. This can be quite overwhelming for some kids, so do it gradually. For example, one week make their after-school snack dried fruit instead of biscuits, and the following week swap their sugary cereal for one full of fibre.

  1. Keep good food accessible

Keep carrot sticks cut up in the fridge so they’re at hand when your kids want a snack. If you want children to drink more water, keep a jug of it on the table at dinner time. “They’re more likely to drink it if it’s right there,” says Dr Wham.

Scary statistics – 1/3 of our kids are overweight! Approximately 30% of kids in New Zealand are overweight or obese.

The oinistry of Health is launching and supporting a number of healthy eating initiatives, eg emphasising the difference between foods that should be eaten every day and those that should only be eaten occasionally.

Some manufacturers have responded by reducing the amount of sugar in their products (eg CalciYum) so they can be registered as everyday foods.

Recommended daily intake of sugar: Girls – 112.5g Boys – 124g

Kids and snacksRecent research shows 70% of Kiwi parents are very concerned about the amount of sugar and fat our children eat. However, according to the survey, commissioned by Anchor CalciYum, many of us still give them convenience food like biscuits, chips and muesli bars which are high in sugar and/or fat, simply because they’re easy and our kids like them.

Just over 50% of parents questioned owned up to letting their kids eat chips everyday or up to four times a week. Plus, kids do need to snack between meals, so what should you give them? Try these suggestions:

  • Fruit is ideal. Vary what you give them and remember that dried fruit can be a convenient alternative.

  • Raw vegetables, chopped into small pieces, often go down a treat with children. Try carrots, cucumber, capsicums, celery, beans, snow peas or mushrooms. If they like hummus, try serving it as a dip for the veges.

  • Sandwiches don’t have to be restricted to lunch. Wholegrain bread is better than white.

  • Yoghurt. Check the label for the sugar content as they’re not all the same.

  • Cheese and crackers. Make them more interesting by adding Vegemite, pesto or even pickle.

  • Smoothies. These provide a whole host of nutrients from fruit and calcium from milk or yoghurt.

So should you completely ban biscuits and chips? No, says Dr Wham. Foods high in fat and sugar can still be part of your kids’ diets as long as they really are occasional treats.

“You also have to look at the big picture and consider what else they are eating, and how active they are,” says Dr Wham. For example, if your child is constantly on the go and eats good food during the rest of the day, then a biscuit or two shouldn’t be a problem. But if they spend their time in front of the TV or computer and live on sugary cereals, pies and takeaways, then unhealthy treats should be avoided.

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories