Healthy habits win dinner battles
IF you have ever been in a household with young children, you may have seen the battlefield.
Food flung missile-like lays strewn all over the floor, a defiant little soldier refuses to give in, while on the other side, the parents, sag in exhaustion.
But teaching children to eat, and eat well, need not be a battle, according to dietitians.
Food and Nutrition Australia dietitian Sharon Natoli said mealtime madness could be avoided if parents established healthy eating habits in their children early in life.
She suggested parents make and eat healthy meals with their children as one way of encouraging them to make healthy choices from a young age.
Her sentiments are echoed by Sunshine Coast dietitian Julie Norton, who is completing PhD studies in how parents influence their children’s eating habits.
Ms Norton said the best thing parents could do to get young children to eat, and eat healthily, was to lead by example.
“It’s not what we say as parents, it’s what we do. If you’re trying to get a child to eat breakfast, and you’re not eating breakfast yourself, you’ve got Buckley’s,” she said.
“But if you can sit down and eat the same food as the child, the child is more likely to eat it.
“A lot of parents say they haven’t got the time for themselves because they are so busy running around with their kids.
“Mums need to direct their attention towards themselves more.
“It’s not being selfish, it’s doing the right thing, and the children will naturally copy their mother.”
Ms Norton said she had found that fussy eaters were often the product of parents who had introduced them to tasty but not-so-nutritious food options.
“Sometimes parents, trying to do the right thing, offer the child a reward, something yummy, if they eat all their vegetables.
“Instead of staying strong, what they’re saying is that vegetables aren’t yummy.”
Ms Norton said parents should be persistent in introducing their children to good, healthy food and their efforts would eventually pay off.
“Kids need to experience a new taste up to 15 times before they get used to it,” she said.
She said children would not learn to eat new foods if parents took them off the menu at first refusal.
“A lot of parents say, ‘I’m not going to keep making vegetables if my child’s not going to eat them’, but you’ve got to keep presenting them,” Ms Norton said
“How are they going to learn if they’re not there to eat?”
But Ms Norton said parents also needed to accept that children’s eating habits changed, and it was not unusual for them to sometimes not be hungry, or to suddenly go “off” a food.
Both she and Ms Natoli recommended against focusing on trying to get small children to eat balanced meals.
Ms Norton said it was better to focus on what a child had eaten over a day, while Ms Natoli said it could be better to try and provide a balanced diet over the course of a week.
Mum Tamara Schick, of Buderim, considers herself a lucky parent.
Mrs Schick, who has five children aged from eight months to seven years, said her children had progressed easily from milk to solids, and were good eaters.
“They eat their veges,” she said.
Mrs Schick said she did not have any special tricks or tips for producing healthy eaters.
She said her children had made the transition from milk to soft foods such as custard and yoghurts, and mixtures including chopped banana and custard easily, and had been eager to try other solid foods.
“I know they say you shouldn’t give solids to children until they’re at least six months old, but a lot of my kids were three or four months old, and you could tell they were ready,” she said.
“They were hungry.
“I’d give them some solids and they were happy babies.”
Mrs Schick said every child and family situation was different and it was a matter of working out the best solution in each situation.
TIPS TO AVOID MEALTIME MADNESS
1. Involve your toddler in meal preparation. Ask them to peel a banana for you, grate a carrot together, help you whisk some eggs or pour their own milk on cereal.
2. Have fun with food presentation. Toddlers like colourful food in bite-sized pieces. Try making mini fruit skewers or serving bite-sized cheese slices on top of halved cherry tomatoes.
3. Relax and eat together. Keep calm and don’t make a fuss of whether your child is eating or not. Don’t nag or bribe kids to eat. Instead, be a good role model. If your child sees you eating, they will be more likely to join in.
4. Encourage your child to feed themselves. Expect a mess and use surfaces that are easily cleaned. Make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks available and always supervise their eating to avoid any risk of choking.
5. Choose fortified foods. If oily salmon isn’t a favourite, offer alternative sources of Omega-3 DHA. Special brands of yoghurt, eggs and milk are enriched with a vegetarian, algal source of Omega-3 DHA which is crucial to healthy brain, heart and eye development.
6. Offer two or three different foods at a mealtime and offer new foods more than once. For example, offer bread, meat and different vegetables. Fussy toddlers may not be inclined to venture into new food territory but don’t be put off. Keep offering new foods, but don’t force them to eat.
7. Be realistic about the amount a toddler can eat and the effort you put into making your child’s meals. Don’t feel resentful when they refuse to eat.
8. Limit snacks throughout the day. Appreciate that your child’s stomach is small. Limit snacks to just one piece of fruit, a small tub of yoghurt, or a slice of raisin toast.
9. Offer food before milk or juice at meal-times. Too many drinks of milk or fruit juice may fill them up.
10. Assess your child’s food intake over the week, rather than daily.