Top 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Feeding Their Kids
We live in an unhealthy world. It’s a world in which obesity rates for Canadian children have tripled over the last 30 years and adult diseases, like heart disease and type II diabetes, are being diagnosed in children as young as 10 years of age. It’s also a world where researchers predict for the first time in history, parents will have a longer lifespan than their offspring. What can you do as a parent? Here are ten tips:
1. Step Up to the Plate & Understand Your Role
First and foremost parents need to take responsibility for their children’s eating habits. There’s no excuse for a child growing up on a steady diet of chicken nuggets and fries. Critical to doing this job well, is to understand your role as a parent. You are responsible for serving your kids healthy meals and snacks and helping them to recognize that what they eat really matters. Once the healthy food is served, however, your child gets to decide what and how much they eat. Forcing or bribing your kids to eat is not part of your job description and only backfires in the long run. Mealtime was never meant to be a battleground.
2. Get Them to Eat the Green Stuff
The most common food complaint is this…“my kid won’t eat their veggies”. Although getting kids to eat the green stuff can be challenging at times, remember that fruits and vegetables are probably the most important food your child can learn to eat for a healthy body weight and the prevention of disease. How do you do it? Introduce your child to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – the earlier in life the better. Serve them often. Children need to be exposed to, and ideally taste, a new food as many as 10 to 15 times before they’ll accept it (parents often give up after less than 3). What else works? Give them to kids when they’re most hungry. Slice them and dice them. A kid might refuse a whole pear, but will happily enjoy a sliced one. Serve veggies raw and with dip. Make homemade smoothies. Taste matters – its okay to put a little cheese sauce on broccoli or make honey-glazed carrots. Visit farmer’s markets and pick-your-own produce farms as a family. Most important, don’t give up!
3. Make the Family Dinner a Priority
Over the past few years there’s been an explosion of research reinforcing the benefits of the family meal. Children and teens who regularly enjoy dinner at home as a family eat healthier foods, are more likely to have a healthy body weight and are less likely to develop eating disorders. These kids are also happier, have higher self-esteem, perform better in school and are less likely to do drugs, smoke or have sex. Even better, when they move out and leave home, they are more likely to carry their healthy eating habits with them. What makes a good meal? Eat at the table and turn off the television. Keep conversations positive and don’t focus too much on food (other than to say how great it tastes). The family meal is a time to communicate, connect and show kids they are loved. What could be more important than that?
4. Serve Milk at Meals
The majority of children and teens, including most teenage boys and almost all teenage girls, do not meet recommended intakes for calcium and vitamin D. These nutrients, along with physical activity, help build the strongest bones possible. During recent decades, children’s intake of milk has declined, while their intake of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages has tripled. Researchers say a health crisis is imminent. The same kids who are swigging soft drinks today may ultimately end up in a wheel chair with a debilitating hip fracture caused by weak and brittle bones. Take sugary drinks that offer little nutrition off the menu, put milk (or chocolate milk or soy milk) back on. Milk is simply a drink that makes sense.
5. Lead by Example
By far one of the strongest predictors of what children eat is what their parents eat. How healthy are your habits? Do you eat breakfast daily? Do you enjoy lots of fruits and vegetables? Do you drink milk with meals? Is your weight healthy? Never underestimate how closely your kids are watching. Mothers have a particularly strong impact on their daughter’s habits. For example, mothers who follow fad diets and speak negatively about their bodies are more likely to have daughters with unhealthy eating behaviours. If you want your kids to have a positive, healthy relationship with food, then make sure that you have one.
6. Feed Your Children Real Food
I call it the “goldfish generation”. It’s a generation of parents who send their kids off to school with fun snacks that kids love like goldfish crackers. These crackers are low fat and trans fat free, but do they provide any significant nutritional value? Not much. When did we stop feeding our kids real food? Foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, milk, meat, fish and 100% whole grains. It’s important to eat real foods and foods that are as close as possible to their natural state. A whole apple has so much more to offer than a container of applesauce. Parents buy fruit roll-ups in the hope that there might be a fruit serving in there somewhere. There isn’t. Start feeding your kids food. When you do purchase processed stuff, learn to read food labels so at least you buy foods with less salt, sugar and unhealthy fats and more fibre, vitamins and minerals – nutrients that actually fuel your child’s ability to think, grow and be healthy.
7. Teach Your Kids to Cook
Teaching kids to cook is one of the most valuable life lessons they’ll ever learn. Young children who spend time in the kitchen find new foods and food mixtures far less intimidating and are much more likely to try them. When children grow up and move away from home, those who are able to make their own meals have much healthier diets than their peers who rarely set foot in a kitchen. The problem today is that busy lifestyles have led to a cooking crisis. We’ve become a nation of parents who eat everything out of a box or from a restaurant. It’s time to get back in the kitchen. Cooking healthy meals takes far less time than most people realize and weekends are a great time for more elaborate menus. Lets give kids a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
8. Limit Fast Food Dining
Dining out, especially at fast food restaurants, is linked to both larger waistlines and a decrease in the nutritional quality of the meal. Kids generally eat more calories, fat and salt and significantly less of important nutrients like fibre, calcium, and vitamin C. Limit fast food meals to once a week or less and aim for healthier options on the menu. Ethnic restaurants, like Japanese or Thai, expose kids to new flavors and textures and generally have healthier items to choose from. Most important, make the effort to eat more meals at home.
9. Eliminate the Competition
Kids are driven by taste, not health. If your cupboards are filled with cookies, candies, chips and soft drinks, then the good stuff doesn’t stand a chance. It’s also not easy to switch a kid raised on Pop Tarts and Fruit Loops to more natural and healthful fare. The moral here – just because the overall food environment is unhealthy, doesn’t mean your home has to be. Fill your house with healthy foods and save treats for special occasions. Start or join a nutrition committee for your child’s school and make a difference there too. By changing the environment our kids live in, we make it easier for them to make better choices.
10. Get Them Moving
What do you do on a daily basis to encourage your kids to be active? Do you lead by example? Do you encourage your kids to learn a variety of different sports which increases the likelihood of them carrying them into adulthood? Is family time, including weekends and holidays, active time? It doesn’t have to be elaborate – simply putting on great music and dancing around your living room qualifies. Physical activity helps protect kids from obesity, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. It impacts their ability to think, learn and be happy. Bottom line, don’t just feed your kids calories, make sure they burn some of those calories too!