Are Your Kids’ Food Choices Eating Away Their Health?
05 - 11 Sept, 2015
Are Your Kids’ Food Choices Eating Away Their Health?

From the basic food guide to the latest food fad, it can all be awfully confusing, it is no surprise that parents might need some help understanding what it means to eat healthy. The good news is that you do not need a degree in nutrition to raise healthy kids. Following some basic guidelines can help you encourage your kids to eat right and maintain a healthy weight.

1. Control the supply lines. Decide which foods to buy and when to serve them. Though kids will pester their parents for less nutritious foods, adults should be in charge when deciding which foods are regularly stocked in the house. Kids will eat what is available in the cupboard and fridge at home. If their favourite snack is not all that nutritious, you can still buy it once in a while so they do not feel deprived.

2. Give them a choice. Kids need to have some say in the matter; schedule regular meal and snack times, and from the selections you offer, let them choose what to eat and how much of it they want. This may seem like a little too much freedom. But if you follow the previous step, your kids will be choosing only from the foods you buy and serve.

3. Quit the clean-plate club. Let kids stop eating when they feel they have had enough. Lots of parents grew up under the clean-plate rule, but that approach does not help kids listen to their own bodies when they feel full. When kids notice and respond to feelings of fullness, they are less likely to overeat.

4. Start them young. Food preferences are developed early in life, so offer variety. Likes and dislikes begin forming even when kids are babies. You may need to serve a new food on several different occasions for a child to accept it. Do not force a child to eat, but offer a few bites.

5. Rewrite the menu. Who says kids only want to eat pizza and burgers? When eating out, let your kids try new foods and they might surprise you with their willingness to experiment. You can start by letting them try a little of whatever you ordered or ordering an appetiser for them to try.

6. Drink calories count. Soda and other sweetened drinks add extra calories and get in the way of good nutrition. Water and milk are the best drinks for kids. Juice is fine when it is 100% natural fruit, but kids do not need much of it – four to six ounces a day is enough for preschoolers.

7. Find the balance. Occasional sweets are fine, but do not turn dessert into the main reason for eating dinner. When dessert is the prize for having food, kids naturally place more value on the cupcake than the cauliflower. Try to stay neutral about foods.

8. Maintain clarity. Find better ways to say ‘I love you’. When foods are used to reward kids and show affection, they may start using food to cope with stress or other emotions. Offer hugs, praise and attention instead of food treats.

9. Preach & practice. Be a role model and eat healthy yourself. When to teaching good eating habits, try to set the best example possible. Choose nutritious snacks, eat at the table and do not skip meals.

10. Limit TV & computer time. This helps avoid mindless snacking and encourages activity. Research has shown that kids who cut down on TV watching also reduced their percentage of body fat. When TV and computer time are limited, they will find more activities.

Rewarding children with a highly palatable food can defeat the purpose of it. When a tasty food is offered as a reward, children’s desire for the 'reward' food increases over the food parents are trying to encourage them to eat. In addition, it does not allow children to develop intrinsic motivation for healthy eating. Parents may see better results from offering a variety of foods starting at a young age and repeating exposure to foods even if the child does not like them at first.

Children model the behaviour of those around them, and when children are young, parents (and sometimes siblings) are the main role models in their lives. People eat away from home more often, which can mean poorer food choices are modelled. Neophobia can often be overcome in children who have positive role models; they are more likely to try unfamiliar foods if they have observed someone else eating them. In addition, when parents take a bite of their children’s food and show signs of enjoyment, children are more likely to try the food.
A survey of over 550 families found that parents’ fruit and vegetable consumption was the strongest predictor of a child’s intake of those foods. There are two main ways modelling can increase consumption – observation could change behaviour directly or it could increase the possibility of consumption thereby promoting liking through increased taste exposure. In addition, parents can expose their children to fruits and vegetables through movies, books or gardening.

Infants have innate preferences towards certain taste qualities and dislikes towards others; they prefer sweet-tasting foods and reject bitter foods such as certain vegetables. This reflects an evolutionary response that was historically useful because the sweet taste signaled sources of energy (calories), while bitter tastes signaled foods that might be toxic. Some researchers believe that infants begin to accept bitter tastes around the age of 14–180 days. 
A reluctance to try new foods is called neophobia. It seems to be minimal around six months of age, so infants may be more willing to try new foods at this age. A commonly rejected category of foods amongst children is vegetables. Recent research suggests that intuitive parental actions – restricting less nutritious foods, pressuring to eat nutrient-rich foods or rewarding for good behaviours – might actually be counterproductive and lead to unhealthy habits, which might lead to obesity for children later in life.

Sometimes parents restrict highly palatable (and often energy dense) foods from their children’s diets hoping they choose healthy alternatives, but this often has the opposite effect. Restricting a tasty food usually increases their desire for it. In addition, some studies have found that children with restrictive parents were more likely to be overweight later in life.
Restriction can also lead children to eat when they are not hungry. This in turn could inhibit the ability to self-regulate – to learn to pay attention to one’s own physical and internal cues of hunger and satiety. In contrast, a moderate amount of restriction could be beneficial. Children whose parents moderately restricted what they ate were found to consume fewer calories overall than children whose parents used high or low amounts of restriction.
Older children who said their parents were authoritative – active in meal times but not restrictive – ate more fruit, fewer sweets and fatty snacks, and breakfast more days of the week than children who claimed their parents were neglectful.


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