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Get your child to eat healthy. Here's how

By Rohini Cardozo e Diniz
April 24, 2006 12:57 IST
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Fussy eaters, poor eaters, battles over dinner -- these are part and parcel of parenthood.

But your mission should not be just to shove food down your child's throat; you need to cultivate healthy eating patterns that last a lifetime.

This can be tough especially since, in the last two decades, advertisers have been more successful than parents in changing the food habits of children through enticing food advertisements on television, newspapers, etc.

Your first step as a parent is to be a role model for your child. You need to review and re-establish your own eating habits in order to teach children about healthy eating. Here's a guide that should help you inculcate healthier eating habits in your children.

Recognise the difference

Children and adults have different diet needs.

~ Though children need the same nutrients as adults in terms of quality, their energy requirement per unit body weight is higher than that of adults.

~ Their food should contain a higher proportion of protein, vitamins and minerals than adults.

~ Their diet should comprise foods that are suitable to the digestive abilities of their age.

Diet dos

Healthy food makes a child's body and mind healthier.

~ As children have higher energy needs, it is important that their energy requirements are met by feeding adequate amounts of food that are rich in carbohydrates such rice, bread (preferably whole wheat), chappatis, upma, porridge, idli, khichdi, puttu, etc.

~ Avoid excessive consumption of sugar, sweets, chocolates, soft drinks, ice creams, ghee, butter, cooking oil and fried foods.

~ If a child is unable to eat a large quantity of food at one time, lightly touching chappatis with ghee or adding a teaspoonful of ghee to their rice will help meet their energy needs without adding bulk.

~ Proteins are needed for growth, hence it is very important to see that the child's diet contains adequate amount of protein rich foods such as pulses, legumes, dals, sprouts, roasted nuts, mushrooms, milk and milk products, egg, chicken, fish, shellfish and red meat.

~ Children have a higher need for all vitamins and minerals and this can be easily obtained by eating adequate amounts of fresh fruits, dry fruits, vegetables and sprouts instead of using multivitamin-mineral capsules.

~ Right from a very young age, children should be encouraged to quench thirst with water than with soft drinks.

Recognising likes and dislikes

Many children have very strong likes and dislikes; and you may find that they end up avoid nutritious foods like milk and green leafy vegetables.

For such children, it is best to change the form in which the food is served rather than totally avoiding it.

Although milk is a rich source of calcium, there are other foods that are rich in calcium as well. If the child dislikes drinking milk, it can be given in the form of custard, homemade ice cream, porridge, cheese, paneer, curd or shrikhand.

Parents should also be careful not to express their likes and dislikes in front of their children; they should eat a variety of foods, thereby setting an example for their children to follow. They should also make it a habit to eat atleast one meal with the children.

Maintain a regular diet routine

Give children regular meals by avoiding intervals that are too short or too long between two successive meals. Keep in mind the time spent at school and also the number of meals consumed at home and at school.

An ideal meal schedule is a five meal pattern consisting of three main meals and two nutritious snacks. After having breakfast, the time gap between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner is too long.

By providing children with healthy snacks that can be eaten in the mid-morning break or for evening tea, they are not only recharged with energy and other vital nutrients, but are also discouraged from eating junk foods.

Get children into the habit of eating an early dinner so as to allow the food to digest before bedtime.

Must-dos at meal time

~ To begin with avoid any unpleasant conversations at meal times with the kids and your spouse.

~ Allow children to feed themselves so that they can learn to enjoy the food they eat.

~ Do not eat in a place with obvious distractions, such as in front of the television.

~ Make the kids get into the habit of sitting down in one place and eating.

~ Avoid force-feeding children as eating can become a negative experience for the child. A child may not be hungry or may not want to eat at that time.

In such situations, it is best to leave the child alone; when the child feels hungry, he or she will automatically ask for some thing to eat.

~ Set a reasonable time limit for the meal. When the time's up, the table should be cleared without any unpleasant comments on your part even if your child has not finished his/ her meal.

Do not use food as a bribe. Once in a while, have outdoor meals like in the balcony. It is a welcome change from dining indoors.

~ Never call children fussy eaters in front of others or make an issue about meal times. If children become aware that their parents, particularly their mothers, become anxious when they don't eat, they may use it as an attention-seeking tactic.

~ Sometimes, parents tend to overlook the nutrient content of a meal and prefer fast foods for the sake of convenience, especially when children eat them more readily.

Although fast foods are fine as an alternative once in a while, they should not become the staple nourishment for the family. With a little pre-planning, you can stock up on needed items, thus avoiding numerous shopping trips.

~ Try new recipes instead of falling back on the same old dishes. If the child seems to enjoy only junk food, prepare these in a healthy way by selecting proper foods and cooking methods.

For example make burgers, cutlets or samosa fillings using mixed vegetables and soya granules and bake them instead of frying them. Serve these along with brown bread.

~ Prepare colourful meals and serve attractively arranged portions of food.

Let children ask for a second helping if they want, rather than piling food on their plates all at once.

~ Do not give the children too much of liquid foods such as soups, fruit juices, milk before the meals as it reduces the appetite and a child does not feel hungry.

~ Discourage the habit of topping foods with ketchup or other sauces. Serve these as an accompaniment to a few select dishes.

~ Avoid giving children too many preserved foods as they are deficient in nutrients and can trigger asthma and allergies in sensitive children.

Practise what you preach. Don't say no junk food to him and eat junk food yourself. It sets a bad example for your child.

~ If a child is overweight and is past two years of age, gradually substitute whole milk with skim milk.

~ Do not give children too much of sugar or too many sweets and chocolates. Use fruit pulp or dry fruit purees to cut down on the amount of sugar in desserts.

Give children dates or chikki after meals instead of sweets or chocolates and see that they rinse their mouth.

Jumpstart the day with breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day as it breaks an overnight fast that can be as long as 12-16 hours from dinner the previous night to breakfast the next morning. Breakfast helps recharge the energy levels of the body.

The brain requires a minute-to-minute supply of glucose for its normal functioning. In the morning, when energy levels are low and less glucose reaches the brain, the memory is affected if the levels are not boosted.

Children who skip breakfast are poor learners at school as they cannot concentrate properly and cannot think fast. They may suffer from fatigue, giddiness and irritability. Studies have shown that the nutrients missed by skipping breakfast cannot be compensated for in other meals.

Skipping breakfast makes you so hungry by lunchtime that you become a victim of the 'gobble syndrome'. This is bad for the stomach, as the secretion of the digestive juices does not match the rapid food intake. Also, by eating fast, one tends to overeat.

A wholesome breakfast can include a combination of the following options: a wholegrain cereal like chappatis, brown bread, porridge, a serving of protein food like sprouted pulses, cheese, egg, meat, chicken, nuts, a seasonal fruit and a beverage such as a glass of milk or a cup of tea or coffee.

Malted beverage powders like Bournvita, Boost, etc, can be added to milk for children who do not eat enough quantity of food. However, it must be kept in mind that these should be used as a supplement and not as a substitute to a balanced diet.

To summarise, what really helps form a child's eating habits is the parent's own attitude towards food. If you eat natural and home-cooked foods in preference to fast food, it is very likely that children will also pick up this healthy habit from you.

So, eat sensibly and live healthy.

Rohini Cardoso e Diniz is a consultant dietician with Naomi's Fitness Centre and manages a private practice in Goa.  


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Rohini Cardozo e Diniz