Kids Nutrition: Good Eating Habits

“I’m not sure how it happened,” your client laments. “I used to be so careful about what my children ate. But, over the years,our eating habits have declined without my noticing. The kids pester me into buying high-sugar breakfast cereals and fruit bars, and they say all of their friends are drinking soda for lunch. ‘Just this once,’ has turned into a daily routine.My kids also seem to be a little pudgier than their friends, and they hardly ever eat fruits or vegetables. Do you have any suggestions for improving my family’s eating habits?”

The childhood years are parents’ last chance to exert a meaningful influence over their children’s food choices. While children in elementary school (thoseapproximately six to 12 years old) may have strong food preferences, they are a relatively captive audience when it comes to mealtime:Parents and caregivers still purchase and prepare most of the food consumed by children in this age group.

How important is childhood nutrition?

For children, food provides the building blocks for healthy growth and development. Children generally need the same nutrients as adults, but usually in smaller amounts. Without adequate nutrition, children may develop deficiency disorders, such as iron-deficiency. Poor eating habitsmay result in a lack of energy during school and at play. They may fail to attain their potential adult height.

Ironically, inadequate nutrition may develop fromtoo many calories as well as too few calories. Some children get enough energy, but consume too many empty calorie foods, such as soda and snack foods. Such eating patterns may lead to nutrition deficiencies, along with obesity.

Good nutrition in childhood may alsohelp to prevent chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease later in life, as well as obesity in childhood and adulthood.

Simple guidelines

Good nutrition for children agessix to 12 is quite similar to good nutrition for adults. Children need to eat a variety of foods from different food categories. The Food Guide Pyramidprovides a decent guide for children andadults. Changes in eating habits can be built around the pyramid, helping children aim for the lower number of servings suggested in each group (two milks, two proteins, three vegetables, two fruits and six grains). Within each group, look for a variety of foods rich in vitamins and minerals, and limit foods high in sugar or salt.

In general, parents need to help children replace empty calorie foods with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Occasional treats are fine, but these should supplement, not replace, a well-rounded diet.

Stress and food

Changing eating behaviors requires some planning and determination. Children forced into too many new habits too quickly may resent parents and caregivers, and miss familiar “friendly” foods that have been taken away. Having said this, it is important to note that children are used to having someone else in charge. In fact, they want and expect someone else to be in charge, even if they don’t admit this. As long as changes are made slowly and consistently in an atmosphere of love and support, children adjust quite well.

Mealtimes should be occasions where people come together to enjoy food and each other’s company. Of course, no one is perfect, and some days we feel lucky ifwe have managed to get any food on the table at all! But in general, families should avoid stressful topics in conversation during meals, and should try to make meals as pleasant as possible.

Unfortunately, the dinner table can become a battleground in some families. This increases the likelihood that food and eating may take on unfortunate emotional overtones. Children may refuse to eat certain foods to gain attention, or they may eat less during meals and snack more.

Adults who tend to overeat in response to stress say they find comfort in food, and have learned to turn to food in times of stress. Such overeating is a leading cause of obesity. Some adults alsosay that they learned to associate food with comfort early in life, when food was used as a way to soothe physical wounds and injured feelings. Sharing food signifies love and caring, but food should not be used routinely as a reward or punishment (as in denial of food) or as comfort for feelings of stress. Parents should get out the ice for injuries, give hugs and attention, and if distraction will help, play withtheir child. Maybe children will learn to turn to activity when they feel stressed!

Simple changes

Clients can begin to improve family eating habits by assessing what simple changes will make the greatest impact. Decreasing empty calorie food may mean changing shopping habits. They can trade in the breakfast cereals with chocolate and marshmallows for something that is still delicious but more wholesome. Trail mix, nuts and low-fat yogurt make nutritious snacks. Also, advise them to look for whole grain varieties of cookies and other snack foods.

At mealtime, encourage parents tofigure out ways to provide fruits and vegetables. Children tend to like vegetables with milder flavors, such as corn, potatoes and carrots. They can serve vegetables that have a stronger flavor with dips and sauces to make them more palatable, and sneak broccoli or spinach into tomato sauce over noodles. Children are more likely to develop a taste for less familiar foods if they try a bite, especially at the beginning of the meal when they are hungriest.

Parents need toteach children about good nutrition so thatthey understand that the foodchoices they make matter. Enourage clients to let their children help cook and plan meals. And, of course, a parent’s own good example of a healthy relationship with delicious, nutritious food helps children internalize healthful behavior and values