How to Help Your Kids Eat Healthier

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In this guest post, University of Newcastle dieticians explain how to help your kids eat healthier and how a new online nutrition program Back2Basics can help your family.

Healthy eating habits are essential especially for children to receive sufficient energy and nutrients for growth, cognitive development and to reduce the risk of nutrition-related chronic disease later in life. A new Australian study suggests children with a better diet quality performed better in academic achievement. However, what we know is that only 5% Australian children consumed the daily recommended five serves of vegetables, while the majority consumed processed snacks and confectionary regularly.

Research shows that food companies spend 30 times more on junk food advertisements compared to what government spends on promoting healthy eating. The role of advertising in driving us towards unhealthy foods cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to children. Evidence showed that children can be trained to think critically about food advertising and how to spot dubious health claims and misinformation.

We all know food cues prompt us to develop cravings and feel hungry even when we are not. Although chocolate bars, biscuits, cakes, and other sweets might be tasty and give a ‘sugar boost’, these discretionary foods are usually high in kilojoules/calories (energy), provide very few nutrients, and associated with tooth decay. Other snacks, such as crisps, chips, pies, pasties, and sausage rolls are often high in saturated fat, salt and added sugars. These foods should be eaten only occasionally and in small amounts.

And who else is better to teach your children this than yourself as one of their biggest role models?

Healthy food can be FUN

Children are encouraged to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the Five Food Groups as recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Healthy foods include vegetables, fruits, high fibre whole grains, reduced-fat dairy, meat, fish, chicken, eggs and legumes such as peas, beans and lentils. By creating yummy combinations with a few foods from each group, we can create new taste sensations that are delicious and nutritious.

F – Five Food Groups

U – Unsalted, Unsweetened, Unflavoured

N – Nutritious

Children see. Children do.

Children are more likely to choose healthy food and be active if they see you eating healthily and being active. You are their role model and don’t underestimate the influence you have on your children. Young children look up to their parents, grandparents, and siblings, they do as you do, so setting a good example in healthy eating and regular exercise can have a big impact. Busy family lifestyles, lack of outdoor space, time constraints – all these things can make healthy lifestyle tough to achieve on a regular basis, but there are ways to overcome these. What matters most is whether you can see the change that might be needed and are willing to make a difference. We like to remain in status quo and usually afraid to step out of our comfort zone. There is no time better than now as we can never feel ready enough, especially when it comes to changes.

Lifestyle changes for health and weight management is a life time goal. Choose something small to start with and don’t aim for a big overhaul as this can sometimes be daunting. The key is to remain positive and make changes gradually by taking baby steps. Here are a range of food-based guidelines that are great areas for everyone in the family to focus on. These healthy tricks and treats can help you and your family eating better!

Increasing fruit intake

  • Cut up fruits for afternoon tea or after school and encourage to have fruit as a snack
  • Try different fruits as they come into season – look for the special deals
  • Prepare in different ways: chop into different shapes (use ice cream scoops, cookie cutters), homemade fruit ice popsicles with real fruit pieces, frozen fruit can also be good when the weathers starts to get warmer
  • Include fruit as part of dessert – a fruit rainbow is always tasty!

Increasing vegetable intake

  • Increase the number of times you offer vegetables (e.g. during meals or for a snack)
  • Cut vegetables into different shapes (e.g. use a spiralizer, cookie cutters, grater)
  • Try vegetables of different colours (e.g. do a family challenge and see who can eat the most number of different vegetables with different colours)
  • Offer vegetables in different ways (e.g. with dips, soup, casserole, pasta sauce, sandwiches)
  • Serve more the vegetables that your children like

Decreasing the amount of soft drink, cordial and fruit juice consumed

Sweetened beverages are the biggest problem for children as these drinks can be overly consumed easily and they contribute a lot to energy intake, excessive weight gain, and bad for tooth health.

  • Offer water more often and serve ice water in a jug with fresh lemon, lime, mint leaves
  • Make colourful ice cubes with fruit pieces and add into water
  • Freeze a bottle of water to pack in lunchbox. A good way to have chilled drinking water while keeping the lunch cool

Decrease the amount of meals and snacks eaten in front of the TV

  • Turn the TV off when serving and eating your meal. This is a common distractor and children don’t focus on their meals or chewing properly.
  • Try and eat in a room that doesn’t contain a TV, this may involve moving the TV
  • Try eating in different places such as outside in the backyard, on a verandah

Kids decide whether or not to eat

Don’t worry if a child occasionally doesn’t eat a meal or snack. If he knows he can only eat at meal or snack time, he’ll eat if he is hungry. Even if a child chooses not to eat, have them come to the table. This teaches them that mealtimes are important times to be shared by all family members.

“Yucky” is often a child’s reaction to a new food. This is natural. But it’s frustrating for parents. The good news for parents is there are ways you can help. Here are some bright ideas!

  • Set a good example by eating the new food yourself
  • Offer new foods when the child is hungry and well rested
  • Don’t pressure the child to eat the new food. Let the child look at the new food and touch it. That’s how kids learn about new things
  • Offer the new food again in a few days. It usually takes several tries before kids are willing to try new foods
  • Involve your kids when planning the next meal and discuss about what ingredients you’ll need
  • Let the child help prepare the food. Baking cakes or cookies is another fun way to introduce kids to cooking

About the authors

Li Kheng Chai is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) who has sought experience from a variety of disciplines including nutrition research, community health promotion, and clinical dietetics. She is currently undertaking her PhD studies at the University of Newcastle focusing on children nutrition and dietary behaviour for weight management.

Dr Tracy Burrows is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian (AdvAPD) and Associate Professor in the School of Health Sciences at University of Newcastle. Tracy has expertise in the areas of the assessment and validation of dietary intake, obesity management across the lifespan and food addiction and has published her work in peer reviewed journals.

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