How do we teach our children about healthy eating in a way that inspires them when there is so much else competing for their attention?
A 1992 Cornell University study concluded that children’s eating habits are formed before they’re 12 years old. This is an interesting finding and although I don’t think that if you have teenagers there is no hope for positive change, it does recognise that it’s never too young to encourage an interest in healthy eating. In addition, some worrying statistics from the OECD have reported that New Zealand is ranked third in the world for childhood obesity with 34 per cent of Kiwi kids being either overweight or obese. This puts us ahead of the US! There is definitely work to be done to inspire our kids to want to eat well, so they can grow up strong and healthy.
I have two preschoolers, a two-year-old and a four-year-old, both of whom have pretty good appetites and will happily eat raw veges for snacks but on the other hand have quite possibly picked up what could be a genetic disposition for all things chocolate! I want my children to develop a healthy attitude towards food: to enjoy it, but also understand what’s best for them. With my two-year-old, my focus is to ensure he’s eating a varied diet with lots of opportunities to try something new, but my four-year-old is showing an increased interest in food, particularly how it helps her body and what ‘superpowers’ it gives her. So here are a few strategies that have been working for me so far with Miss 4 and could be adapted to suit any child!
1. Keep the messages simple
No need to be complicated. The more simple the information, the more likely your child will be able to remember it and then apply it. Keep the basics in mind – encourage a varied diet with everything in moderation.
2. Timing of your chats
With so many distractions, the best time to chat about food is when it is right in front of them and in their tummies! Their attention is already on the food they’re eating so take advantage of this.
3. Make it relevant
You need to keep their attention while you have it! I have linked foods to different ‘superpowers’ which has really resonated with Miss 4. It opens up straightforward messages as she is always wanting to do something better or bigger. Milk for super-strong bones to grow tall, meat or beans for big muscles to run faster, carrots for powerful vision at night… and so on.
4. Making eating fun
Food is worth talking about! It’s not always possible but if you can, get to know their favourites and match them with something new. Exploring food will introduce them to new varieties, colours, tastes and textures. Remember, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean they won’t!
5. Stay positive
It’s important that unhealthy foods don’t get demonised but it’s just as important to teach the difference between ‘all the time’ food and a ‘sometimes’ or treat food. PS: I’m sure it’s not just my children, but the more they’re told they can’t have something, the more they want it! I try to focus more on the ‘why’ and what they CAN eat.
Laura Tari is an expert food industry nutritionist with more than 11 years’ experience working for leading food companies in New Zealand and abroad. Laura has a Degree in Human Nutrition and a Diploma in Sports Science. She currently works as a freelance nutritionist and as a busy mum to two very active preschoolers.