Food preferences are formed in early childhood and affect an individual’s eating habits for life. Starting early is of paramount importance in developing children, so as to ensure they grow up to live healthy and successful lives.
Eating healthy also has many benefits such as proper growth and development of the children as well as preventing long term illness. Also, when children are eating healthy foods in their everyday life, they can be more alert and interested in activities, which improves their concentration and learning.
Although parents do understand the importance of childhood healthy eating habits, it is a challenging task in today’s times to promote healthy eating habits in them. Junk food and sugary drinks are taking an enormous toll on children around the world, with soaring numbers who are obese and millions developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure previously seen only in adults.
Fast food has taken over the market. Fast food and junk food are often used interchangeably. They are nothing but energy dense food with high sugar/fat/salt content and low nutrient value in terms of protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content. Children love having junk foods such as Pizzas, Pasta, Burgers, Chocolates, Aerated drinks etc. Easy availability, taste, advertisements and marketing strategies make them popular among children.
Although it is definitely not advisable to constantly refuse children these junk foods, it is possible to work around this problem.
Restricting access to food can actually make your child want it even more. It can create unhealthy food habits, like sneaking food, and power struggles. So, keeping children away from junk food is definitely an uphill battle.
The key to success is to find a balance when it comes to food. This is where early childhood eating habits can be of great advantage.
At an early age children are highly influenced by what they see around them. Since in this stage of their life, the most influential people around them are parents/caregivers and teachers, it is important for parents at home and teachers at school, to work in partnership to ensure that children learn and practise good habits for a positive and successful life. This includes good nutrition education. Parents and teachers need to work simultaneously to educate and expose children to a wide variety of good foods early on in life and teach them good food habits.
At Home: Instil healthy eating habits without turning mealtimes into a battle zone.
Parents play a key role in promoting healthy eating. Some tips for parents to practise would be the following:
- Be a good role model by eating healthy yourself. Children are highly impressionable. They tend to adopt their parents eating habits starting early in life.
- Make a family meal time a regular practise, where the whole family eats together and offer healthy food choices. Regular family meals provide opportunities for good nutrition, and much more. Dining together also encourages proper table manners and fosters language development and conversational skills.
- While the ritual of regular meals is comforting to kids, dining with little kids can be chaotic and messy. Expect spills and some sloppy eating as your youngster learns his/her self-feeding skills. Refrain from being a cleanliness freak and avoid mealtime stress.
- Minimise distractions by turning off the TV and turning on the answering machine and show your child that mealtime is reserved for enjoying healthy food and nurturing meaningful relationships.
- Offer children a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables at meal time or for snacks. Exposing children to fruits and vegetables early in life establishes a pattern of fruit and vegetable preference and consumption throughout life. The healthier food we keep visible in front of little children, the more likely they are to choose them.
- Allow your child to eat treats sometimes (maybe once a week), with no guilt, so they develop a positive relationship with food. It is very important to refrain from using treats as a rewards or bribe for something you want them to do. This only reinforces the idea that eating healthy foods is a chore.
- Once children learn to read, make reading nutritional labels into a fun filled family activity. You can start with their breakfast cereal choices and challenge them to find the ones in the store with more proteins and fibre and less of sugars and fats.
- Lastly, it is very important to encourage children to stay physically active by ensuring they play outdoors couple of hours everyday, instead of staying at home watching TV or being occupied with gadgets.
At School: School based programs and nutrition education at an early age contributes to improving and reinforcing good eating habits in children:
Little children especially at the preschool level are highly impressionable and watch what their teachers say and do very closely. Teachers are therefore in a good position to act as positive role models for their students. Teaching children healthy eating habits at school can make eating healthy at home a little easier. Some tips for ensuring healthy eating habits at school would be the following:
- All schools need to provide its teachers with basic nutrition education and guidelines. Teachers need to be good role models. A teacher who makes healthy choices – including healthy eating and regular physical activity – can have a good influence on the health of students.
- Just as we think about teaching children letters or colours, they must be taught healthy eating skills.
- Many preschool children eat an unhealthy diet heavily reliant on white bread, chips, crisps and sweets. Therefore school food should be monitored for levels of fat, flour and sugar.
- Provide parents with information on healthy food choices and extend nutrition lessons outside of school by assigning homework for families to complete together.
- Ensure healthy foods are provided in school canteens.
- Use non-food rewards (stationery, skipping ropes, puzzles) instead of chocolates and sweets.
Starting healthy eating habits in early childhood will jumpstart children off to a healthy lifestyle. It encourages them to continue the same in the course of their life, ensuring that many health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, etc are kept at bay.
“Poor Eating Habits Developed At An Early Age Lead To A Lifetime Of Real Health Consequences.” – Richard J. Codey