The primary goal of healthy eating for school-aged children is to achieve optimal growth while preventing obesity and iron deficiency. The secondary goal is to promote a lifelong healthy relationship with food. Healthy eating during childhood is therefore of two-fold importance.
Healthy eating requires the planning, preparation and provision of regular nutrient dense meals consisting of a variety of foods. Parents must be responsible for food choices while children choose only the quantity eaten. This promotes the ability to self-regulate food intake. Setting a good example while limiting food wars and involving children in food preparation is important for success.
These ABC’s for optimal childhood nutrition will make the task easier.
An Apple a day keeps the doctor away
With the importance of fibre in a healthy diet, this old fashioned saying rings true. Fibre, the roughage we find in wholegrains, legumes, vegetables and fruit, plays a vital role in gut health and therefore the immune system. Probiotic bacteria, living in the gut, feed on fibre, which allows them to thrive. Given that 70 – 80 % of the immune system lives in the gut, a healthy gut is vital for optimal health.
In order to achieve an adequate fibre intake, high fibre foods should feature regularly in a child’s diet.
Breakfast makes a nutritional difference
Children have a small stomach capacity but a high nutrient demand for growth, activity and development. Regular meals, rich in nutrients, are therefore essential to meeting the nutrient requirements of children.
Skipping a meal such as breakfast is not only a lost nutrition opportunity but impacts concentration and energy levels before first break. Children who experience extreme hunger by midmorning are likely to overeat at first break, leaving nothing for lunch time. For children playing sports, attending extra lessons or waiting for late transport, this is not an ideal eating pattern for sustained energy. Furthermore, hunger on arrival at home will lead to overeating and poor food choices in the late afternoon, possibly spoiling supper as well.
Starting the day with a breakfast not only helps a child to achieve their nutrient requirements but also sets a healthy eating pattern in motion which promotes a regulated appetite, mood and energy level.
All meals and snacks should be Colourful
Fruits and vegetables should be consumed daily and the easiest way to ensure an adequate intake is to include these nutrient dense, convenient foods with most meals and snacks. Encouraging children to eat vegetables often requires the most perseverance and patience. There is no need to force a child to finish their food but limited exposure leads to a limited intake. Repeated and consistent exposure is far more likely to result in acceptance than the absence of disliked vegetables.
Through serving a variety of vegetables, children are introduced to the concept of a diverse diet. Preparing and eating vegetables daily, as a parent, is a significant opportunity to model desired eating behaviour. If a child is refusing to eat vegetables, this modelling aspect of serving vegetables may be more important initially than the actual consumption of vegetables by the child.
Vegetables and fruits can be included in many creative ways by adding raw vegetables to lunch boxes, keeping fruit visible and serving soups or salads as starters. Adding vegetables at lunch time will help children towards meeting their daily intake in the event that dinner time vegetables are shunned.
Healthy eating is a learned behaviour but once learned, it cannot be unlearned.