10 ways to raise a fuss-free eater
Is your family dinner table a battleground every night? Follow our experts’ tips for positive and fun ways to encourage your child to adopt healthy eating habits. By Khulekani Madlela
We all want our children to eat well and grow up strong and healthy. And yet all too often dinner time can turn into a broccoli-themed battle as you try to convince your little one of the merits of a non-chips-based diet. But while some level of fussy eating is normal, being too picky with food can lead to nutritional deficiencies that could impact their development, lead to eating disorders later in life or – at the other end of the spectrum – result in obesity.
“All of these can seriously endanger your child’s health,” says Marjolein Elizabeth Verschut, nutrition coach at Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre. It’s well documented that childhood obesity figures are growing quickly in the UAE, with 30 per cent of Abu Dhabi schoolchildren overweight or obese*, which can increase a child’s risk of cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, sleep apnea and low self-esteem.
While obesity is easy to spot, both nutritional deficiencies and eating disorders are often not diagnosed until a child falls ill, and both can affect energy levels, development and school performance.
So,while you might never raise a staunch Brussels sprouts fan, it’s important to encourage your little one to maintain a healthy attitude to food to stay fit and strong. We ask the experts for their tips and tricks...
Stock up on healthy food
“Parents should educate their children on when to eat, what to eat and how to choose healthy options,” says nutritionist, Hala Barghout. This means keeping the cupboards filled with a variety of tasty but nutritious meals and snacks so that your children have more options. Swap crisps and chocolate for slow energy-releasing foods such as dried-fruit rolls, raisins or nuts.
Don’t force them to “clean the plate”
Force-feeding your child will only turn mealtimes into a war zone. “Respect your child when he or she tells you she’s had enough. Remove the plate when everyone else at the table has finished, and don’t use hard words or punish them by withholding the dessert or a snack,” advises Verschut. Children are good at knowing when they’re satisfied, but if you force them to “clean their plate” they can lose their ability to regulate what they eat, leading to overeating and obesity, says Dr Vamshidhar Gudichuttu, paediatrician at Lifeline Hospital, Jebel Ali.
Make mealtimes fun
If your child refuses to eat certain foods or is reluctant to try new ones, don’t despair. “Kids are more likely to eat if they see it as a fun activity. For instance, you can cut fruit into funny shapes with cookie cutters,” says Barghout. She also advises playing the rainbow game with your children, where you count the colours of the fruit that they eat. To make it more fun, Barghout recommends recording the scores and sticking them to the fridge. Dressing up sandwiches with faces and shapes made from vegetables and fruit is another fun way of getting your child to eat well.
“If a parent can sneak in vegetables, fruit or legumes into their child’s diet without altering the taste of the dish or drink, then it is a great way to get a fussy eater to eat more healthily,” says Barghout. Add an avocado or nuts to a smoothie, or make sauces and soups using vegetables and fruit.
Mixing in veggies with their favourite foods can also help, says Marilyne Lopes, chartered physiotherapist at KUUR Rehabilitation Centre, Dubai. “If your child likes pizza for example, add artichokes and rocket salad to the topping to increase their vegetable intake.”
Catch them young
When you start giving your child solids at six months, try to offer variety to get them used to different tastes and flavours. When they get older and eat dinner with the rest of the family at the table, Verschut advises letting them taste everything you eat. “A child who is introduced to food this way is highly likely to develop into a toddler with varied tastes,” Verschut says. When dining out, don’t limit them to the children’s menu – let them experiment and order something from the adult menu.
Keep them hydrated
Good hydration helps youngsters’ bodies and minds perform at maximum capacity, and can also help them distinguish between true hunger and thirst. Experts recommend ensuring a high fluid intake encompassing water, milk (which contains calcium and vitamin D), coconut water (which is low in sugar but high in potassium), smoothies (which retain more fibre than plain fruit juices) and herbal teas. Add a slice of orange or lemon to flavour water if your child doesn’t like it on its own, Barghout advises. If your little one is allergic to dairy “try soy, almond or rice milk. Make sure you get the calcium-fortified alternatives,” says Barghout.
Adopt a ‘no forbidden foods’ policy
Having a strict ban on one type of food tends to backfire, making children want the forbidden foodstuff even more than before. “Explain the situation to them,” says Lopes. “They should know what constitutes healthy food and what can be eaten only occasionally such as cakes and cookies.”
Don’t use food to reward or punish your child
Food is a basic need and children should be confident that whatever they do, they will be provided for, says Verschut. When you use food to make a child feel better (reward) or bad (punishment), chances are they will implement this strategy in their adult life and it could lead to an eating disorder or binge eating, which is often associated with obesity, Verschut warns. The biggest reward a parent can give their child is attention. “Play with your child, talk to them, take them to a nice place and read bedtime stories with them. To punish them you can take away privileges,” advises Verschut.
Be a good role model
Children normally observe and copy what, how and why their parents eat, says Dr Gudichuttu. Parents can serve as role models for healthy eating by leading by example; for instance, buying fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks, eating a variety of healthy foods and adhering to family mealtimes.
Limit screen time
Research reveals that children are more likely to snack on junk food while watching television. It’s important to set rules and cut down on the time your young ones spend watching TV, playing video games or using the computer. Barghout recommends using some of the free time for exercising. “Engage them in fun physical activities like swimming, jogging or going for a walk. If children see you exercising regularly instead of slumping in front of the TV, they are likely to join in and accept it as part of their daily routine,” she says.
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