Are we raising kids to eat too much sweet and sticky stuff (almost certainly)? Or to drink smoothies and fizzy drinks (which are, in fact, about as unhealthy as each other) and to expect them never to be hungry or even a bit peckish?
Since the 1970s we seem to have become a grazing and snacking society. In fact, snacking between meals was a cunning marketing strategy for packaging and selling ultra-processed foods – particularly those enticing chocolates and sweets you so often find right by the check-out till, leaving you spending the rest of your time arguing with your child about whether you are going to buy it or not!
When my four children were young, I was convinced that my role was to keep them comfortable at all times – any hint of being a bit peckish, and they would gain instant access to raisins, biscuits or snack bars stored in my overflowing bag. We would barely leave the house without carrying the necessary emergency supplies… even on a short walk. Did we imagine they would fade away? Or perhaps they would become impossible to manage as their blood sugar dropped further…
And as for eating before mealtimes, waiting half an hour or even 5 minutes before eating seemed an unreasonable demand. What were we teaching our children? That they need constant feeding, on demand, and that being a bit hungry before meals is intolerable? Prior to the meteoric rise of ultra-processed food (which no longer looks like food as you know it, as it contains multiple unrecognisable ingredients and is likely to be high in processed carbs and sugar) most children were broadly expected to wait till the next meal. The trouble with plastic-wrapped snacks is that not only are they poor in nutrition and high in sugar, but they are also designed to be addictive, so we crave more.
Some children are picky eaters, meaning it’s even harder for parents to encourage their child to make healthy choices. Following the government’s healthy 5-a-day advice on eating fruit and veg can be a challenge. And It is so easy to assume that giving fruit drinks is the healthy way to keep the wolf from the door. But fruit drinks tend to be high in sugar, and damaging to teeth, unlike like whole fruit which is bound in much needed fibre and releases sugar far more slowly. So how can we help our children learn healthy eating habits which will set them up for life?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Help your child learn to wait a few minutes longer before eating and praise them for waiting patiently rather than giving them a snack right away. Slowly increase the interval they are expected to wait (and keep praising them for doing so). Try not to get hooked in by whining. Being a little hungry before a meal helps appetite. And having regular mealtimes helps too.
- Encourage them to try new foods, involve them in food preparation, eat with them if you can, and show that you are enjoying the food. Aim to keep the atmosphere light, without too much attention on the new food. Children are naturally conservative. Chat and have fun. It can take up to 16 tasting attempts for your child to be comfortable with a new food!
- If possible remove or hide snacks, but if you need to, offer a small healthy snack such as diced apple, pear, strawberries, celery with peanut butter, a piece of cheese, raisins or hummus and carrot sticks.
- Watch out for processed fruit found in smoothies and fruit juices which give a sugar rush, unlike eating the whole fruit where any sugar is slowly released. Include real fruit instead of plastic-wrapped processed options.
- This way your child learns to wait for a healthier option. The ability to tolerate a small wait helps them develop self-control, a skill which can confer lifelong benefits.