A national poll of 1,767 parents out of the U.S. reflected this, finding that nearly all believed healthy eating in childhood is beneficial, yet only one-third believed they were doing a good job of shaping their child’s healthy eating habits.1
It is an interesting glimpse into what is potentially being felt by many parents not only in the U.S., but Australia, Europe and beyond.
1 of 5 of the parents polled felt what they fed their kids had no sway over health, 13% believed it somewhat or not important for their child to have fruit and veg each day, and 16% believed it only somewhat or not important to limit kid’s intake of soft drinks. This is worrying.
You are what you eat, and kids need good nutrition for growth and maintenance of healthy muscles, bones, brains and immune function.
Those that understand the connection between food and health, however, are perplexed at what is actually good for their kidlets and how to go about getting them to eat it.
Healthy eating challenges
Barriers to healthy eating that were identified included fussy eaters, confusion as to what is ‘healthy’, cost, and time and convenience.
Getting kids to eat well can be hard. Tastes, food preference and habits can be shaped in early life, but sometimes it is impossible to know why a little one just won’t stray from the chicken nuggets and plain pasta. 2-4
It is thought repeatedly exposing an infant to a variety of foods, from as soon as they are beginning to experience and consume solids, can be critical to accepting a broader range of flavours and textures later in life.3
We are hard-wired, you see, to prefer the sweet, salty and fatty stuff. But much goodness comes from more bitter flavours often associated with vegetables.
But sweetness can be enjoyed in the form of fruit, salt in the form of a little sprinkle on a savoury homemade meal, and fat from whole food sources like olive oil or plain yoghurt.
Repeated exposure has been found to help in acquiring a taste for something – up to 8-10 times!3 So, be patient and persistent when replacing carrot sticks over potato crisps or sliced apple and 100% nut butter over cookies for an afternoon snack.
Nearly half of the parents polled are finding it difficult to discern what food is actually healthy.
We assume foods like cereal are good for us and our kids, yet are often laden with sugar!
Claims of all natural, organic, low-fat or sugar-free are fine, but one must often assess the fine print (i.e. ingredients list and nutrition information panel) to get an idea of what is really being offered.
Add to this, as kids move beyond toddler years they are more susceptible to the influence of marketing – however obvious or insidious – like cartoon characters on the packets of unhealthy food or drink products, junk food brands supporting sporting events or teams, or online and television advertisements.
Limiting heavily processed and packaged items and shopping mostly along the perimeters of the supermarket can help (though there will be ventures down the middle aisles for items like olive oil, nuts, seeds and tinned tomatoes!).
This usually covers your fresh produce essentials – like vegetables, fruit, good quality meat, dairy, fish and eggs – leaving the more processed and packaged stuff to the centre.
Costs, time and convenience
It can seem eating well is more expensive. And when eating out, a meal deal from Maccas certainly appears cheap!
Co-director of the poll, Sarah Clark, says, “The tension between buying foods children like, and buying foods that are healthy, can be an ongoing struggle. Many of us know the feeling of spending time and money on a healthy meal only to have our children grimace at the sight of it and not take a single bite.”
Convenient heavily processed and packaged foods are, well, convenient. But these foods are often high in added sugar, salt and not-so-great fats, or are heavily refined and processed (or contain some heavily processed ingredients).
“It can be easy to slip into more convenient habits that seem less stressful and less expensive. But if occasional fast food or junk food becomes the norm, it will be even more difficult to promote healthy habits for kids as they grow up,” said Clark.
When done with consideration, buying and eating healthy food can be affordable and time-savvy.
Seek out a co-op or local farmers market as these can offer access to seasonal and cheaper healthy real foods. Don’t have one of these nearby? Then find your nearest supermarket that offers best value for your produce.
Good staples to have in the kitchen include eggs, tinned or dried beans, lentils and chickpeas, frozen fruit and vegetables, plain yoghurt, herbs and spices and whole grains like brown rice.
Using these as your base, making food in bulk and from scratch can save time and money in the long run. Put aside a couple of hours for a Sunday afternoon cook-a-thon. Refrigerate or freeze meals ahead of time, so you can bust them out for the weekday meal-hour rush.
Guidance and access
Most parents want to ensure their kids are eating well. But with hurdles such as limited time, clever marketing, cost, and access to healthy foods, some support may be required.
“Some parents need help with shopping, meal preparation, or other household chores so that mealtimes are not so hectic,” said Clark. “Others would benefit from easy-to-understand information on how to identify packaged foods that are healthy, ideas on how to make kid-friendly recipes a little healthier, and practical suggestions on convincing picky eaters to try a more balanced diet.”
We’ve touched on the ideas for surviving fussy eaters, and eating healthy on a budget. Our books, e-books and website recipes also provide some simple, nourishing, and inspiring food creations. And if you need more guidance and support, seek out help from specialists that can provide advice unique to your situation on how to improve the quality and variety of what your kids are eating, and how to make it a feasible venture in a crazy, busy, financially-constrained life.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health 2017, Healthy eating for children: Parents not following the recipe, viewed 22 February 2017, <http://mottnpch.org/reports-surveys/healthy-eating-children-parents-not-following-recipe>
- De Cosmi, V Scaglioni, S & Agostoni, C 2017, ‘Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices’, Nutrients, 4, no. 9, pp.2.
- Nicklaus, S 2016, ‘Complementary Feeding Strategies to Facilitate Acceptance of Fruits and Vegetables: A Narrative Review of the Literature’, International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, vol. 13, no. 11.
- Nicklaus, S 2016, ‘The role of food experiences during early childhood in food pleasure learning’, Appetite, vol. 104, no. Special Issue: How can food pleasure drive healthy eating habits?, pp. 3-9.
University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health