Feeding my children is a constant struggle as they complain that the healthy food I make is not tasty.
Have you ever thought that way? It may be easy to blame the TV ads, your child’s friends, what other mums serve their children or the kind of food available at the school (or even college) cafeteria. But as a parent, you can empower your children to make healthy food choices for themselves. This ensures they take care of their health even as adults and pass on this education to their children. Here are some pointers to enable your children to make healthier choices all by themselves:
1. Let them choose what they want for meals and snacks
Teach them the different components of a balanced meal and leave it to them to decide which items they want. The catch? Give them only healthy options! It may not work to give them a choice on a daily basis – get them involved in planning a weekly menu so that you can shop accordingly. Before you do this, you have to teach them the basics of planning a nutritionally balanced meal. Give away those unhealthy foods that come to you as gifts, even as you retain only healthy foods in the cupboard/fridge.
2. Educate your children before you take them shopping with you
Teach them about ingredients and nutritional components that are potentially healthy or unhealthy. Explain further how unhealthy ingredients damage our body. Make the whole experience of selecting food a game for them – they get to look at the nutrition labels and choose healthier foods.
Start with the relatively healthy foods and finish with the snack aisle – they will get the picture. Explain how fresh produce (fruits and veggies), packaged grains, pulses and spices don’t need labels since their healthfulness is unquestioned.
3. Have them grow a herb garden
It could be coriander leaves in a flower pot on the balcony or a whole kitchen garden. While watering the plants, teach the children about the time needed for the herbs to sprout and grow while taking energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil. It may be tough for your young ones to grasp concepts about poor children not getting enough food - in order not to waste food. But when they see how much effort it takes the Earth to produce just one sprout, they will be more likely to clean their plate.
4. Enlist their support in the kitchen
Young children must not come near an open flame or touch dangerous objects such as knives, grinders, mixie blade sand peelers. Instead, they can help with mixing, stirring, sandwich-making, kneading and washing dishes. Older children (over 13 years) can be taught all the processes and how to be safe while in the kitchen. Always supervise when children are in the kitchen. Teach them about the function and health benefit of each ingredient that goes into making a dish. Start with their favourite foods to get them interested. Children will readily eat anything they had a hand in preparing.
Follow-up their learning in school about food and nutrition, with practical application in the home. They will pay more attention in class and appreciate the value of what is taught.
5. Inculcate a culture of deferred gratification at home
Have them develop patience with respect to food. Children who have this capacity to wait are more skilful at choosing the healthier food when faced with temptation and are not likely to give in to cravings and binge-eating.
As you plan a menu with your children, push their favourite dishes for the next weekend. Thus they learn to patiently anticipate this feast. If they prefer unhealthy food (cupcakes / cream biscuits), tell them when you buy them, that they can have these for an evening snack.
Again, your children anticipate their enjoyment which is enhanced because they earned it. It is important to honour our word while teaching them to defer their gratification. This builds trust and reinforces the lesson.
6. Don’t make food GOOD or BAD
Choose words like ‘healthy / unhealthy’,‘powerful’, ‘energizing’, ‘nutritious /non-nutritious’, ‘body thanks you /doesn’t thank you for eating.’ Teach them the meaning of these terms. Unhealthy foods can be enjoyed in small quantities and infrequently, as long as children know that there are consequences to their body. Remember never to compare taste or flavour of ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ foods. Explain that these flavours are just different and teach them to appreciate flavours of natural foods and spices. Taste is fleeting anyway. Food stays in our mouth for hardly a minute but then the body has to deal with it for hours, days, weeks or even months.
7. When eating out, create a game of choosing healthy options from the menu
Point out the various nutrients they will be consuming and assess how much oil / fat or sugar will be in each item. When you take them to a pizza or burger joint that has a smaller menu of healthier options, again compare the nutritional values - they will then understand why you take them infrequently to a pizza joint. (Some of these joints nowadays also serve salads and soups – ensure that you, as parents, choose healthy foods.)
8. Try not to ban or forbid foods
This only makes the idea of the banned food (not the food itself) more appealing. Similarly, do not label foods as ‘treats’ or ‘rewards’. It is alright to use words such as ‘like’ or ‘prefer’ or even ‘yummy’ to describe foods but definitely teach them that foods they like are not necessarily something their ‘bodies will thank them for’.
Bottom line: don’t use food as reward or punishment and don’t use bribes just to get them to eat.
9. Send healthy food in their lunch box
Empower them by making it a game to explain the health benefits of what they eat to others who do not have as much awareness. This builds in them the self-confidence and ability to stand up for themselves and their choices - attributes that will come in handy while resisting peer pressure. Nutrition in childhood is critical not only for optimal growth but also for mental development which in turn determines academic and social success. Imagine all Indian families eating this way! The incidence of all chronic diseases would be drastically reduced and obesity would be a thing of the past. It all boils down to the healthy choices you make as a family.
Smitha Suresh is a renowned nutritionist and child specialist from Chennai