Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

This Children's Day, we examine trends and traditions when it comes to bringing up our children, in a healthy manner. What can you, as parents, do to ensure your children are eating right?

By Dr Neha Sanwalka Rungta

Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

When we were children, our breakfast tables often had bowls of fragrant sambhar with multiple seasonings — idli-sambhar, upma, roti, paratha, to name a few, were the obvious choices. Over the years, these got replaced by the sandwich, instant noodles and French toast. Today, the table presents a 'rich' picture — pizza, burger, muesli, cheesecake, pancake and what not! By rich, we are only talking about the spike in calories on our breakfast table, not richness in diet diversity.

Yes, breakfast is getting 'expensive' on all fronts. What we ate growing up and what our children are eating today are extremely different. Such a drastic change in food patterns and consumption coupled with a technology-laden lifestyle has had definite repercussions on our children’s health. 

To understand the situation and draw solutions, we do a quick rewind to look at the top foods and nutrition patterns of the last couple of decades, and based on the trends, we project the future food consumption trends of our children.

2000's:

The emerging fast food industry soon turned into a booming one. By 2003-2004, all major cities and big towns in India were swamped with food giants selling junk food like burgers, pizzas, cold coffee and pastries. Children were spoilt for choice when it came to packaged chips and biscuits; this trend penetrated even the rural areas of India. 

Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

Impact: The three big entrants into the top 10 during this period were pizzas, burgers and fries. If anything, this was a period that set off alarm bells for things to come. But, instead of acting fast, parents remained either clueless or careless. Easy access to foods with negative nutritive value, coupled with delayed mealtimes meant the body was taking in too many calories and burning too little. This period marked a major shift in our consumption patterns, particularly those of our children. This is one of the primary reasons that Indian overweight and obesity statistics grew at the fastest pace ever, during this decade.

2011 to present:

If joints serving burgers, coffee, pastries and other fast foods became favourite hangouts for children between the ages of 15 and 18 during the first decade of the century, the next decade witnessed children as young as 8 to 10 years frequenting these food joints. Today, fast food joints have become the preferred choice for parents to celebrate their children’s birthday. Here, children get served sugary treats and fat-laden burgers, pizzas, doughnuts and aerated drinks.

Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

Impact: This is a period where offline developments are playing a bigger role in damaging nutrition trends. Yes, fast food joints continue to thrive and keep our children enthralled, but lack of physical activity is having a bigger impact. The boom of smartphones is only causing a further decline in healthy habits. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October 2015 shows that nearly 100% of children (surveyed) had started using smartphones before their first birthday. Hold on, if you thought we are addressing an American concern! A survey conducted by Norton on smartphone usage trends in India in 2015 showed that up to 20% of mobile Internet users in India were in the age group of 12 to 19 years. We now know the reasons behind the obesity and overweight situation in India.

Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future
Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

Food in the 21st Century: 

It is not all gloom and doom. Globalisation has had a positive effect too on the food scenario in India. Superfoods such as avocado, oats, quinoa, green tea, whey protein, breakfast cereals, kiwis, berries and a variety of vegetables that were previously restricted to the developed world, are now easily and readily available in India. Thanks to technology and the emergence of nutrition science, there is increased awareness among parents regarding the benefits of various superfoods and their uses. 

Simple steps that can be adopted by parents, schools and the government: 

  • Nutrition education programmes, which focus on creating awareness among children on child obesity and its long-term side effects, should be organised.
  • Parents should encourage their children to eat healthy and consult a nutritionist if they feel their children are gaining weight rapidly. 
  • Hosting birthday parties at fast food joints should be avoided. 
  • Visits to fast food chains and coffee shops should be limited to less than once a month. 
  • Use of laptops, tablets and phones by children should be restricted to less than an hour per day.
  • Parents should also encourage their children to spend at least an hour every day playing various games of moderate to vigorous activity. 
  • Fat tax as imposed by the state government of Kerala can be applied throughout the country.
  • The government needs to strengthen the availability of mid-day meals and other prophylactic programmes to tackle the issue of malnutrition.
  • Leftover food from parties can be distributed to the needy, not disposed of in the dustbin. 

The irony is, that despite the increasing prevalence of obesity, India is currently facing the additional burden of malnutrition. Many pan-India studies including the NFHS (National Family Health Survey) and NNMB (National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau) surveys have reported that the prevalence of malnutrition has not changed drastically since the 1980s. 

Children's Eating Habits: Past, Present And Future

Top ten must-have foods in a child’s diet:

Parents should encourage their children to eat a healthy balance of whole grain cereals, pulses, milk and milk products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and if they are non-vegetarians, egg, fish, chicken and mutton. The consumption of ice cream, cakes, chocolate, fried and fast food should be restricted to less than once a month. Parents, nutritionists, educators, schools and the government should come together and devise methods to ensure that all children receive a balanced diet to tackle the problem of malnutrition and obesity in India. Also, effective methods to increase physical activity and reduce gadget time should be planned and adopted. 

So, parents, while you celebrate Children's Day this year, do make a small promise for your family’s health — a promise to change. 

Dr Neha Sanwalka Rungta is a paediatric nutritionist and director of NutriCanvas.

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