There is so much contradictory information in the media about nutrition, that it is no wonder we are all a little stressed and confused about what to feed our families.  It seems almost each week we are told something else we should be eating more of, or should cut down on.  Obviously some of these reports are valuable in the correct context, especially when related to disease prevention or treating medical conditions.  However it does, in my opinion, mean we sometimes get ‘bogged down’ with irrelevant advice and can neglect other more basic food related issues.

 I strongly believe that food and mealtimes are about so much more than nutrition, especially as your children are growing up. Yes, we want our children to eat healthily, and we want to make sure we are doing the best to ensure a healthy future for them by feeding them well.  But it is equally important to encourage them to have a positive outlook towards food from an early age. Food is fuel for our bodies, but it is also something we have to regulate ourselves in order for our bodies to be of optimum health and weight.  These are skills we need to learn as a child and will stay with us throughout life.  Obviously, we cannot forget that food is also delicious, and eating should be an enjoyable, social experience.  This requires a balanced attitude towards food. Eating disorders and obesity in young children have never been more prevalent.  The range of foods which are processed and high in fat and sugar have never been more readily available.  Food choice is a complex issue and often an emotional one!

So how can we help our children to be ‘happy eaters’?

Eat together as a family whenever possible

We all have busy lives and it is often hard to find the time to eat together.  Most of us are rushing around, dropping children at various after school activities in the evening, and have children needing food at different times, Combine this with the family’s multitude of likes and dislikes, and eating together regularly can seem an impossible task!

Remember you are your child’s role model.  It is not rocket science – if they see you eating a healthy balanced diet, they will be more likely to do so themselves.  Try not to let your own food preferences influence theirs so that they are open to trying new things.  Mealtimes are also a great social experience, and sitting together means that meals are likely to be less rushed, which is beneficial for our digestion.

Let your children help you to plan meals, shop, prepare and cook

Most of us encourage our children to help us make fairy cakes and biscuits, but it is vital they learn how to cook meals too.  Let them wash and chop vegetables, crack eggs, coat chicken in breadcrumbs – get them involved in whatever you are doing to prepare food.  Why not let everybody plan a meal that you will share once a week?  Explain that they need to chose foods from different food groups though, or you may end up with bizarre combinations!  They will feel involved, but at the same time you are teaching them an important life skill.  After all, you want them to cook for you in your old age, don’t you?

Explain why everyone needs a good balance of food

We often tell children they must eat their vegetables, but do we tell them why?  Explain that we get different nutrients our body needs from each group of foods.  We cannot do without any one group of foods for our body to work properly.  Try to avoid talking about food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as this instantly creates a two-tiered system and makes the ‘bad’ foods more desirable.  It is worth mentioning that even though we want them to eat carrots and peas, eating only vegetables would not be healthy at all!  I will write more about explaining nutrition to children in the next issue of Families North.

Encourage your children to recognise when they are full

Babies who are breast-fed are very good at regulating their own intake.  They stop feeding when they are full.  With the variety of food available and outside influences, we lose this as we get older.  We frequently want a second helping before the first has had time to reach our stomach, and then feel very full when it eventually lands there!  So, try to make children aware of this and it will be something that helps throughout their life – a good skill for us all too!

In summary – be positive about food.  Eating should be something we enjoy as a family but all too often it is the cause of stress and anxiety, especially for the person doing the cooking!

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