Got fussy kids? How to keep them happy + healthy
Published on 30th March, 2021 at 05:23 pm
Picky eaters can make keeping the whole family happy and healthy a daily challenge. So, we asked a dietician for some tips and pointers for how to get it right.
Why nutrition matters while they’re young
World Health Organization (WHO) statistics suggest as many as 38 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2019. Zooming in on South Africa, Diabetes South Africa reports we’re facing one of the most severe scourges of pre-school child obesity in the world. The South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016 unpacked this, revealing that 13% of children under the age of 5 were overweight. The same study revealed another major developmental issue: more than a quarter of children in the same age group were stunted in height.
Overweight and obese kids increase their odds of living with obesity into their adult years, as well as early-onset Type 2 diabetes, if their weight isn’t managed in their early years, says Rhodene Oberholzer, a registered dietician at En Bonne Santé Dieticians. According to a 2015 study published in Obesity Reviews, obese children and adolescents were about five times more likely to be obese in adulthood than those who were not obese. More recent research published in The Lancet towards the end of 2020 pooled data from 2 181 population-based studies, revealing that 6.1% of males and 16.7% of females in the 15-19 years age bracket were overweight. Obesity can be attributed to various factors, like a poor diet with little to no nutritional value, a sedentary lifestyle, and a lack of education about the risks of such a lifestyle.
Good nutrition is key to helping your children or dependants reach their development goals, keep up their energy levels and to help them grow overall. This has benefits for their community, too. “A healthy child is more likely to become a healthy adult, who can eventually play an important role in the economy,” says Oberholzer. The right nutrients fill your child’s bucket of growth needs, and yes, help protect them from chronic diseases later on in life. “Good nutrition in childhood can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and some cancers later in life,” explains Oberholzer.
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What your kid needs, by life stage
According to WHO, breastfeeding is best for babies in the first six months of life, in both developed and developing countries. After this period, Oberholzer says it’s important to introduce complementary food “in a timely and safe manner to avoid any nutrient deficiencies, while still continuing with breastfeeding until the age of two years and beyond.”
Deficiencies at this stage
Protect your child or dependant from iron deficiencies, which are common in this age group, and if left untreated can cause learning problems in children. Focus on iron-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, chicken, beans and lentils. “Adjust these to the consistency suitable for the infant to tolerate,” suggests Oberholzer.
Iron-rich foods are still important for preventing nutritional deficiencies at this stage, but broadening the diet to include all food groups will also support your toddler’s growth and health. This is a stage of rapid development, so carbohydrates, dairy and lean protein are essential for your toddler’s optimum health. “From 12 months, their milk intake should reduce to three servings of dairy per day, which is adequate to meet their calcium requirements,” says Oberholzer. “Full-cream milk can also be used until the age of two, for that little bit of extra vitamin A, but after that they can change to low-fat milk if they are eating and growing well.” Milk is rich in calcium, which your toddler needs for strong bones and healthy teeth.
Stick to a variety of foods, introducing more options for your child to try, and encouraging them to test different foods – the earlier the better, so they can start broadening their palate for different foods.
“Adolescents all undergo a growth spurt, and because of that, require more energy,” says Oberholzer. If you find your teenager is making it hard to keep the food cupboards and fridge stocked, you’re not alone. The energy needed during this growth spurt means they have a healthy appetite, which Oberholzer says is their body’s way of telling them that they need more fuel to grow. “Extra snacks can help to make up for these increased energy needs, but focus mostly on nutritious snacks, and lower the number of snacks that are high in fat and sugar,” she suggests.
Snack options for high schoolers:
• Vegetable sticks with a hummus dip or cottage cheese
• Unsalted nuts
• Home-made popcorn
• High-fibre crackers with cheese or peanut butter
Easy tips for a healthy kitchen
Plan your meals
If you know what the week’s meals will be for the family, you’re less likely to grab that pre-made lasagne or takeaways for the family during the end-of-the-day rush hour. “Meal planning will save plenty of time, as you will know exactly what to prepare the moment you get home, and what to buy when you go to the supermarket,” says Oberholzer.
Keep nutritious food in your house
If the kids only have access to nutritious food, that’s what they’ll eat. And when they’re hungry, it won’t matter to them if they’re eating an apple as opposed to a chocolate; if they’re truly hungry, it’ll be enough.
Keeping something like bulgur wheat in your house is perfect for a quick, healthy addition to a variety of meals your family will enjoy throughout the week. “It takes about 15 minutes to cook, and, if you make a little bit extra, you can use it during the week in different ways, like adding it to salads or serving it with a chicken stir-fry – another quick and easy dinner that will only take a few minutes to prepare,” suggests Oberholzer.
The dos and don’ts of forming healthy habits
There are some practical pointers (and some big no-nos) when it comes to raising children with healthy eating habits. Here are some of them:
• Do be an example
It’s unfair (and nearly impossible) to expect your child or dependant to adopt healthy eating habits, or less fussy preferences, if they’re raised by a parent or guardian who doesn’t live this out in their own life. “You cannot expect your children or dependants to have healthy eating habits if you are not an example for them,” says Oberholzer. “You must show them what healthy eating habits look like,” she continues. “Luckily, healthy eating can benefit us all, so you will not be doing it just for your kids.”
• Involve them in food choices
A child is more likely to show enthusiasm and be on board with healthy eating if you get them to participate in deciding what healthy eating looks like in your home. Consider giving them a budget and allowing them to decide on a meal that you can shop for and cook together.
• Don’t bribe them to keep them healthy
Tactics like promising your kids dessert only if they eat their veggies or treating them to ice cream if they pass a test are not the way to go if you want to help your child establish a healthy relationship with food, says Oberholzer. “By doing this, children will start to see food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and not as nutritious food to fuel the body and to help them grow,” she explains. “Instead, use non-food options to reward children, such as stickers (if they collect them) or a play date with their best friend.”
• Don’t criticise their eating habits
The language you associate with food, and the comments you make about a child’s eating habits can stay with them throughout childhood and lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. According to registered dieticians Gabriella Goodchild and Sarah Almond Bushell writing for The Children’s Nutritionist blog, “While we may remember being praised for eating something as a child, we may also remember being criticised for not eating something or eating too much.”
Recipes for even the fussiest children
Oberholzer suggests these meals to get your kids enthusiastic about healthy eating:
Breakfast: Overnight oats
“Overnight oats can be an easy and delicious breakfast, and it only takes a few seconds to prepare. You will wake up to a delicious grab-and-go brekkie that the whole family will enjoy.”
1. Mix some raw oats with yoghurt and/or milk and fruit of your choice.
2. Add some flavour like cacao, peanut butter, cinnamon or vanilla essence and refrigerate overnight.
Lunch: Sandwiches or wraps
“Bread can be a great and easy way to up fibre intake and provide your child with a good source of energy to sustain them throughout the day.”
Some filling options:
• Peanut butter
• Cheese and tomato
• Chicken mayo
Wraps are also a good option if you have some leftovers in the fridge, like chicken stir-fry, says Oberholzer.
Supper: Veggie kebabs
“The visual impact of food, and the emotions that accompany dinnertime, are important for children, so make dinner colourful and fun. This is a great time to include the kids to help you out while you prepare the rest of the food.”
1. Set up a production line on your kitchen counter, with kebabs, fresh vegetables and seasoning. “Use veggies like baby tomatoes, fresh broccoli, cauliflower, cooked butternut and beetroot, or any other veggies that you prefer,” suggest Oberholzer.
2. Ask your kids to build their own veggie kebabs by threading whichever veggies they like on to the kebabs and finishing off with a sprinkle of seasoning. “Veggie kebabs can be enjoyed raw or roasted. This will add instant colour to the plate,” says Oberholzer. “The kids may also be keener to eat their veggies because they created the kebabs, and they are something to be proud of.”
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