Children today face an increasing number of nutritional challenges, including poor eating habits, obesity, poor food choices and eating disorders. It sounds worrisome, but there is good news about children’s nutritional health, not to mention lots of interest in solving these problems.
Among other things, public interest groups are lobbying fast food chains for better options and schools are providing healthier canteen meals. But as long as there is a demand for unhealthy foods, there will always be someone willing to supply them. Therefore, the key to lifelong wellness for our children is to teach them how to take personal responsibility for their own health through wise and active decisionmaking.
As parents, we have considerable influence over this. It starts with modeling eating patterns for our children. Studies show a strong link between parents who model good nutrition and improved eating habits in their youngsters.
The key is to be clear, consistent, and natural. Moaning that you cannot have ice cream because it might make you fatter sends the wrong message. Completely banning “bad foods” often leads to a whiplash effect. Instead, choose a special day to have a modest amount. A treat should have a celebratory function rather than a guilty one.
As children become more self-reliant, there is a tremendous teaching window for strengthening food-related life skills. Children who do not know how to cook will rely more on unhealthy fast foods. This is where nutrition education can really work. Nutrition concepts have to be practical, focusing on skills such as shopping, label reading, and cooking. The message must relate to the child’s own priorities. For example, a 5-year old can understand that too many sweets will make him lose his “zoom,” while a tween or teen will relate to how choosing the right fats can affect their skin and hair. It is all about how you package the message.
It takes the effort of many people to convey consistent messages about nutrition and health. Only then will kids then begin to internalize the information and make changes in their own eating and activity habits. This is no small task. Everyone who influences kids’ food choices shares responsibility for shaping their attitudes toward food, from the immediate circle of parents and siblings, to the extended family, teachers, coaches and friends. You can’t control them all, but focus on the ones you can influence.
Whether at school or at home, healthy choices that appeal to kids are essential. When heading out, choose restaurants that offer healthy choices and get the older children to help pick healthy dishes on top of the usual favorites. Be patient. Kids don’t get proficient at the piano, math, or football without a lot of practice. This is also true of good nutrition habits.