Mealtime warfare

Have healthier options available as treats for children. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Have healthier options available as treats for children. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

The kitchen table is a battleground for many families. Children often refuse to eat the food their parents have prepared. Worse still, the younger ones delight in messing it up.

Experts say mealtime warfare often begins when well-intentioned parents nag their children to eat up. “Finish your greens and don’t leave the table until every scrap is eaten,” they say.

The nagging starts at mealtimes and can lead to a continual battle. The more parents insist, the more children resist. Some experts maintain by age one many children undergo a dramatic change of attitude to food, halving their intake and becoming extremely fussy.

From this age onwards this negative streak is just around the corner. So, trying to get most children to eat certain foods, including healthy foods, can be unproductive.

Toddlers tend to be strong willed and have minds and tastes of their own. If parents want to eliminate mealtime trouble they must learn to outwit their wily little ones.

Although young children should ideally be given a variety of well balanced foods, if they dislike variety as many do, a repetitive but nutritious diet is perfectly acceptable. After all, it is the child who has to eat it.

The eating habits your children develop when they are young influence their chances of a healthy life when they are older. They tend to follow their parents’ example so if you want them to eat well then you must watch what you eat. Many are influenced by their peers, even at pre-school age, and prefer to snack rather than eat full meals. Crisps, coke and chocolate are firm favourites.

Making a big deal about eating healthily is usually counter-productive. If, for instance, you want to introduce more vegetables into their diet try and include them in the foods they like, such as pizza.

Changes in their eating habits should be made gradually. Start by substituting sweets/crisps/biscuits with a piece of fruit one day a week to make their school lunch healthier. Then, move on to two, three and eventually, the full school week.

Children like foods which are colourful and interesting so try to make them as appealing as possible. Teenagers should be encouraged to eat more fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains to increase fibre. They should limit salt intake and processed foods such as bacon and sausages.

Avoid giving “other food” rewards, such as “If you eat your vegetables I’ll give you sweets.” Instead give non-food rewards if children make healthy choices.

Here are some tips to help your children make the right choices:-

Healthy eating guidelines

* Give them oven chips rather than the deep-fat variety.

* Make your own burgers. Grate vegetables over them to improve their nutritive value.

* Don’t give sweets between meals. If you want to give a treat opt for a small bar and give it either with the meal or afterwards.

* If a child refuses a meal do not allow him/her to immediately fill up on crisps or sweets.

* Make sure children eat breakfast. This meal not only breaks their long overnight fast and improves concentration it also lays down the foundation for healthy eating for the rest of the day. Wholemeal or bran cereals with milk and topped with fruit give a good start to the day with an orange or unsweetened juice and some wholemeal bread.

* A child’s lunchbox should ideally contain items from the four food groups - fruit and vegtables, meat, milk and cereal/potato. To ensure these needs are met try to include a choice from each food group in their lunchbox.

* Most children like simple foods - ones with which they identify. Foods should not be highly seasoned. Finger foods are often their favourites because they are easy to handle

* It’s a good idea to get children to help prepare their school lunches. The more stirring, mixing and assembling they do the less likely that the lunch will end up in the bin or being traded for a friend’s chocolate bar.

* A scone rather than crisps is a good choice for children’s small school break. A piece of fruit, such as a banana, satsumas, kiwi fruit (peel it and wrap it in clingfilm ), is a good idea, too.

* Encourage them to drink milk rather than fizzy drinks.

* Spaghetti bolognaise, stews, chillis or stir-fries are ideal options for dinner. Yoghurt or tinned or frozen fruit are good dessert choices.

* Add some colour to their diet. It is not only wise to eat a wide selection of foods but to ensure they are a variety of colours, according to nutritional therapist Suzanne Laurie. This is especially important as regards fruit and vegetables as the substances which give them their colour also give them their health inducing properties. Try to include green, red, yellow, orange and purple fruits and vegetables in the diet every day.

How to avoid mealtime misery

1. Do not rush your children. If they are taking a long time to finish let them be. The rest of the family can get on with the next course.

2. If they want to eat three good meals a day, that’s great. But for those who don’t it is wiser to channel your energy into providing nourishing snacks throughout the day rather than arguing with them. The amount of food required varies hugely with each child. Weight, age, gender and level of activity are key factors. If your children are eating according to their appetite and are content and growing normally there is no need to worry.

3. Try to make mealtimes enjoyable. Small children hate sitting in one place for long so once they have eaten their meal (or most of it ) let them get down to play.

4. Try not to get cross if the food is not eaten. Put the remainder in the fridge and use it later.

5. Encourage them to enjoy their food and to eat a variety of different foods.

6. Try to ensure they do not eat too much fat.

7. Be sure to include protein foods, such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs or beans every day in their diet.

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