Healthy eating habits begin at an early age

When healthy eating habits begin at an early age, they will help the child to maintain normal weight and growth, stable energy, and both physical and mental health throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Healthy eating habits also contribute to concentration at school and also provide a positive lifelong outlook on food, giving children the best opportunity to grow into healthy, confident adults and subsequently pass these healthy habits onto their own children.

The risk of becoming diabetic, being obese and having high cholesterol levels or some form of cancer can also be reduced by maintaining healthy eating habits.

Some important aspects to bear in mind are:
▪ Reduce the intake of sugar-rich food and drink (sugar contributes to a higher risk of obesity and dental caries). Keep sugar rich food for special occasions;

▪ Avoid salty food (chips, fast food, sauces and readymade meals). If consumed frequently during childhood, salt can contribute towards cardiovascular diseases. The habit of eating salty food is difficult to correct in adult age, as taste buds assimilate the salty flavour very early and subsequently this will be considered a basic flavour. Use herbs as a substitute for salt (mint, coriander, thyme, parsley); as a dressing use lemon juice, nutmeg, saffron;

▪ Reduce the intake of fatty food (prefer chicken – after removing the skin – or turkey to beef or other red or processed meat; eat fish more often than meat; substitute fatty dairy products by low-fat or non-fat dairy products); use olive oil for cooking and for dressings.

▪ Increase the intake of pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas), vegetables and fruits. Eat vegetable soup. Eat salads and vegetables with the main dish. Prefer fruit as a dessert. These will supply the body with the correct quantity of vitamins and minerals it needs, are rich in fibres and will also help to prevent a variety of diseases.

It is not always easy to encourage children to eat a balanced diet. It is most important to act as a role model for your children as they like to imitate their parents. It is unfair, for example, to have a meal of only meat and potatoes and expect the child to eat vegetable soup.
Learn strategies that will help the child to develop healthy eating habits (don’t forget to keep the child physically active – play football or enjoy cycling with your child during the weekend and, if possible, walk him/her to school):

Drink water – water is a good source of minerals and contributes for concentration at school. It also helps avoid constipation. Encourage your children to drink water during the day. At mealtimes drinking water instead of sweetened or fizzy drinks is preferential. Keep sweet drinks for special occasions. Include bottled water with the child’s school lunch. Add mint leaves or herbal/fruit tea to the water to give it some flavour; buy an attractive water bottle with pictures of the child’s heroes on it. They will enjoy taking it out of their schoolbag to show their friends.

Respect your child’s appetite

– Never force your child to eat all the food on the plate if he/she is not hungry or to eat food he/she doesn’t like. This will result in the child associating mealtimes with anxiety and frustration. It is important for children to eat slowly so that they learn when they have had enough. Encourage your child to tell you when he is satisfied. Limit the quantity of beverages during meals. Children often fill up on liquids and the consequence is no appetite for the meal. Try to keep regular mealtimes. If dinner is late, give the child a healthy snack (e.g.: whole-wheat bread with cheese and a carrot) and put the child to bed. Avoid serving the child dinner when he is overtired.

Eating breakfast

– It is important to have a good breakfast in the morning in order to supply the body with enough energy for the start of the day’s activities. However, some children don’t feel hungry in the morning. If this is the case give the child a banana or any other type of fruit and a glass of milk or unsweetened yoghurt. Avoid sugar-rich cereals or other sweets such as donuts or chocolate cakes. These provide no energy and can contribute to excessive weight gain and diabetes.

Encourage children to have fun in the kitchen

– Involve your children when shopping for food. Be creative when cooking new dishes. Let the child help you prepare their meals. If your child doesn’t like a new ingredient, don’t give up. It might take from seven to 10 attempts until he/she begins to enjoy the dish. Serve new ingredients attractively in conjunction with food that the child likes (e.g.: create a forest using broccoli for trees, carrots and cherry tomatoes as flowers, cauliflower for clouds, a slice of yellow pepper for the sun, or sesame seeds for stars). Make blueberry pancakes or carrot cake.

Prepare healthy snacks

– Have these always available at home and also to take to school. Keep carrot, cucumber or celery stick washed and peeled in the fridge and serve with natural yoghurt as a dressing. Always have jelly and different types of fruits prepared in the fridge. Cut down on processed food, fatty and sugar-rich snacks, such as cakes, sodas, chips, chocolate biscuits, white bread and croissants, which can cause blood sugar fluctuations and can leave children tired and with no energy. Prefer unsalted nuts or make an avocado dessert with fresh biological milk or yoghurt.

Minimise distractions

– Try to turn mealtimes into pleasant occasions, by engaging the child with conversation and sharing the day’s experiences. Eat together as a family and avoid watching TV or having other distractions during mealtimes. These make it difficult to pay attention to sensations of fullness and contribute to overeating. Adverts during mealtimes might also encourage the child to prefer sweet or unhealthy snacks instead of a healthy meal.

Example of a children’s menu:

Breakfast:

▪ Muesli + unsweetened yoghurt and sliced apple sprinkled with cinnamon
▪ Red fruit tea

Mid-morning snack:

▪ Packet of mixed unsalted nuts (walnuts, peanuts, almonds)
▪ 1 carrot

Lunch:

▪ Cauliflower soup with parsley
▪ Oven-baked salmon fillet with peas, carrots and broccoli
▪ Dessert: fruit kebab (pineapple, grapes, orange)
▪ Drink: water

Afternoon Snack:

▪ Slice of whole-wheat bread with butter and cheese
▪ 1 pear
▪ Milk or vegetable milk (E.g. soya/rice/oat/almond milk)

Dinner:

▪ Creamy pumpkin soup
▪ Egg with mashed potatoes, puréed spinach and cherry tomatoes
▪ Dessert: sliced melon

Supper:

▪ Natural yoghurt with fresh raspberries

By Marina Augusto Estevão
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Marina Augusto Estevão is a dietician at the Hospital Particular do Algarve Group