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How to instil good eating habits in children

SINGAPORE – Children are prone to reaching for sugary snacks and fizzy drinks throughout the day and are generally not enticed by healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. But instilling good eating habits is essential in ensuring they get the adequate dose of nutrients for growth and development.

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SINGAPORE – Children are prone to reaching for sugary snacks and fizzy drinks throughout the day and are generally not enticed by healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. But instilling good eating habits is essential in ensuring they get the adequate dose of nutrients for growth and development.

And, with levels of obesity in children rising all over the world and in Singapore too, it has become more important than ever to ensure that they eat right. The benefits of eating well go beyond just maintaining a healthy weight and staving off diseases associated with carrying extra pounds.

“Your children think better, are more attentive, alert and feel better,” said Jaclyn Reutens, a dietician at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants. “They have optimum energy to get through their day and their moods are generally better. Overall, you will see improvements in emotional and mental well-being.”

So what does having ‘good eating habits’ entail?

Lee Sze Mien, a dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, cited the Health Promotion Board’s My Healthy Plate guide (www.healthhub.sg/live-healthy/578/A%20Healthy%20Food%20Foundation%20-%20for%20Kids%20and%20Teens) as what children should eat, in the right amount, and at different ages.

She listed some habits parents should cultivate in children: Consume a wide variety of food from all food groups; offer water or unsweetened beverages instead of sugar-sweetened drinks; and include sufficient fruits and vegetables in their diet.

“It’s also important to eat as a family, encourage self-feeding and discourage eating in front of the television or electronic gadgets,” she said.

Reutens also noted that eating healthy during childhood encourages optimum growth and development. It also helps children understand the variety of food options available, and as such enables them to make educated choices as they get older. Therefore, instilling good eating habits from young is important.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE

She recommended limiting deep-fried foods like curry puffs and fried chicken wings to twice a week, and their intake of sugary foods such as cakes, chocolates and ice cream. Instead, eat healthier snacks such as yoghurt, wholemeal sandwiches, fruit and low-fat smoothies.

“They should understand that there are healthy and not-so-healthy foods; the not-so-healthy foods are allowed but shouldn’t be consumed on a regular basis,” she added.

But, of course, parents need to do more than just tell children what they should and should not eat. The first – and easiest – step is to lead by example.

“Walk the talk,” advised Reutens. “If you’re encouraging your child to eat more fruit instead of sugary and cream-laden desserts, you need to do the same. Kids emulate parents’ habits.”

“And breakfast is a must,” she continued. “If they start the day eating something healthy, they will more likely choose healthier foods for the rest of the day.”

Reutens suggested parents set a routine for main meals and nutritious snacks as this ensures children do not go hungry or forget to eat if they are distracted with playing. It also provides a steady source of energy for them.

Another way is to take them food shopping.

“Involving kids in grocery shopping can help to spark an interest in what they’re eating,” said Lee. “Show them some fresh ingredients and discuss different tastes and textures. That should get children excited about trying something new.”

It might be easy to control what your children eat when they are home but it is a different story altogether when they are at school. This is where instilling good eating habits will ensure they make the right food decisions. There is no need to ban any food but they must know the healthier options and choose them more often, said Reutens.

DON’T GIVE UP

Reutens proposed teaching children to choose soupy foods over fried foods (for example, chicken noodle soup vs fried kway teow) or a steamed bun (pau) over a doughnut.

Also, advise them to limit their intake of oily and deep-fried foods such as curry puff, chicken cutlet and roti prata, as well as sweets and savoury tidbits like chocolate bars and potato chips.

If you are able to pack them a meal, make sure it is a healthy lunch box.

“Go for colour and crunch by including a variety of fruit and vegetable; you can cut them into different shapes to spark their interest too,” Lee offered. “Vary the sandwich fillings, such as tuna, mashed egg, peanut butter and avocado. And don’t forget the water!”

Children can be picky eaters and, despite your good intentions, it is not always easy to convince them to eat what is served to them. One way to overcome this is to involve them in food preparation.

“Encourage your kids’ creativity by letting them experiment using different ingredients to create yummy concoctions, such as fruit salads, sandwiches and smoothies,” said Lee. “Research has shown that involving children in food preparation could help them to develop healthy eating habits and increase vegetable consumption.”

And if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying – it is unlikely that your child will enjoy something new or different the first time. One tip Lee had was for parents to offer new foods more often, to let children touch, smell or play with it, and encourage them to try a small bite in a positive way.

Or you could serve new types of food with well-loved ones, as this will help to increase acceptance; For example, serve ‘new’ vegetables with their favourite chicken soup, said Reutens.

Whatever you do, admonishing them will never help.

“Keep mealtimes happy. Avoid yelling or scolding them. Create a pleasant environment,” Reutens urged.

 

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