“The foundations for virtually every aspect of human development – physical, intellectual and emotional – are laid in early childhood” (Michael Marmot, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, 2010). Children’s nutrition plays a crucial role in setting this foundation. A child’s relationship with food is not just about avoiding childhood obesity, but about recognising the link between diet and the child’s mood, behaviour, concentration levels, energy, body composition, weight and IQ.
Multiple studies have shown that children who eat a balanced diet are more likely to do well at school, are less likely to have behavioural problems and are more likely to feel happy. Good nutrition improves wellbeing and reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many cancers in later life
Getting children to eat the right things is not always easy. It can feel like you are fighting a losing battle if you have a fussy eater and when you are surrounded by advertisements luring them towards fast food and sweets. There are many things you can do to help guide your child in the right direction. Remember when setting your child up for a healthy lifestyle you are their best role model, leading by example is the best first step. Teaching your child how to eat healthily is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
- What is the basis of healthy eating for children?
- Aim for 5 portions of vegetables and 2 portions of fruit a day. A portion is the amount that would fit into the palm of your child’s hand. Fresh, tinned and frozen fruit and vegetables and dried fruit all count.
- Avoid processed foods such as sweets, biscuits and cakes except as an occasional treat. Some healthier alternatives include flapjacks with oats, seeds and dried fruit, rice cakes with peanut butter (providing there is no history of nut allergy), full fat, plain yoghurt, chopped-up fruit with pieces of cheese, and hummus with carrot sticks/ toast
- Avoid fried food where possible as frying food is known to create carcinogens (cancer causing agents). Steaming, boiling, slow cooking or baking is a better choice.
- Aim to provide some protein with every meal and snack. It doesn’t need to be a lot but a little bit of protein with each snack helps to balance blood sugar levels, which in turn improves mood, behaviour and concentration.
- Avoid juice, squash or fizzy drinks as these play havoc with blood glucose levels and are often high in calories but very low in useful nutrients. The healthiest drinks for children are water or milk.
- Limit the amount of salt in your child’s food. Research consistently shows that we all eat more salt than we need. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and can increase the risk of illnesses such as stomach cancer and osteoporosis in later life. In extreme cases too much salt for babies and young children can be fatal because it can cause kidney damage. Current guidelines suggest the following maximum salt intake:
|Age of child||Maximum salt intake per day|
|0-6 months||< 1 gram|
|6-12 months||1 gram|
|1-3 years||2 grams|
|4-6 years||3 grams|
|7-10 years||5 grams|
|11 years +||6 grams|
- Never add salt to children’s meals and try to cook with as little salt as possible. When cooking for your baby and for very young children, you should avoid using normal stock as it contains too much salt. You can buy low salt stock cubes in the baby sections of many supermarkets instead. If you are feeding your baby food that you have not cooked yourself, ensure that you buy foods formulated specifically for babies; these will have been made without salt. Likewise, choose snacks that have been made specifically for weaning babies, as these will not contain salt. As children grow, they will get more than enough salt from a healthy balanced diet. They should be encouraged not to add salt to meals and to keep salty snacks as an occasional treat.
- The government recommends all children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old take a multivitamin supplement. This is because children in this age group can be low in vitamins A, C and D. It is essential that you give them a multivitamin designed for their age group. There are a number available at supermarkets and chemists. If you are unsure of which to choose ask your pharmacist or health visitor. The best ones contain vitamins A, C, D and some omega 3.
- What is Omega 3 and how should it be included in my child’s diet? Is my child getting enough Omega 3 oils?
Omega-3 fatty acids or Omega 3 oils are considered essential fatty acids, necessary for human health though the body does not produce these acids itself. You have to get them through food. Omega 3 oils have been found to improve concentration, boost IQ and relieve depression. They play a part in the healthy development of the brain and are useful in keeping the heart healthy. Many people don’t get anywhere near enough omega 3 oils in their diet. They are found in oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and trout) and in some seeds (such as linseeds and flax seeds). Ideally your child should eat 2 portions of oily fish a week. A portion is about the size of the palm of your child’s hand. It is not always easy to persuade children to eat fish but you could try making salmon fish fingers or chopping salmon into a pasta dish. It is also a good idea to consider an omega 3 supplement especially designed for children. Again they are widely available in pharmacies and supermarkets. Another good source of omega 3 are chia, flax and linseeds. These can be sprinkled on cereal or added to yogurt or baked into a muesli bar.
- What should I do if my child is a fussy eater?
Many children are fussy eaters. Research has shown that at least 50% of toddlers are classified as fussy. So if you are struggling to work out what to feed your toddler, you are not alone! Fussy eating can cause parents to feel anxious and stressed that their child/ children are not eating enough or are eating too much of the wrong things.
- Encourage your child to cook with you. Refusing food can sometimes be a control issue for children. Involving them in the cooking process gives them a feeling of control over what they are eating; it is also starts to equip them with the priceless talent of being able to prepare their own healthy meals in later life. Children will often eat a meal they wouldn’t normally eat if they have been involved in preparing it.
- If your child likes a food which has a sauce as part of it (e.g. spaghetti bolognese), try pureeing vegetables like courgette/ carrot/ broccoli etc. into the sauce and they may not realise they are eating them.
- Eat with your child/ children when possible, as children love to copy you. Try to lead by example and eat the kinds of foods you would like your child to eat. Eating with your child/ children also helps makes mealtimes into a fun and sociable occasion.
- Is it OK to use sweets and chocolates as a reward?
It is best not to use sweets and chocolates as reward because it can set up a pattern of behaviour for life where children grow to expect to eat treat food as a reward. This can become a habit that lasts into adulthood and may contribute to comfort eating that in turn can lead to obesity. It is very common to hear people say that they have ‘earned’ a glass of wine or a chocolate cake because they have had stressful day. The treat can become almost a necessary drug to treat stress. Instead of food rewards, you could give stickers or have a star chart where your child collects a certain number of stars for good behaviour and is rewarded with a fun trip somewhere or an activity they love doing.
- How much exercise should my child do each day?
The amount of exercise you child should be doing depends on their age. The NHS recommends that children under five be active for at least three hours per day. This can include walking or crawling around the house and outside, playing at the park, swimming with parents/ carers, dancing, riding bikes and tricycles, playing in the playground, playing hide and seek etc.
Children over five are advised to do at least an hour of exercise each day. As children get older, exercise can get more structured and children should be encouraged to find a sport they enjoy playing on a regular basis.
Children of all ages should be encouraged to spend less time sitting watching TV, playing computer games or sitting in the car or buggy and more time up and about.
Exercise has been shown to improve wellbeing, boost the immune system, improve mood and reduce the risk of obesity and many major illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
For further tailored advice on your child’s nutrition, feel free to book a consultation.