Guide to Helping Your Kids Develop Healthy Eating Habits

Helping children form good eating habits is sometimes a daunting task for parents, especially mothers who do not have good eating habits themselves.  But the need to eat right can never be over-emphasized.  This post, drawn from our interview with Olamiposi Ekuma, a Dietetics Consultant with GEM Clinics, Abuja Nigeria, is to help parents overcome the challenges of feeding their children right.

A good eating habit is one that supports healthy eating.  “Healthy eating is the consumption of the right quantities of foods from all the food groups in order to lead a healthy life“, says Ola.  The food groups are: bread and cereal group, fruit and vegetable group, meat and legumes group, milk and milk products and fats & sugar.  She established that it is difficult for a parent to teach the child to have a healthy food habit without first cultivating one.  Children watch their parents and learn fastest by their examples.

Childhood is the best time to learn the healthy habits that can last a lifetime. When children learn about and eat good food from an early age, they can develop healthy habits for life.  Healthy food habits can be achieved through proper planning. Meals should be planned ahead of time. It is advisable to have a food menu.

Another very important factor for healthy eating is having healthy foods available.  There is a popular saying that if you keep healthy food in your fridge, you will eat healthy.  Eating small frequent and nutritious foods is more helpful in preventing over eating than large portions at irregular periods.  As much as possible processed foods should be avoided.

For healthy and pocket-friendly food options for children and teenagers available in Nigeria, she advises that children and teenagers snack on fruits (such as apples and bananas), vegetables (such as carrots and cucumbers) and nuts (such as groundnuts and cashew nuts).  As for drinks, she suggests milk, yoghurt and fruit smoothies.  Additionally, the importance of drinking enough water throughout the day cannot be overemphasized.

Continuous snacking she said, may lead to overeating, but snacks that are planned at specific times during the day can be part of a nutritious diet, without spoiling a child’s appetite at meal times.  One should make snacks as nutritious as possible, without depriving children of occasional chips or cookies.  For healthy energy food options, she holds that if the meals are properly planned taking the food groups into consideration and in the right proportions, the energy requirement of the child would definitely be met.

As for the sweets, she says that taking sweets can actually be avoided entirely because children’s taste can be conditioned.  But occasional inclusion of sweets in a child’s diet is permissible.  Studies have found that exerting too much control over your child’s diet can have an adverse effect, and kids who are not allowed any treats may end up overindulging when given the chance. Restricting treats entirely may lead to an aversion to the foods you want them to eat, and an obsession with the foods they should only be having in limited amounts.  It is not the occasional sugar-filled treat that’s detrimental, it’s having a steady diet of sweets.

For kids with picky eating habits, she answered that it’s normal for children to be wary of unfamiliar foods. The technical term for this behavior, which peaks between the ages of 2 and 6, is food neophobia. Unless the child’s weight-for-age percentile is quickly dropping, he or she is probably not in any health danger.  Force is not always the best solution to picky eating, rather it requires a lot of patience.  Meals should be made as interesting as possible.  Children always respond to colorful meals and small portion sizes.  These should be prepared to be as nutrient dense as possible.

At the same time, the other foods should still be given.  Studies suggest that children have to taste a new food 15 to 20 times before they can get over their initial resistance and start liking it. It is also helpful to offer children small (non food) rewards, such as stickers, for trying bites of disliked food.  Not only does this make kids associate the food with positive outcomes, but it can also ease children past the charm threshold so that they naturally begin liking that food anyway.

We would like to appreciate Olamiposi Ekuma for enlightening us on this very common challenge that all parents and guardians face.  We hope that you have gained from reading this article on our blog.  Our aim is to empower you with information, and encourage you to keep up the good work in raising the next generation!