It seems that hardly a week passes without another food scare story or the publication of a new food nutrition study (usually contradicting the findings a previous one). Never has food – good or bad – been higher on the news agenda, and never has the pressure on parents to “do the right thing” for their children been greater.
But if you can ignore the hype, you will find that the benefits for a young child of a healthy, varied diet can be huge. Good nutrition, and the avoidance of additive-rich “junk foods”, has been shown to be crucial in the mental and physical development of young children, and may also help behavioural problems as well as with dyslexia, short attention spans and hyperactivity.
A varied diet of home-cooked meals is the basis not only for a well-balanced diet but also a healthy relationship with food itself. By encouraging your child to be involved in everything from shopping for food to preparing it and setting the table you are sowing the seeds of behaviour that will hopefully stay with your children for life. It may not be a fashionable thing to say, but we, as parents, have a responsibility to educate our children about healthy eating and to enstill good eating habits from an early age.
One of the simplest ways to plan a healthy varied diet is to use a food pyramid. The pyramid shows you the different types of food that children need and the proportions they need them for good health. A toddler or pre-school age child needs a wide variety of each of the four main food groups: Milk and dairy, meat, fish and poultry, fruit and vegetables and carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta and potatoes).
A quick look at the pyramid shows that the starchy carbohydrates form the base of your child’s diet. Fruit and vegetables make up the next biggest part of their intake with protein foods next. Foods high in naturally occurring fats and sugars are at the top of the pyramid and should form the smallest part of your child’s diet. The table below give an idea of the size of a serving of each food group for an average pre-school child:
50g potato, ½ slice bread or 2tbsp pasta or rice
2 broccoli florets or a small carrot
½ an apple or pear
6-8 seedless grapes
½ cup of milk (full fat under 2 years) or a small (125g) yoghurt
1 whole egg, 30g of meat, fish or poultry or ½ cup cooked pulses
So how do you put all this theory into practice?
The best advice is to start young and to lead by example: Toddlers have no preconceptions of food when they start eating – it is all learnt from us. Soon the idea of a fruit snack instead of sweets will be as natural as falling of a log. Even more so if they see you acting in the same manner.
Things may not be quite so easy if you already have a young child with a sweet tooth or a junk food habit! Of course, convenience food has its place and old favorites like chips and burgers can be made healthier if you buy the best you can afford and organic if possible. Simply serving fresh vegetables or a salad would go along way to improving the nutritional value of such a meal. Switching from ready meals to home cooked food may take some effort but I am convinced that the effort involved will be more than rewarded by improvements in your child’s health and behavior.