Healthy nutrition is especially important in the childhood years as these are critical periods for growth and development. Food preferences are also generally acquired during these early years, so it is essential to inculcate positive dietary habits from young.
As a parent/caregiver, you play a crucial role in setting a good foundation for your child’s dietary habits. Set your child on the path of optimal growth and good health by helping him to cultivate healthy eating habits. This will help prevent the onset of health problems such as obesity.
Use the Healthy Diet Pyramid as a guide to plan healthy meals for your child. In general,
a. Select more food from the base of the pyramid (e.g. brown rice, wholemeal bread), and less from the top of the pyramid (food that is high in fats, oils, sugar, and salt, such as deep fried food, chips, and sweets).
b. Have a variety of food from the four different food groups namely rice and alternatives, fruit, vegetables, as well as meat and alternatives. The different food groups will help children obtain energy and a wide range of important nutrients to stay healthy.
It is rather common for young children to refuse some food items. Here’re some tips on what you can do to help your child :
a) Introduce new food items slowly
When introducing new food items to your child, do so in small portions gradually over a period of time. Your child may not accept these food items the first time. Be patient as it may be necessary to introduce a new food item to your child several times before he/she accepts it. Research has shown that liking for an unfamiliar food item can be encouraged by increasing exposure to the food.
b) Do not force feed
If your child is not hungry, do not force him/her to complete a meal. If your child cannot finish all the food on his plate, do not force him/her to as he/she may have had enough. When serving meals, it will be better to serve him/her smaller servings of food and offer him/her more if he/she needs.
c) Make food fun
Do a little brainstorming and come up with appealing food presentations that will whet your child’s appetite. Give some of these tips a shot.
• Give healthy food nicknames to fit your child’s imaginary world. For example, “little Os” for O-shaped cereals, “snow white tofu” for beancurd, “banana wheels” for banana slices, “carrot swords” for thinly sliced carrots.
• Create stories around the food and relate it to your child’s favourite characters to teach him the value of healthy eating. You can say something like “Your favourite toy train needs coal to move, this food is your coal that will give you energy to run around and play”.
• Include a variety of colourful food in your child’s meal and cut food into interesting shapes such as star-shaped carrots.
• Prepare a variety of dips so your child can have fun dunking food into the bowl. Fruit and yogurt is an example of a healthy and nutritious food-and-dip combo that you can serve.
d) Involve your child in food preparation
When your child is involved in meal preparation, he/she may be more likely to eat the food that is prepared. Bring your child on a grocery shopping trip and ask him/her to select the vegetables, meat and fruit that the whole family can enjoy together. Encourage your little one to be adventurous with food and teach him/her about the variety of food ingredients, food textures, colours, shapes and aromas.
Assign them responsibilities in the kitchen as well. Younger children can perform easier tasks like washing vegetables or scrubbing potatoes, while the older ones can measure ingredients or do the mixing and stirring.
e) Create a pleasant environment
Avoid creating a tense and anxious environment during meal times. Do not threaten or punish your child for poor eating habits. Such actions may perpetuate negative eating behaviours. The environment and conversations during meal times should be pleasant, safe, relaxing and happy, so that your child will have a positive association with food. In this way, your child will learn to love and treasure enjoyable moments while having meals.
In addition, during meal times, try not to let your child be distracted by reading, watching television, or toys at the table.
While you try to get your child to eat healthily, remember to set a healthy example yourself as your child will pick up healthy food habits from you!
For more information on how you can help your child cultivate healthy eating habits, log on to www.hpb.gov.sg/pregnancyparenting.
This article is a contribution from the Health Promotion Board.