Influencing good food choices from an early age and encouraging beneficial eating habits can pay health dividends in the future. Kathy Cowbrough explains the reasons why it's important for children to eat well throughout their development.
When it comes to food and eating, parents/carers should decide 'what and when’ and let children decide ‘whether and how much’. It is the role of health professionals to understand the influences of the food (and activity) choices of children during these important early years, and to support parents so they can guide their children to make choices that are beneficial for their future health.
The National Diet and Nutrition survey (2009-12) revealed that:
● Nutrient intakes are adequate for most nutrients with the exception of iron, vitamin D and zinc, which are inadequate in some toddlers.
● In the 2–15 year age group, one in two are overweight or obese (and it is highest in two to three year olds). In boys, 20% are overweight and 34% obese; in girls 29% are overweight and 21% obese.
● The quantity of fruits and vegetables eaten has increased slightly but is still below the recommended five portions a day.
Textures and tastes
Controversies aside, it appears wise for parents to expose their children to a wide variety of foods, tastes, textures and colours from six months; not only does them get used to a wide variety of food senses, but also their intake meets their nutritional needs. Research shows how interaction with infants is important, and crucial to helping them form good habits early. Offering a variety of foods should become a routine and if food is refused, repeated exposure is recommended. Good parental interaction with the child is important, balanced with an understanding that a child should be encouraged to feed themselves and decide when they have had enough.
Children can have multiple influences on their food choices and preferences. The availability and accessibility of food can make a difference, ie. if a cupboard is continually stocked with sweet and savoury snacks, it is easier for a child to develop a taste preference for them. Removing the temptation can help.
Encouraging a good mealtime structure and routine can also encourage children to eat better. Numerous studies have proven that sitting down together to eat family meals can be beneficial, as can eliminating TV viewing during mealtimes. The challenges of fussy or faddy eaters Although healthcare professionals may be keen to educate and support parents on the importance of developing good nutritional habits early, there may still be families who have continuing concerns. They may seek advice over the fact their older child is a fussy eater or refuses food.
Parents should be reminded that these reactions are unlikely to last long in a healthy child (although illness should be ruled out if lack of appetite is persistent). It may also help if parents adopt some empathy and consider how the child may be feeling. The child may refuse food and offer the following reasons:
●I’m not hungry.
●I’ve just had juice, why do I need to eat?
●This is a new or unfamiliar food.
●I’m too tired.
●There is too much food on my plate.
●I’d rather have some attention or a cuddle.
●Dad is not eating it, why should I?
The child may also be suffering from constipation, anaemia or other medial conditions, or they may have poor oral or motor skills.
Parents should be advised to relax and try not to worry or show their anxiety. They should also be reminded that, as long as the child is well and growing, it won’t do a child any harm if they don’t eat for a short time. They should try to eat with their child and make it a pleasant social occasion, making sure to avoid distractions such as toys and games, as well as the TV. Parents should also offer small portions (a genuinely hungry child will ask for seconds) but remove food without a fuss if the child isn’t eating.
So, is it worth concentrating on developing good food and nutrition habits throughout a child's development? The answer is a definite 'yes', as eating well and establishing a good routine is conducive to a happy family life. Parents may learn a lot about their child’s diet by keeping a diary of food, activity and when it happens during the day. Keeping children regularly active also means they are ready for mealtimes. Developing healthy eating patterns early in life can affect not just short term health but their long term health too, so it is a good investment in their well-being.