How can you engage your children in nutrition?

This is the question I have been asked to respond to when I speak at ‘Food matters live’ this November. After 10 years of studying nutrition, working with adolescents and bringing up two of my own children, I have learned a whole lot about nutrition and influence, and have a few theories and strategies. Although, I have to say I am always learning and there is a way  to go to make the impact that our children need in turning around the obesity and malnutrition epidemic as is.

Firstly, my passion is nutrition because I discovered in my twenties that when you ate well you felt well. Consuming nutritious ingredients as fuel and approaching your food as medicine and something to take joy from, it was a revelation to me, and brought a complete new meaning to my life. When this mind shift occurred no longer would I crash diet.

However, in my role I approach nutrition as one of the elements of overall health and wellbeing. The frustrating thing is we have so many conversations nationally about mental health and then separately on physical activity and then in another arena nutrition is discussed. I often hear the saying we need to take a ‘joined up approach’. Then have been in strategic meetings about mental health where nutrition is not accepted into the conversation. Yet, here we are with evidence that a B vitamin deficiency alone can cause strong symptoms of anxiety, and this is a mere drop in the ocean of how food can be of support in positive mental health.

Every one of us needs to fuel our bodies with good nutrients, drink water, be active, keep learning, also laugh and have fun with family and community.
I remember when I first started teaching and I would encourage student discussion around the topic of food as medicine and I would have intelligent articulate year 9 students dismiss the notion that what you eat could make any difference to your health, or for that matter anything at all. It became a mission of mine that all of our students would understand that the food we consume is directly linked to our health. We have led campaigns, assemblies, broadcasts, themed lunches and health days, improved school food, built up nutrition action groups to achieve this.

Although, we have come along way, there are many barriers to engaging teens in healthy eating, one of them is familial attitudes and another is social influence.

Science suggests that most/all children between the age of 2 and 6yrs will develop food neophobia, a fear of new foods (1). In general neophobia reduces as the child ages and as they are introduced to new foods, although it has been found to persist in those prone to anxiety. Studies also show that how the parents react to neophobia can have significant value on the child becoming a picky eater. One study found an association between the number of hours worked by mothers and their reports of having time to eat healthy. It seems that the belief that eating healthy takes more time can be a barrier, but I also think that we busy mums can become overwhelmed by the rejection of foods. Having my first child being so much easier when it came to eating healthy and new foods, my challenge came when my second daughter started to refuse at 2, I remember being so confused, ‘what had I done differently, what was wrong? There was much information on your child being less picky when breastfed and I actually fed longer with my second child and so this wasn’t adding up. I wasn’t aware of neophobia and now it makes so much sense. Had I known this information I would have been much more relaxed with her refusal. The fact is when they are young if we can persevere with adding new foods, encouraging tasting in a relaxed atmosphere, but more importantly eating together and letting your child see you enjoy a range of healthy foods will overtime make a huge difference.

If your child is older and you feel you have missed some opportunities, all is not lost. You can introduce the same techniques, enjoying healthy foods and eating together, explaining to your adolescent that tasting something on average 10 times will mean their liking of the food will go up, slip into discussions the benefits of fuelling their bodies in the right way. Eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits will result in feeling good, having great skin and hair, reduce the risk of autoimmune conditions, cancers, heart disease and so much more. If they have had a limited diet thus far, introducing probiotics (powder/capsule form) can in my experience support the growth of bacteria reducing sugar cravings and increasing cravings for vegetables.

A concern found in recent studies is that pickiness in school aged children results in them consuming much less fruit and vegetables as compared with other children (1).

Busy mum tips:

  • Chop up carrot batons at the beginning of the week, store in an airtight container in the fridge, then offer them on the table at dinner time/for a snack after school.
  • Buy a different vegetable each week/month and make it a game for you all to try new things, always just add a small piece on your adolescents plate and say that trying is important but you will never be forced to eat it all.
  • You can chop all vegetables for the following day the night before, and make foods that are easy and quick e.g. stir fry, a basic tomato sauce with veggies of your choice, roast veggies and add a side of protein (meat, fish, chickpeas, lentils or beans) and a fist size of carbohydrates e.g. brown rice, rice, buckwheat or spelt pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes
  • Corn on the cob is always a favourite in our house, an easy one to boil or roast and add to any meal
  • When planning meals think of vegetables first, then protein and carbohydrates – the vegetables are the most important – a simple mind shift x

As I mentioned earlier social influence is also a factor in your adolescents eating habits. Adapting to eating behaviours of those around us can be rewarding and becomes a norm for us (2). We have adapted to eating habits from our own families, culture, community and social circles. Therefore our children will do the same, if they have a strong sense of the importance of healthy eating in the home home they will be more likely to choose healthy away from home. Modelling healthy eating is a major factor in our children leading a healthy lifestyle.

The following are essential in leading a change in your child’s nutrition:
1. role models

This is going to have the largest impact on our children, they need to be surrounded by people who make their health a priority, believe in healthy eating, taking care of themselves and being active. As young people spend so much of their day in school, it is important not only for parents to think of themselves as role models but also the school staff they come into contact with on a daily basis, as with anyone who works in an education or health setting with children.

2. encouraging critical thinking

We are being sold to day in day out and even with all the evidence to show the impact of advertising to our children here in the UK we still allow it! In some other european countries there is a ban on advertising to children under 12, which is the age at which children can start to critically think, before this age it is difficult for a child to identify reality from fiction. We can encourage critical thinking by discussing specific media advertising, asking our child what they can see, how does it make them feel and explaining this is the aim of the advert. Also, explaining that the company does not have their best interests as we do as parents or carers.
3. talk about health in the present tense

Support young people in planning their meals, snacks and drinks. food is always a fascinating topic and so learning which foods are beneficial for them right now and why can engage teens. After all who doesn’t want clear skin and fabulous hair? Focus on the child’s priorities, if your teen is sporty, focused on concentrating and getting the best grades good nutrition will help them achieve better results.



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