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How to get the kids eating healthy foods

Little ones refusing their greens? Professor David Cameron-Smith shares some suggestions to make meal times happier.

happy father playing with cute little daughter holding watermelon

As a parent, I understand how it’s bewildering and frustrating to have healthy food rejected by your child. And how sometimes, without so much as a single mouthful, it’s a firm and often tearful ‘no!’

The refusal to eat or even try food often comes at critical periods of growth and development, when all parents know the importance of a healthy diet for a toddler.

Toddlers are experiencing such rapid changes in their bodies that they need the best nutrition, with all the necessary energy, vitamins and minerals to fuel a growing mind and body.

Despite extensive research, there are no easy, proven methods for getting children to eat a greater variety of foods, and no single solution will ever succeed. Parents of multiple children often shake their heads in disbelief because what worked with one sibling is a failure for the next.

Understanding what little bodies need

Instead of eating meals, small children often prefer to graze. When they do request food or appear hungry, providing accessible healthy foods is vital, and has been scientifically shown to influence long term eating patterns.

Children tend to have an inherent preference for carbohydrate and protein-rich foods, but fruits and vegetables
should make up the majority of young diets. Substituting less healthy breads, cereals and meats with more nourishing options can be beneficial for little ones.

Remember that children need energy – and lots of it. So there’s typically no need to restrict healthy fats.

The social factor

It’s not just parents who shape what children eat. Today’s kids have many influences, including grandparents, playdates and childcare minders. Studies have shown food attitudes in younger children can be positively or negatively affected by peers and older children.

It’s amazing what children will eat with others, that they would never try at home.

It’s all about timing

It’s important for parents to persevere. Throughout childhood, palates continue to evolve and change. Often, parents’ memories of rejected meals outlive those of the child, so try not to give away that there’s history with this food. Put on your best poker face and try again. And again. Remember, you’re the parent

It’s hard not to feel angry or annoyed when your child rejects food you’ve prepared. And we all know epic tantrums may follow. But even if you’re tempted to use food as a punishment or reward, experts say this is known to create disharmony, stress and anxiety, and do little to improve food intake. Having said that, there is some evidence suggesting small non-food rewards, like stickers, may help children with major food fears.

The most consistent evidence around eating habits is related to parents’ behaviour, so lead by example. Eat a wide range of nutritious foods with and in front of your children – it’s a great reason for you to eat better too!

Learn more about healthy eating for kids at Nutrition Australia and Early Childhood Australia.

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