Healthy Eating for Children
Young children are notorious for being picky eaters, so it’s not always easy to make sure they eat a healthy diet. However it’s vital to make the effort to provide a selection of fresh foods and encourage healthy eating behaviours. The food that children eat not only affects their health in the short term but can also impact behaviour, brain development, and achievement in later life.
A varied, healthy diet for children should include lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, protein from high-quality meats, dairy, and pulses, and a few healthy fats (fat is important for children’s development and low-fat diets are not recommended). Sugars should be limited and ideally restricted to only naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit.
The Importance of Nutrition for Children
As children are still growing, eating a healthy diet is even more important than it is for adults. Nutritional deficiencies can affect growth and development, and cause cognitive impairment.
Iron deficiency in the first years of life may impact brain development and lead to behaviour problems. The essential fatty acid, DHA, found in oily fish and eggs is also important for brain development.
Excessive consumption of unhealthy foods that are high fat, sugar, and additives may also negatively affect behaviour, damage teeth, and lead to excessive weight gain. Overweight children often become obese adults, with all the health problems that come with carrying extra weight.
Health problems resulting from a poor diet in childhood can cause permanent damage and linger around until adulthood, even if the diet is improved at a later time. Unhealthy habits around food acquired at a young age can also be very difficult to correct later.
Better-nourished children also tend to have a stronger immune system and can fight off infections and illnesses more easily. They also have higher energy levels and may function better in concentration and academic performance.
Developing a Healthy Relationship with Food
Children’s food preferences are determined in the first few years, so it’s worth making the effort to encourage a liking for fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than chicken nuggets and chocolate.
This may not be as difficult as it seems – children aren’t born hating vegetables. While even babies show definite food preferences from the start, they’ll usually like enough options to make up a relatively balanced diet.
At the picky toddler stage when children realise they have control over what they eat, they’re more likely to refuse anything green, but with a little gentle encouragement, this phase will usually pass.
Children often refuse to try new foods, and it may take several attempts at tasting a particular food before they decide they like it. The key is to keep offering without forcing a clean plate – battles over food can turn food into a real issue. Relaxed, no-pressure mealtimes are more likely to be successful when it comes to encouraging picky eaters.
Peer pressure also works wonders with small children, especially in school or daycare settings where they’ll see their friends eating. A child who refuses many foods at home may well eat them when he sees everyone else digging in. Adults should also be a positive influence – it’s very difficult to try and enforce good eating habits in your child if they see you eating unhealthy foods every day.
Getting children involved in the food preparation process can be a helpful strategy for picky eaters – they’ll be more likely to eat something they’ve cooked themselves. Easy tasks like chopping soft fruit and mixing ingredients are fun and inclusive from toddler age and beyond.
Childhood Nutrition – a Vital Ingredient
Alongside a supportive environment, positive influence from key adults, and lots of time for free play, a healthy diet is one of the key factors in early childhood development that can help lead to a happy, healthy child growing into a healthy and successful adult.
It’s never too early or too late to start encouraging healthy eating habits in children. The benefits of a balanced diet are reflected in social and cognitive development as well as in overall health.