“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you” – American author Robert Fulghum.
Parents face an unenviable series of hurdles in their quest to create a healthy diet for their children. They must understand an increasingly complex food-supply system, be media savvy and manage the far-reaching influence of television, the internet and other social media, while remotely influencing their child’s food choices in an environment that promotes obesity, with less-healthy foods widely available in and near schools. Welcome to healthy eating in the real world, a topic covered in a recently released Ministry of Health background paper, “Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Children and Young People (Aged 2 to 18 years)”. The paper’s two extensive chapters of research and recommendations on the subject are a big increase from the page or two offered in previous dietary guidelines. Parents may feel they have little influence on their children’s diets, but as these new guidelines explain, that’s far from the truth. Rather, parents should understand that what they do, rather than what they say, is the key to success.
- Regular breakfast eaters have better academic and physical performances and are less likely to snack and gain excess weight. Yet 18% of New Zealand children aged five to 14 skip breakfast at least one day a week. A 2009 review in Appetite, found one of the strongest predictors of whether children ate a regular breakfast was whether parents ate breakfast. Likewise, a 2009 review in Public Health Nutrition found parental intake of fruits and vegetables was positively associated with their children’s fruit and vegetable intake.
Message: Parental modelling has a positive influence on children’s diets. Behave the way you want your children to behave, such as eating a range of the foods on offer at meal times to provide a good example.
- Parenting style is also important. Children need guidance and some control around what they eat, but too much is not a good thing. “Clear your plate” messages, for example, stop children learning how to regulate their energy intake. And pressuring children to eat healthy foods invariably produces unwanted results – they tend to dislike the food more and eat less of it.
Message: Avoid restrictive and coercive child-feeding practices. Instead, create a happy and positive atmosphere at meal times and provide a range of healthy foods, in age-appropriate portion sizes, then allow your child to choose what and how much of each food he or she eats. Children involved with meal preparation improve their dietary quality. Likewise, children involved in growing vegetables, at school or home, are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Message: Involve children in meal preparation. This also allows you to spend time together.
- Children love routines; providing a regular meal routine throughout the week helps them regulate their appetite. And regular shared family meals, away from the television, toys and other distractions, provide a great opportunity for parents to role-model healthy eating. Watching television prevents us from monitoring our food intake and feelings of fullness, so we’re more likely to overeat. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study found a strong association between television viewing in childhood and obesity in young adulthood.
Message: Provide a comfortable eating environment for shared family meals, away from distractions.
- Television advertising has a powerful influence on our diet. Unfortunately, food ads broadcast during children’s viewing times are predominantly for unhealthy foods. So, unsurprisingly, children who watch two or more hours of television each day are more likely to consume unhealthy foods like soft drinks, potato chips and fast foods. Turning off the television during peak advertising times, muting the sound during ad breaks or recording programmes and skipping the ads can limit this influence. Parents can also help children develop media literacy skills by discussing what messages are sent in advertisements and why.
Message: Parents and caregivers have the power to limit outside influences on children’s eating, including through controlling access to media.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.