Quality family time is key for the development and wellbeing of children and their families, and a lot of these moments naturally occur around mealtimes. This makes mealtimes an ideal opportunity to set aside some regular 'family time,' where communication can occur alongside eating delicious, healthy meals together. Of course the food we eat and the nutrition it provides also plays a central role in keeping families healthy as well as happy.
The importance of food is a constant across our entire lives. From babies and toddlers, through those crucial teenage years and way beyond into adulthood and old age, nutrition plays a vital role in health and wellbeing. Food helps us to live, to grow, to learn and to exercise, but eating well and enjoying a healthy relationship with food can also bring colour and fun to all our lives too. I truly believe that learning to love good food and passing this enjoyment on to the next generation can help set the foundations for long-term healthy eating.
Research shows us that it's never too early to start talking about and instilling healthy eating behaviours in our young children. For example the foods eaten by a mother during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as the foods introduced during weaning, can all have a significant impact on a child's food preferences later on in life.
However, as we get older we will all go on to develop our own likes and dislikes when it comes to food, and sometimes it can be a challenge to always make the healthiest choices.
On top of this, as children get older outside influencers and influences also become more prominent. This means that family mealtimes and the food on offer at home becomes more important than ever. Even if parents have less control outside of the home, the ideas and culture around food that is established at home is likely to stay with children as they grow and become independent adults themselves.
The best thing we can do as parents is to be positive role models when it comes to food - eat the foods that you want to see your children eating, and continue communicating positive messages about food, variety and balance.So, how can you structure eating in your house, and help resolve any fussy moments or food struggles around the dinner table; from baby, to toddler and teenager?
- Start young. The early years really is a time to try and influence your child's long-term eating behaviours by offering a wide variety of healthy foods including a variety of vegetables. The more familiar children become with foods, flavours and textures the more likely they are to accept them.
- Start with vegetables. Offering vegetables as a first food may help children to enjoy a variety of tastes and may even increase their liking for veggies as they get older.
- Keep offering foods. Even if at first they are rejected, keep trying! Sometimes it can take a number of offerings before babies are happy to accept new options. You could also try offering the rejected foods alongside ones your little one has already accepted.
- Separate food & mealtimes from other times such as play time or learning time. This way, children begin to learn the importance of food and mealtimes as a separate entity and not a time that simply stops them playing.
- Enjoy mealtimes together. Try to eat together whenever possible and focus on making mealtimes fun, pressure free environments. When mealtimes become battle grounds this can rub off and put children off food all together, so try to keep it positive.
- Talk a good game. Talk about food and praise children for eating well rather than focusing on any negative mealtime behaviour.
- Have healthy food available. When they're a little older, keeping the cupboards stocked with healthy options at home will allow children to feel more independent - but still enable them to be familiar with making healthy choices.
- Get them involved in meal prep. Children are often more likely to eat foods if they were involved in the cooking, serving or even growing. This also allows for more quality and fun time spent with the family.
- Be cautious of portion sizes. Absolutely aim for 5+ fruit and vegetables for children over the age of 2, but remember that a portion is roughly the size of the palm of your child's hand. Similarly, portion sizes and 'me sized' meals are important. Try not to overwhelm children with adult-sized portions
- Don't forget the iron. Don't forget about iron-rich foods such as beans, lentils, pulses, nuts, seeds, fish and meat, which are all important for keeping children healthy.
- Role model. This is vital for parents to understand. Children learn from those around them and their parents are their first role models. What the rest of the family eat can hugely influence what your children will eat as they become more independent.
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