The early years in life provide the building blocks to support your child in reaching their full potential. If children develop a pattern of healthy eating from an early age—both at home or at nursery—it can help to promote an enjoyment of good food as they grow. So what can you do to encourage your child to be confident in making healthy choices?
Getting your child off to a healthy start
Mealtimes are a great time to socialise with your child, and having a meal routine in place is a great way to encourage family time. By offering your child three meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—along with two to three healthy snacks a day, it will provide them with all the essential energy and nutrients that they need. It’s a good idea to offer meals and snacks at a similar time each day. This will help your child to have a good meal routine, which helps them to manage their appetite. Offer a variety of foods from the four main food groups:
- Bread, rice, potato, pasta and other starchy foods—these can be offered at all main meals and some snacks
- Fruit and vegetables—aim to offer at least five different portions a day
- Dairy and alternatives such as soya milk—offer three portions a day
- Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein—offer two to three portions a day
Don’t forget drinks! Children need around six to eight drinks a day to keep hydrated, with a portion of fluid being between 100-120mls. The best drinks are milk and water. It’s not recommended that young children have fruit juice, as we receive more nutrients from eating a fruit than drinking juice, in particular, fibre. However, if you choose to give it, make sure it is diluted: one part juice with 10 parts water. Don’t offer it between meals to protect children’s teeth.
What if my child won’t eat?
Did you know that around 50 percent of children are fussy eaters? So you are not alone! It can take time for toddlers to learn to like certain foods (up to 15 tries), so it is important to be patient and encouraging. It’s normal for their food intake to change daily, as they will eat as much as they need.
Children’s food preferences are influenced by how familiar a food is to them. Meaning, the more exposure to a food a child has, the more likely they are to accept it. If your child has eaten very little or refuses food completely, it’s best to avoid offering them an alternative, including milk or fruit juice. Children will quickly learn that, if they refuse, they will be offered an alternative food that they like, which is likely to make fussy eating worse and result in a diet of little variety. Wait until a child's next meal or snack time to offer another food.
Try not to worry if your child doesn’t eat all the food you give them; offer manageable portion sizes and don’t overfill their plate. By following a healthy meal and snack routine, children have plenty of opportunity to eat in the day. Let your child help prepare food by getting them involved, it will be a good learning opportunity and will allow them to have fun around food. Give your child some independence, from letting them choose a recipe to participating in the shopping, cooking or preparation of food. Avoid distractions at mealtimes such as TV, tablets, toys and games, as this will remove children’s attention from the food. As children get older, this distraction technique will become less effective and their eating behaviors will be harder to change. Having social mealtimes, where children are engaged and involved, is much more encouraging.
Which foods should I limit?
There is a strong link between dental decay and the consumption of foods and drinks high in sugar, so it’s best to limit these. To reduce your child’s risk of decay, it is important to reduce the amount of time that teeth are exposed to sugary foods and drinks. So, how much sugar should children have in their diet? The recommended intake of free sugars is no more than:
- 19g per day = five sugar cubes for four- to six- year olds
- 24g per day = six sugar cubes for six- to 10 year olds
- 30g per day = seven sugar cubes for 11 and over
A single 330ml can of soft drink can contain as much as 35g of sugar! This could instantly take your child over their maximum recommended daily intake of sugar.
Top Tips on reducing sugar intake?
- Be a positive role model and eat the same foods as your child.
- Read food labels and choose lower sugar options (less than 5g of sugar per 100g).
- Make a shopping list and plan some smart snack swaps. For example, plain popcorn instead of crisps, crackers instead of biscuits, and yoghurt instead of ice cream.
What are the supplement recommendations for toddlers?
If your child is consuming a healthy, well-balanced diet, more often than not, supplements are not required. It is difficult however, to get enough vitamin D through food alone. It is therefore recommended that all children be given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. Vitamin D is a nutrient that we mainly get from the sunlight. Very little is in our food, but sources of vitamin D in the diet include oily fish, eggs and some fortified breakfast cereals. Speak to your local pharmacist about which supplements are suitable for your child. Vitamin drops are preferential over the syrup or chewable vitamins, as they have no added sugar.
Remember healthy eating should be a fun and enjoyable part of life, and when children eat better, they start better and do better and are more likely to reach their full potential.
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