Tips for getting healthy food into your kids

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With all the media coverage it received, I suspect most parents will be only too aware of the discovery of a cancer-causing chemical called semicarbazide (SEM) in jars of baby food. This recent food scare will almost certainly have many mums and dads wanting to put more emphasis on home-prepared fare for their little ones. Not only will such food be happily free from SEM, but it will tend to contain much less in the way of other undesirable additives that crop-up in processed foods for kids including sugar and salt. However, putting more culinary effort into the food we feed our children is unfortunately no guarantee that they will want to eat it. When kids balk at lovingly-prepared morsels, parents may understandably be tempted to engage in coercive and cajoling tactics. However, attempting to force-feed kids rarely brings positive results, and can easily lead to all parties suffering at the hands of a full-blown food fight.

Feeding children against their will is a sure recipe for unhappy family relations, but has other hazards too. Studies show that the more children are impelled to eat a food, the less inclined they are to eat it in the future. Also, there is some thought that encouraging children to eat when they do not want to may cause their appetite control to go awry. ‘Here comes the choo-choo’, ‘one more for mummy’ and other such ploys may override the internal cues that tell children when they are full, and run the risk of inducing over-eating in the long term.

In general, I suggest offering small portions of food for small people. This reduces the risk of children getting more than they need, but it also means they are less likely to be overwhelmed by whatever food they are facing. Small portions are particularly relevant when a new food is being introduced, and it helps if this is cut up small too. While the first sight of a big head of broccoli, for instance, is likely to intimidate a child, a small pile of nibble-sized florets will generally go down much better. It may also help to offer a new food alongside other foods that are familiar to the child, though I advise against mixing the old with the new: a child getting a sniff that something is different may induce a whole-scale rejection of the meal.

Even with such tactics, a child will almost inevitably reject some of the new foods offered to it. When this happens, parents may feel inclined to keep eschewed foods off the menu. However, there is evidence that repeated offering of a food may ultimately lead to its acceptance by a child. It seems that persistence (without pressure) often pays in the longer term. There is also research which suggests that parents wanting to encourage healthy eating habits in their children would do well to lead by example. One study found that parents who eat healthy foods such as fruit and veg tend to have children who eat them too. Crucially, however, parents who show the way in healthy eating appear not to need to use undue force to ensure that their children do the same. A combination of softly, softly approaches may help to ensure that the feeding of healthy, home-cooked food to small children does not turn out to be an empty experience.

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