The Real Happy Meal
Easy ways to get children to eat right
Children are at risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity largely because of poor eating habits, hence there is an urgent need to evaluate our choices. [A review of 52 studies published in Indian Medical Research concluded that the rates of childhood obesity and prevalence of excess weight are increasing among higher socio-economic groups as well as lower-income groups.] Food preferences and eating habits formed at an early age determine a child's health in adulthood. A good diet not only ensures healthy growth and development but also boosts mental wellness. As they say, you are what you eat.
Here is my prescription to ensure that the children eat healthy and, more important, happily.
Start at home
Good nutrition isn't simply about the food on the child's plate. It is equally important to make the environment at home conducive to healthy eating. An obesogenic home environment (one that promotes obesity) is responsible for many problems that kids are battling today. Stocking heathy foods in your kitchen and refrigerator minimizes the temptation to eat the not-so-healthy fare.
Eating as a family has many benefits. Studies confirm that children who grow up eating meals as a family are less likely to engage in smoking and consuming alcohol. They also perform better at school. Moreover, such children seem to be less prone to eating disorders and other psychiatric problems.
Eat at the table
Make it a point to offer meals, snacks and drinks only at the dining table. This helps establish the concept of mealtimes. Allowing children to watch TV while eating can lead to overeating and impaired digestion. While eating at the dining table helps maintain good posture during the meal, it has also been seen to prevent many emotional and psychological issues, such as drug abuse, later in life. Keep conversations at the table pleasant and avoid discussing the child's food-related, or other, problems.
Limit packaged foods
Did you know that a packet of 'diet chips' contains more added sugar and salt than the fried version to compensate for taste? Consuming large doses of salt and sugar is just as harmful as having extra oil or fat in the diet. Glib marketing strategies make it essential for us to read and understand food labels. As a rule, any food that has been processed and packed will have less nutritional worth than the food in its fresh form. Since it is impractical to forbid children from eating packaged foods, it's ideal to set limits on how much the child can eat every week.
Watch what they drink
Restrict large quantities of sugary drinks, especially during mealtimes as these can ruin appetite. Most packed juices have very little nutritional worth and no real fruit, and only miniscule amounts of fruit juice concentrate. Fresh fruit juices, coconut water and fruit smoothies are a much better option. Children today are often plagued with headaches because they are not drinking enough water.
Make food fun
It is a parent's responsibility to offer healthy foods to the child. But, how does one ensure that he or she eats it happily? The trick lies in giving the food item an interesting name or presenting it in an attractive manner. Take plain old dal-roti for example: Make a crunchy lentil salad by soaking dal and cooking it just enough. Use the salad as a filling and roll into the roti to make a wrap.
Neelanjana Singh is a Delhi-based nutrition consultant and the author of Our Kid Eats Everything! Get Your Children To Eat Right Without The Fight!