When we’re brave enough to venture out to dinner as a family (party of four, two high chairs, bring bread ASAP!), my husband and I are often disappointed by the options offered on the children’s menu. The issue certainly isn’t that Bridget won’t like any of the items, but that they’re often all high in fat and calories. As parents and caregivers, I’m sure you’re familiar with the list of usual suspects: chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, pizza, cheeseburger, all usually available with a side of fries and free ice cream.
As someone who enjoys going out to dinner, I’m aware that such an occasion generally means some “treat” food – for both me and Bridget – but it does point out the challenge that most parents face: trying to get their children to eat more healthy. In the hectic-ness of the everyday routine and the “witching hour” that dinnertime can often be, it’s often easier to just let kids have whatever they’re willing to eat – yes, I caved earlier this week and microwaved some chicken nuggets when Bridget wouldn’t eat the meatloaf I was so sure she would love.
But it really is important for many reasons to do our best as parents to encourage better selections. Did you know that, as cited in The Food Trust’s Preschool Initiative Toolkit (more on that later), “in 2007-2008, two out of every ten children ages two to five were obese or overweight,” a statistic that has doubled in the past 30 years? Yikes. This should not be too shocking to us actually, in light of all the efforts against childhood obesity we hear and read about, but it does make me question how we as a nation got off track and, more importantly, what we can do to improve this situation.
As with education in general, instilling principles of healthy eating and exercise as early as possible sets the course for continued wellness later in life. In fact, one of the key findings from the Bogalusa Heart Study, which has gathered dietary data on the residents of Bogalusa, Louisiana since 1972 in order to better understand the causes of coronary artery disease and hypertension, is the link between positive eating habits early on in life and fewer instances of these chronic health conditions.
So what are some simple ways that you as a parent or caregiver can get your little one on the right path? The Food Trust, based here in Philadelphia and dedicated to improving knowledge about and availability of better food options, recently released a toolkit as part of its Preschool Initiative. Though primarily targeting preschool teachers and administrators, this resource offers many ways for parents and caregivers to support better nutrition and eating habits. Some valuable tips I took away from the toolkit include making sure half of your child’s plate is fruit and veggies, and allowing a three-year-old to help in the kitchen with tasks such as stirring batter and adding in ingredients.
The Food Trust’s Preschool Initiative webpage suggests some other ways to establish good eating habits, such as choosing whole grains as much as possible – a change my family has easily made and stuck to when it comes to bread and pasta. Steer clear of solid fats – butter, ice cream, bacon – and look to oils that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. As with many things that preschoolers are learning, making the lesson into a game always helps. How many different colored vegetables can we find at the supermarket? Who wants to build a fruit pizza with me? At an age where Bridget wants to assert her independence every step of the way, I know that letting her help me make decisions and get meals ready will increase the chances that she will actually eat what is put in front of her.
And let’s not forget the importance of parents as role models. How many times have you laughed out loud (or cringed!) at your child imitating you? Well, healthy eating is a great habit for them to “inherit” from you. This means actually eating your own fruits and vegetables and sitting down to enjoy a meal together, instead of waiting until the children are asleep to enjoy an “adult” meal.
As a mom, I recommend that you take some time to read through the Preschool Initiative Toolkit and also browse The Food Trust’s website for more information and ideas. And you may want to also share the toolkit with your child’s preschool or childcare center. A recent report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health noted that there are definite limits on the amount of influence that home-based eating habits can have on a child’s overall nutrition. With numerous outside influences at play, ranging from what is served during the day away from home to good-old peer pressure, parents must do what they can to encourage the best opportunities for healthy eating in every instance. (Read more about the findings here).