Help your kids eat better

Sally Rawlings
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Image: Thinkstock
Even beyond the cautious toddler years, it’s all about encouraging the child to try new types of food, without necessarily expecting them to finish it.
Sally Rawlings
Getting your little ones to finish their greens is a challenge faced by many parents. Sally Rawlings turns to the experts for their advice.

Very few children aged between four and 13 eat the recommended intake of vegetables. While, ironically, this may just make most of us sigh with relief that we’re not the only ones having trouble, it does signify a big challenge and an opportunity for parents to shape their children’s habits early.

“For young children, diet is largely determined by their parents,” states the report. “However, children take on greater responsibility for their own food choices as they grow older. It is, therefore, important to establish healthy eating patterns at a young age.” Here’s what the research suggests might help to subtly steer your children in the right direction.


Keep up the variety
So your baby who’d eat spinach puree, lumps of lentils or even the dog’s dinner if he could has suddenly become a child reluctant to eat anything other than potato? Children develop a natural caution about food from about the age of two onwards.

It makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms, according to US Tufts University nutrition professor Dr Susan B. Roberts and paediatrician Dr Melvin B. Heyman. In a hunter-gatherer society, it would be around age two that mum might have another child, and the two-year-old, with more freedom to wander from the cave and fossick for food, needed to be cautious. While a small amount of something poisonous would probably not kill you, a whole meal might. Nibbling at something several times before making a whole meal of it would enable you to find out which wild foods were good to eat, while also minimising the chance of poisoning.

Even beyond the cautious toddler years, it’s all about encouraging the child to try new types of food, without necessarily expecting them to finish it. “Don’t be too worried if the kids say ‘I don’t want any’,” says healthy weight management expert Dr Rick Kausman, author of If Not Dieting, Then What? (Allen & Unwin, $36.99). “I encourage parents to be patient and not expect kids to eat [a novel food or vegetable] the first few times. But keep the emphasis on variety, just calmly encourage them to try different foods and have a go.” A simple philosophy that applies beyond the dinner table.


Keep your cool
While praise works for some children, some research suggests that bribing children to eat vegetables or other healthy items doesn’t work — for example, saying ‘one more snow pea and you get a biscuit’ makes it more likely they’ll end up with a negative attitude towards snow peas. US studies at Pennsylvania State University suggest it’s more effective to simply expose the child to various foods repeatedly, allowing them to make their own choices.

Try putting a food like broccoli on the table 15 times before you give up, say Roberts and Heyman. If it’s repeatedly rejected, treat it as no big deal. “By all means say, ‘okay, I’ll eat it’, but don’t use bribery, threats or active encouragement or you will encourage instinctive rejection.”

For the same reason, it’s best to limit the times you use desirable food as a bribe in other areas of the child’s life, too (‘if you finish your homework, you get a Tim Tam’). “We’ve all used food as a reward for good behaviour, but that puts too much focus on food,” says Kausman. “Have other rewards like playing a game together afterwards, or building up points for a larger item like a new bike.”


Know your power
If Dad is hoeing into a meat pie and chips at the dinner table, it’s hard for a child to get excited about his portion of steamed vegetables. Think of it this way, suggest Roberts and Heyman: “Kids learn to love virtually anything that they see their parents or caregivers really enjoy, from ants (in some parts of Africa) to raw fish (in Japan) and snails (in France).”

Try to eat as a family as often as possible, and let your child see you eating and enjoying the foods you want them to eat. Eat the vegetables, have second helpings of broccoli — it won’t do you any harm either. And be consistent — a yoyo dieter is likely to wreak havoc on their watchful child’s eating habits.


Watch the emotion
While we clearly want our kids to eat more green beans than jellybeans, it’s important to promote a relaxed attitude towards food, says Kausman. “Don’t brand food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or a child may begin to feel guilty for wanting to eat chocolate”, he says. This can set up an emotional association.

Instead of ‘good’ or bad’ foods, have foods that are considered ‘sometimes’ foods and be relaxed about them — giving any food too much importance can otherwise backfire. “Different foods can be an ‘everyday’ food or a ‘sometimes’ food, or you might even call it high-fat or high-sugar — but get rid of the emotional ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels,” says Kausman. “Eating high-fat and high-sugar food is something you’ll do occasionally as part of a calm approach to eating. The bigger picture for the family is about sticking to a philosophy of looking after yourself, being active and focusing on wellbeing.”


Get them involved
It means more mess and more time in the kitchen, but getting kids involved with preparing food is a powerful way to engage them in healthy eating. A Columbia University study found that involving primary school children in classes cooking healthy foods, such as vegetables, made them more likely to choose those foods at lunchtime in the school canteen.

If you can, shop for food together, and nurture a vegetable garden together, and cook with your children.

Even small children can tear spinach or cut mushrooms with a plastic knife and sprinkle it on a pizza. “Setting aside enough time to do things at a leisurely pace is the key to a positive cooking experience with children,” says Julie Maree Wood, nutritionist and author of Feeding Fussy Kids (HarperCollins, $38).

Good Health magazine

Read more in the November issue of New Zealand Good Health magazine at

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