I often hear people say that ‘sweets won’t do the children any harm if allowed as occasional treats’ but what about the habits we encourage children to develop? It is also important to consider the possible problems that may arise in the future as a consequence of poor health foundations built during the crucial early years. But how to keep your children from developing a taste for the sugary sweets that plague most child settings? Children’s natural curiosity and love of fun could be used as tools to help you guide them in the right direction when it comes to healthy foods. The best thing about being creative in any setting is: once you start, the ideas will naturally multiply in your (and your child’s) head. The kitchen is a perfect setting to get started and the results will be rewarding and long-lasting.
The first years of a child at home are the most important ones for the habits you want them to form. In these first years the family, especially the parents, are the biggest influences on the child’s life. If you leave healthy eating to be introduced later in your child’s life, you might have just missed your slot! In the way I view it, there is a short time slot for the input of healthy habits before children start school and become more exposed to outside influences. The foundations started at home and the habits you carefully tried to create are likely to get diluted as your child mixes in the world out there. This is a perfectly normal and necessary transition in every child’s life but if we look at this important initial stage as our biggest chance to positively influence their health, I think the importance of concentrating on good nutrition and healthy eating habits becomes more evident. There isn’t time to be wasted feeding them sweets and refined flour products, to which we know they’ll get exposed sooner rather than later in their lives. Before you know, your child will be socializing and experimenting with foods that are out of your control. Be it in other children’s parties, school and nurseries or even in the street when commercial foods and adverts of unhealthy meals target children directly, your efforts will face direct competition virtually everywhere. Whether we like it or not, there will be plenty of time and opportunity for children to get acquainted with poor foods which provide little nutritional value or worse: which are down right negative influences on their behaviour and development (such as sugar, refined flour and trans-fats). You certainly don’t need to foster it at home. If you concentrate on the healthier alternatives at home, you increase your child’s chance to develop a taste for nutritious foods and consider healthier options given the choice in future.
Healthy toddlers and children in general are very strong and their young little bodies can usually deal well with a lot of unhealthy foods that find their way into their diets. Many normally endure unhealthy foods rather well for a while and seem to grow according to the normal parameters established by the government. For some though, depending on a series of factors and antecedents, the problems start right from the beginning, sometimes even at breastfeeding. These children tend to be the ones who suffer from frequent ailments from time to time and seem more susceptible to health problems . Allergies and atopy (i.e. Asthma, eczema) are just a few of the very common problems of Modern children (1-3). Research has established many links between diet and niggly problems affecting otherwise healthy children. Even more concerning is the link between attention deficit disorders and poor nutrition history (4-8). However it is normally later on that problems really start to show for healthy babies and children brought up on unhealthy foods and excessive amounts of sugary treats. Health status may start to show adverse changes when they go from childhood to adolescence or in their young adult years. And as the years progress, the health decline will be exacerbated by unhealthy life-long diet and lifestyle habits that normally escalate with our Modern lifestyles of insufficient exercise or time to cook, chronic stress, exposure to drugs and toxicants.
My son, for example, has always had a huge appetite and I’ve always been careful not to give him more food than he needs (because he will overeat given the opportunity). This big appetite of his has also made me aware of the foods that I’d make available to him, making me give plenty of thought to healthier alternatives. I just didn’t want him to get hooked on anything that could turn into a problem later on. I’m not a big fan of snacks as I like my son to build up an appetite for his next proper meal. But sometimes their growing bodies burn so much energy that a little refuelling will help them keep going without dips in energy, which can affect mood and behaviour. But I’ll make sure he builds an appetite for his snacks too because that way healthy options will be more appealing (even more so when no ordinary sugary temptations are in sight). I’ve had great success with some items but it’s not everything that goes down well. Children have their own preferences and we need to learn to appreciate their likes and dislikes as they develop. The important thing is to work with what they like and try to build on it giving them plenty of opportunity to try healthy ingredients. Any snack made at home, even if it’s a sugary cake, can be improved in nutritional value when compared to commercial ones. I like to add ground seeds and fruit to baked foods (to which I don’t add sugar). The freshness of these ingredients combined with their nutritional value is already a huge improvement on a boxed cake you find sitting in a supermarket shelf (for a basic gluten-free cake recipe made with healthy ingredients and with a nice balance of nutrients check my “flourless cake recipe“). As a rule of thumb, increased shelf life of a food translates as decreased nutritional value. So it’s worth investing the time and effort into preparing your child’s food at home. Besides, a child who’s involved in food preparation naturally becomes more inclined to try more foods and experiment with tastes. Children’s taste buds need to develop gradually from increased exposure. Restricting the flavours to which your child is exposed could mean they become less adventurous with food in the future.
So if you want to minimize your child’s exposure to the vast array of unhealthy foods currently dominating Modern diet, my advice is to concentrate on the foods you feed them at home and make nutritious choices as fun as possible. Involve your child in preparing snacks at home and they will naturally view them as treats if all there is available is what you make together at home. If you make commercial sweets and foods available at home, you’ll be creating competition for your own healthier alternatives and your child is then much more likely to refuse more complex tastes from wholesome ingredients.
It doesn’t matter if they refuse an item or are not interested in trying ingredients. Keep exposing them to fun activities where plenty of different healthy ingredients are made available. Let them help you cook whenever safely possible or let them create their own little mixtures in a small pot while they copy your behaviour in the kitchen. Being allowed to participate in the activities that you perform gives your children enormous satisfaction and these positive experiences create further inclination towards healthy eating for both of you. One day, out of the blue, they decide to try something they never wanted to in the past. Letting them play, touch and smell different foods creates a sense of familiarity that tends to increase up to the point they decide to actually taste something new. It was precisely this way that my son has become a huge fan of olives and dried seaweed! It’s so funny how he is totally sold on the idea of a handful of olives or a crumbly sheet of seaweed being being perfectly acceptable treats! These things only happen if we allow experimentation and interaction in the first place (and remove unfair competition from commercial foods). It’s all too easy to fill your cupboards with processed snacks readily available but what experiences are you missing out every time you mechanically reach for one of these easy options? More importantly, what future habits are you fostering in your children? I believe these questions are worth considering. But above all remember to keep it fun. It is easy to become anxious about our children’s eating habits but if you start with a conscious effort to focus on having fun together with no other agenda, you will naturally develop your own way to explore this rich opportunity. Children develop their taste buds in their own time and need to feel relaxed and stimulated to do so. Make some time for fun activities around food when you are not pressed by other commitments and enjoy the experience yourself. Be patient and let children take the lead when possible. It will be worth it, especially in the long term.
For more ideas of how to get started with your children on healthy ingredients,snacks and treats, check my post about Children’s Treats.
- Marques, A. H., O’Connor, T. G., Roth, C., Susser, E., Bjorke-Monsen, A. L. (2013) The influence of maternal prenatal and early childhood nutrition and maternal prenatal stress on offspring immune system development and neurodevelopmental disorders. Front Neurosci 7: 120.
- Lim, H. Et al (2013) Nutrient intake and food restriction in children with atopic dermatitis. Clin Nutr Res 2 (1): 52-58.
- Albers, R. Et al (2013) Monitoring immune modulation by nutrition in the general population: identifying and substantiating effects on human health. Br J Nutr 110 (2): 1-30.
- Kiddie, J. Y., Weiss, M. D., Kitts, D. D., Levy-Milne, R., Wasdell, M. B. (2010) Nutritional status of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a pilot study. Int J Pediatr 2010: 767318.
- Colter, A. L., Cutler, C., Meckling, K. A. (2008) Fatty acid status and behavioural symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adolescents: a case-control study. Nutr J 7 (8): doi 10.1186/1475-2891-7-8.
- Ghuman, J. K., Arnold, E., Anthony, B. J. (2008) Psychopharmacological and other treatments in preschool children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: current evidence and practice. Psychopharmacol 18 (5): 413-447.
- Archer, T., Oscar-Berman, M., Blum, K. (2011) Epigenetics in developmental disorder: ADHD and endophenotypes. J Genet Syndr Gene Ther 2 (104): 1000104.
- Froehlich, T. E., Anixt, J. S., Loe, I. M., Chirdkiatgumchai, V., Kuan, L., Gilman, R. C. (2011) Update on environmental risk factors for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Curr Psychiatry Rep 13 (5): 333-344.