Children’s diets will either affect them adversely or positively. The choice is with the parents. To send their children into the world with better chances of good health, or to send them off with a diet habit that causes disease laden time bombs ticking within their cells; those options are chosen solely by the parents.
From what I have seen about children and their food, including my background in working with children, all the reading I have done, and lots of research, is that there are some very positive ways to feed and bring up children, and some very unhealthy and even damaging ones.
PARENTS’ BEHAVIOUR AROUND FOOD AFFECTS THEIR CHILDREN
I have seen parents asking children as young as two, what they want to eat for any meal of the day.
A child around this age had only been on planet Earth for 730 days and is not responsible for making wise and healthful choices for their own future health and wellbeing, of which diet is a massive part of.
A parent’s job is to make the choices. If parents often offer sweet foods such as chocolate, or ice cream, or salty snacks such as fries or crisps, then when the child is asked what they want to eat, they will choose these foods that have highly stimulating tastes. And they will exclusively choose it, if there has never been much of anything else offered! Their parents may argue that “They like it! They eat it, and enjoy it.” Of course they like it, processed food is designed to be incredibly taste stimulating. The fact that children enjoy it should never be used as a reason to feed a young child burgers, sweets and fizzy drinks.
If a child sits down at the table, and doesn’t like what is presented, then that is not an option for them and the parents need not get up and choose another meal. Children need to fit in with the life of the family and with society, as happens around the whole world. A parent is the example to the child, and the child follows suit. Not the other way around.
In the brilliant book Positive Parenting, Dr. Jane Nelsen gives a great example of a positive approach to this kind of plate pushing. Nelsen says that you simply state that this is the meal for tonight. If the child doesn’t eat it, then they don’t eat it. No punishment or begging or pleading should come from the parents. She shows that lots of choices the child will make in their life will have their own natural consequences – no raincoat in the rain will get them wet, and no dinner at the table will leave them hungry.
Children have wise bodies, and they don’t want to starve. Soon the child will eat all the meals, just the same as the parents. By not begging or pleading, the parent is showing the child that everything is okay – there’s no stress. But it’s also a valuable demonstration that the parent is a kind and assertive leader, who knows how to handle things. Children need parents who know how to handle life! It’s stressful for children to see their parents quiver in the face of their demands or tantrums. Parents are the ones that are steering the way, and when they do so, children can relax in good faith that their driver knows what they’re doing.
CHILDREN AND CHOICE
Some parents are keen advocates of choice for their child, and I agree to some extent. Children of the right age, need to feel responsible enough to make some choices. But it’s a matter of progression. Choices when the child is around the ages of two to four should be limited choices. A limited choice is: “Do you want to take your teddy, or your doll to school today?” It is a low impact decision, which is relevant to the child.
A choice that is too big is often overwhelming for most young children, even if it doesn’t show on the surface. I have seen problems with children being given big choices such as setting times in routines, or choosing thing that affect the whole family, like not leaving the house until the child says so.
For a child, that amount of power is not only scary, but demonstrates to them that their parents are incapable of setting firm boundaries; boundaries which exist to protect them. Children thrive in the snug safety of happy and comfortable routines. When a big choice is made by them, and it is listened to by the rest of their family, then their whole world shakes, and that is unsettling. Inside, I believe, the child will form an internal belief of distrust, and feel injustice that some choices are listened to, and some are dismissed. It is too confusing, and upsetting.
Too much choice is another issue. We have all experienced the strange fatigue that we get after shopping in a supermarket; and that is because we are making choice after choice after choice and there is only so much our brains can handle. If we as adults get tired from an hour in a supermarket, then imagine what it feels like for a child day in, day out. Barry Shwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice, co-led a research called The Maximization Paradox. The reaseach states that “choosing from a large number of options can have detrimental psychological effects.”
Adults need to stick to making the big choices – dinner times, bed time routines, diet etc. And children should stay within the safety of making choices that affect only them, if safe to do so, and as they grow up they get offered more and more responsibility within the family unit.
There are still more problems that occur around food, and one big one is using food in any other way other than to feed and nourish the body. Such as, rewards, punishments, tokens of emotional love or disapproval.
In a recent programme on the BBC called “What’s The Right Diet For You”, we were introduced to a lady who was punished as a child through the use of her food. If she was ‘naughty’ she had to eat bread soaked in water, whilst the family ate dinner normally. This left her as an emotionally unstable and depressed obese adult.
Food should never ever be used in any sort of emotional capacity, although as a society we do it all the time. Adults can handle it somewhat, but children can’t.
“If you eat your dinner, you’ll get pudding” is a bribe. First it shows that the food on the plate isn’t that great, and it leads the child to make the internal conclusion that “I don’t need to like this food, but I do seem to be encouraged to like pudding more instead.” Just don’t go there. No treats. No “Well done, here’s a biscuit.” We want our children to be able to turn to healthy support systems in times of difficulty. Don’t make their support system food – make it you.
AND NOW TO THE FOOD
A child’s first introduction to food is in utero. Inside the mother’s womb her choice of diet is affecting her child. In a large study on pregnant women and young children, undertaken by Professor Felice Jacka from Deakin University and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suggests that “mums who eat more unhealthy foods, such as refined cereals, sweet drinks, and salty snacks, during pregnancy have children with more behavioural problems, such as tantrums and aggression.”
And on it goes when the child is born.
Food and behaviour are linked, and so is food and brain development, food and mood, and food and cellular strength. We’ve all heard “you are what you eat” and for a child, that couldn’t be more accurate. A child’s body is always building new cells, new pathways, and growing every day. Their cells are laying down the foundation for the body that is to carry them through the rest of their lives. For a child, their food is incredibly important as it is the building blocks that make them. So to feed children sugary cereal, white foods like refined white bread and white rice, squash and processed snacks is to offer their body sub par building parts.
Dr Alex Richardson, Fellow at Oxford University and head of the Food and Behaviour Laboratory has written a wonderful book called They are What you Feed Them, and in it she describes findings from the many research papers she has published.
She has found, countless times, that the brain needs the right balance of nutrients, especially healthy fats such as Omega 3 for proper developmental growth. If a child’s brain doesn’t get a sufficient amount of Omega 3 fats then children are prone to ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and behavioural problems. Problems such as tantrums, violent behaviour and mood swings. Happy one minute, crying uncontrollably the next.
Naturally children will all be different, with different plans for them written into their genes even before any one has any say in it. Some will be more sensitive, some bold or strong, and some are born in bodies that will present challenges to them and to their family. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. But for a majority of the population, the genes are all in place and their diet decides their fate.
I’ve also seen parents who have a strange pride in their children being a fussy eater. “Oh, little Susie won’t eat that,” they say with a sort of smug look on their face. Fussy eaters are malnourished, and malnourishment leads to a host of developmental problems. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies have serious consequences on the body of their developing children. Fussy eating should never be encouraged. But sometimes the children are simply following their best, most wonderful role models; their parents.
Whatever the parents do, the child will follow.
Parents that eat poorly, or have a negative relationship with food, or will only eat foods in the junk food category, will have children eating and behaving just the same as they do.
FOODS THAT CHILDREN WILL EAT
It’s pretty simple, really. Whatever the parents eat, the children will eat. Liver munching babies of Inuits, root chewing babies of Sub Sahara Africa, and fish loving Island babies – all around the world, babies eat what their parents eat. So there’s no need for this section at all, apart from to convince parents that yes, children can eat lettuce, spinach, celery, cucumber, hummus, olives, mustard, sea vegetables, fish, sprouted seeds, broccoli, and whatever else the parents eat.
The more variety, the better. Variety allows children to get used to what the food looks like, and the brain gets the message that these tastes are good and not toxic. To that end, never hide a vegetable inside a sauce thinking that they automatically wont like it. Never presume what a child will like to eat. Allow babies to eat whole vegetables when they are at the right age. Even 7 month old babies can start to chew on steamed broccoli, or soft carrot sticks. Let them see food. Let them grow it with you when they are older, let them know good food from day one.
When Jamie Oliver made his famous TV programme, Food Revolution, he traveled around schools in the UK and asked children around 7 years old to identify veggies such as beetroots, tomatoes and celery. Sadly and shockingly, the children didn’t know what the vegetables were. They must never have even seen those foods before. What had they been eating? What is written in their bodies at a cellular level that will come into play when they are older? Diabetes? Heart Diseases? Are these young children, our future generation, destined for strokes and cancers? What immune system could they have built on a diet with no greens, or seeds, or root vegetables?
Childhood is the time that children need all the vitamins and nutrients they can get. Not sugar. Nope, not sugar at all. As Dr. Robert Lustig says in his book, Fat Chance, sugar is an anti-nutrient. Sugar in a child’s diet should be cut out right away. No breakfast cereals, no packaged snack bars, no super sugar laden desserts. Natural sugars should be plenty for a child. Sugar raises insulin levels in the body, and raised insulin leads to weight gain. Excess weight is a ticket to diabetes and heart disease.
TO A HEALTHY FUTURE
Turn off the TV, turn off the advertising. Grin and bear some feet stomping reactions from kids not eating what they want, and take calm assertive control over your child’s life. You take charge for which school they go to, for their vaccinations and for wearing a safety belt in the car – so do the same for their diet.
Vegetables, seeds, nuts, green leafy veggies, sea vegetables, sprouted seeds, fresh fruits, root vegetables! Go heavy on whole plant based foods and your children, and you, will thrive!