In presenting information on this topic we are sensitive to the fact that Singapore is a multicultural country and the child’s family culture will determine which foods are appropriate. Therefore, specific food items referred to in this post may not be suitable for families who follow a vegetarian diet. As far as possible we have tried to provide alternative food options.
Nutrition refers to the food required by a person to live and stay healthy. With the right type of food and drinks, children will get enough nutrients for their healthy growth and development. The first part of this topic gives parents information and tips on how to develop healthy eating habits in children.
Infants develop at a very fast rate during the first year of their lives. They move from feeding on breast milk to taking other liquids and slowly move on to semi-solid and then solid food. By the end of their first year, most infants have progressed physically to being able to sit up and are beginning to feed themselves. From sucking liquids, they are now at a stage where they can chew and swallow food with different textures. Children who develop healthy food habits early in life tend to maintain a healthy lifestyle even as adults. Here are a few tips on developing healthy eating habits in children.
Mealtimes: Some general comments
- Make mealtimes a routine family affair and use it to bond with the family members. Sharing the events of the day and conversing over meals create a calm, positive experience for the child. Avoid arguments and other unpleasant conversations that can create an atmosphere of stress. Research shows that children who grow up in families that eat together tend to show higher self-esteem and social skills. On occasions, inviting your child’s friend(s) over for a meal will make mealtimes more enjoyable for the child.
- Even though families are busy, work out a schedule for meal and snack times and keep to this whenever possible. Having regular mealtimes reduces eating in between meals, overeating or snacking all day. Most children need 3 full meals and 2 snacks a day. Eating on the go, snacking while shopping or watching TV should be discouraged as this may lead to unhealthy eating and obesity. If your child skips a meal for some reason, offer fruit or a healthy snack when they are hungry. Avoid giving child
ren cookies and sweets.
- Breakfast is considered as the brain food for the child. Having a good breakfast is an essential habit that should stay with them for life. Provide them with a healthy breakfast which includes cereal (low in sugar) or wholemeal bread, fruit and milk. This will help to provide enough fuel to start the day energized. Children who skip breakfast tend to be lethargic and are unable to be actively involved in the activities of the day.
- It is important to let children chew properly and eat slowly in order for their body to process the food. Do not feed your children in a hurry or rush them to finish their food. Research shows that it takes around 20 mins for the brain to get the information from the stomach that it is full. Eating slowly helps to keep body weight under control at all ages.
- Avoid force feeding your child when they are not hungry. Children need to learn to listen to their own body and identify hunger and a sense of fullness. Instead of forcing them to finish everything on the plate, try serving smaller portions at a time and let the child decide if they want a second helping.
Make healthy food available. Here are some basic guidelines for a healthy diet:
- Proteins – Fish, eggs, lean meat, nuts, tofu and a wide variety of pulses (beans, lentils and peas) are good sources of protein and should be included in the diet. Proteins help bones and muscles to grow stronger and build immunity. Children need a high protein diet as they are growing and developing rapidly. Some health experts warn against including nuts for young children below specified ages. Please consult your doctor about this.
- Fruit and vegetables – Try to include fruit and/or vegetables in every meal. Stock up on fruit and vegetables that are easy and ready to eat such as grapes, apples, pears, bananas, cucumber, bell peppers, carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes. Some vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli can be cooked quickly using microwave.
- Grains – Whole grains such as rice, wheat, corn and oats contain carbohydrates, protein and fibre are a rich source of vitamins and minerals. Grains are essential in providing nutrients and energy for active children. Choose whole grain foods over those made with processed white flour as they are a good source of fibre. A variety of whole grain foods such as wholemeal bread, whole grain pasta/noodles, oats and brown rice are available in the market and in food stores.
- Calcium - Dairy foods are a great source of calcium which is needed for strong bones and teeth. Milk, yoghurt and cheese are some of the common dairy products that children can consume to get their daily dose of calcium. Other non-dairy sources of calcium include broccoli, bok choy, figs, oranges, almonds, sardines and sesame seeds.
- The fibre content in grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds is necessary for maintaining regular bowel movement and protects against constipation.
- Healthy snacks – Apart from fruit and vegetables, stock up on some of the other healthier options such as unsweetened yoghurt, baked and unsalted nuts, raisins and sultanas instead of potato chips or prawn crackers.
- Serve and encourage children to drink water or milk. Children should cultivate the habit of drinking plain water when they are thirsty. Buy them a small water bottle to carry with them wherever they go. Dehydration causes headaches, muscle cramps and poor concentration for people of all ages. Talk to the children about the importance of water for their body. Heat stroke is a very dangerous medical condition. Other healthier drinks include soy milk, homemade barley or fresh juices. However, always limit the amounts of such drinks due to their sugar content.
- Avoid sugary or aerated drinks, fast food and deep fried items. Though it may be difficult to completely ban such low-nutrient foods, try to make it an occasional treat rather than including it as part of the diet or making regular visits to fast food joints.
- Choose healthier options to cook your food such as steaming, baking and grilling. If you do need to stir fry or deep-fry, use less oil and opt for healthier oils such as olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil.
- For more information on a balanced diet for children, please check the Health Promotion Board (2015) website.
Food allergies and intolerances
Some children may be allergic or intolerant to certain foods or food types. If you suspect that your child may be allergic or intolerant to any food, please consult an expert immediately. Children who come from families with a history of allergy are more prone to them.
Children need a variety of foods from the different food groups to grow and develop. The healthy eating habits that are cultivated in early childhood will usually be carried on into adulthood. Children tend to imitate their parents and significant adults and hence it is important for them to model a healthy lifestyle and eating habits.
Part II of this topic to be released on the parent portal will discuss picky or selective eating and will give strategies to consider when dealing with picky eaters.
Health Promotion Board. (2015) A Healthy Food Foundation – For Kids and Teens, Retrieved March 3, 2017 from https://www.healthhub.sg/live-healthy/578/A%20Healthy%20Food%20Foundation%20-%20for%20Kids%20and%20Teens
Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Sheela Warrier 2017
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