Meal time can turn into a battle between parents and children. Setting limits is key.
Medical Advisor: Diana Marcela Álvarez Vargas, pediatrician, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare
In their first years of life, children grow very quickly and their bodies develop according to the foods they eat. If their bodies are built on healthy foods, they grow faster, have greater immune systems and get sick less. Their psychomotor development is at its peak and therefore have greater capacities to learn and be healthy and productive adults.
Depending on the types of food we eat, our metabolisms are set for the rest of our lives during our first three years of life. The food consumed during pregnancy and the first two years of life determines the chances of developing serious metabolic diseases over the decades that follow, such as: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia, heart attacks and strokes.
In order for parents to instill healthy habits in their children, it is important for them to recognize what their own eating styles are. Are you a controlling, indulgent, passive or receptive parent when it comes to food? Receptive eating styles are the most recommended (For tips, see the Receptive Parenting section).
Food is more than nutrition, however. It is also a ritual and is an opportunity to be with family. Children are therefore encouraged to: eat at the table together with their families so they may learn to appreciate the textures, flavors and colors of the foods they eat; eat without distractions (television or electronic devices); and learn by example in a stress-free and relaxed environment where the main focus is conversation.
Fruits and vegetables
If parents want their children to eat foods that are rich in vitamins, such as fruits and vegetables, they must serve as an example and eat plenty of these foods while at the table. Children learn more by imitating than by suggestion or through rules that are imposed upon them.
With all three meals, at least five different colors should be represented both for children and adults. In order to consume the vitamins needed in a healthy diet, at least three portions of fruits and vegetables should be consumed a day.
If children are exposed to these foods before they are born, they will be more receptive to eating different fruits and vegetables. If mothers eat wide varieties of fruits and vegetables while they are pregnant and breastfeeding, the baby will be exposed to these flavors through the breastmilk’s amniotic fluid; these flavors will later stimulate their taste buds, easing the supplementary feeding process.
This process begins when the baby is between four and six months old. Depending on the child’s development, the infant should be fed different types of fruits and vegetables in various forms (both liquid and solid). Without pressuring them, allow the infant to touch the food, to feed themselves and to taste and become familiar with the flavors and textures of the newly introduced fruits and vegetables.
If the child does not want to eat fruits or vegetables, do not force them. Avoid using bribes or prizes. While the infant may be eating, albeit reluctantly, what they are actually learning with this behavior is that eating is a sacrifice that is rewarded in the form of a prize.
The best way to encourage children to eat is to allow them to make their own decisions by asking them, for example, “Do you want a banana or an apple?”
Most foods, especially carbohydrates and fresh fruits, have the right amounts of natural sugars in order to provide children with all the energy they need for their daily activities.
The general recommendation is to not add sugar, honey or panela (unrefined cane sugar) to an infant’s diet before they turn one. Adding sugar to the diets of children under this age may contribute to the future onset of diabetes. The consumption of honey prior to this age can also cause a very serious illness called botulism.
The simple sugars in sweets or candies is addictive because it stimulates the release of pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters that can have a euphoric effect on the brain and can leave you with the sensation of being full. Children that eat sweets frequently are never hungry when it is time to eat meals, appear to have no appetite, reject healthy foods more often and have more cavities.
There is no need to go to the extreme of not allowing children to have sweets. Healthy choices should be offered, however, such as delicious fruit desserts and options that are part of the basic food groups (foods that play a rule in the child’s growth and development).
A more nutritious alternative to a piece of chocolate, for example, could be a scoop of ice cream with a snowman face made of grapes for eyes, a strawberry for the nose and a peach for the mouth. Give it a try! •
What to avoid: The following should not be included in children’s diets:
- Food products with low nutritional values such as candy, juice boxes or soft drinks, potato chips (for the high salt content) or other packaged foods (they are high in preservatives).
- Salty or smoked foods or foods that are very sweet.
- Foods with a high fat content (aged cheeses, processed meats, and fried foods).
- Packaged cookies and cakes.
Receptive parents are parents that help guide their child’s eating habits, are attentive to their signs of hunger and thirst, and that place pre-determined limits on them such as: what, when and where their child will eat. This will improve children’s eating habits, provided that parents also:
- Feed them when they are hungry.
- Do not force them to eat when they are full.
- Trust that their child only eats the amount that their body needs.
- Talk about food in a positive light and serve as an example of healthy eating.
- Establish meal times and snack times.
- Do not provide drinks other than water between meals and snacks (this helps to build up children’s appetites).
- Offer a variety of healthy options in a fun or appealing way at each meal.