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Eating and drinking for children

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Both children and adults need to be active and eat healthily to live well. Just like adults, children can sometimes be fussy about new flavours and textures, and at times may eat too much of the wrong kinds of food.

Healthy eating is all about balance – eating the right amount to match how active you are, and enjoying a variety of foods, so you get all the nutrients you need.

To function properly, the human body requires over 50 nutrients. No one single food or drink can provide us with all these nutrients at once, which is why eating a variety of foods in the right amounts each day is important to good health.

You can help your child develop healthy eating habits by providing them with lots of healthy foods and letting them choose what they would like to eat and how much they want to eat.

Tips for helping them to develop healthy habits at a young age.

Eat breakfast

Eating breakfast, even if it’s just a banana and a glass of milk, kick-starts the body and makes it easier to maintain lasting energy throughout the day.

If you can get your kids to establish the habit of eating a good breakfast at a young age, it should stay with them as they get older.

Choose healthier snacks

It’s easy to reach for chips or biscuits when you and your children feel like nibbling on something, but these snacks tend to be low in nutrients and high in calories.

Instead, try to keep your cupboards stocked with healthier snacks such as fruit, air-popped popcorn, unsalted nuts and unsweetened yoghurt.

Drink water

Make water the drink of choice at meal times, and keep juice and sweet drinks as occasional treats.

While juice has valuable nutrients and gives a concentrated energy boost for active, growing bodies, kids should go for water first when they are thirsty, not sugar-sweetened drinks.

Grow your own

Growing vegetables and herbs at home can be a fun way to teach children where food comes from and to encourage them to eat a more varied diet.

They’re more likely to take at least a little bite of broccoli or carrots if they’ve helped to plant and pick them. If you don’t have a garden, a window box can be just as effective.

Eat together

It’s tempting to eat dinner in front of the television, to wolf down lunch at your desk, and to grab snacks on the run.

If you can encourage your children to eat regular meals with you at the table, it can not only reduce snacking, it can also teach valuable social skills.

Have fun in the kitchen

Children are more likely to become adventurous eaters if they know how to cook. Make it fun by giving them their own aprons and letting them help you regularly with small tasks in the kitchen.

As they get older and more confident, let them cook dinner once a week. If the thought of kids in the kitchen sounds like a recipe for disaster, why not enrol them in cooking classes during the school holidays?

Slow it down

Eating slowly is great for weight control at any age. It’s a fantastic way to show kids that it takes about 20 minutes for the message that they are full to get from their stomachs to their brains.

As much as we’d love our children to finish their meal in minutes, rather than hours, it’s much more important that they learn to slow down and chew their food properly.

Be creative

All the vibrant colours in fruit and vegetables come from natural plant chemicals that have healthy effects on our bodies. Different colours have different effects, so it’s good to eat a variety of different colours each day.

Offer your kids a colourful snack of different fruits and berries, or chop vegetables into interesting shapes to make them seem more fun and exciting.

Learn when to stop

Although children are born with the ability to stop eating when they are full, it can often be hard for parents to judge whether their kids have eaten the right foods, and enough of them.

Teaching children to listen to their tummies and to ask themselves questions about quantity and quality, such as “Is my tummy full?” or “Will I feel sick if I eat those extra biscuits?” will give them the opportunity to develop their ability to sense fullness.

Don't give up

Our research shows that most babies and young children need to try something new seven to ten times before they like it. So don’t be afraid to introduce children to new or more exotic tastes.

A good tactic to get kids to eat a wide variety of foods is to tell them that tasting new things is a sign they’re growing up. Or, take them shopping and let them choose a new, healthy food to serve at home with something they already like.

Try to avoid:

  • having takeaways – preferably not more than once a week
  • bribing your child with treats or rewards or forcing them to eat when they don't want to
  • encouraging constant eating – try to develop a routine and keep to specific meal and snack times.

Limiting foods high in sugar, fat or salt

It’s OK to have foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt every so often (not more than once per week), but never every day. Eating a lot of these foods can lead to health issues like obesity (becoming overweight), high blood pressure, heart disease and/or diabetes.

A few examples of foods high in salt, fat, or sugar are sweets/lollies, meat pies, muesli bars, potato chips, chocolate, cookies or sweet biscuits, takeaways and fizzy drinks.

Snacks & little meals

Children need to eat consistently throughout the day to fulfil their energy needs so they can grow well. Offer 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks each day.

  • Avoid giving snacks within one hour of a main meal, or your child may not have an appetite for their food. 
  • View snacks as a miniature meal that provides protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.
  • Select healthy snacks that are low in salt, sugar and saturated fats. 
  • You may need to change the size and/or texture of certain foods to make them safe for young children – to prevent choking.

Choking in youngsters

It’s pretty easy for young kids to choke on their food/kai, since they're still learning how to chew, grind and swallow food correctly.

To limit choking risk:

  • Always make sure babies and young children sit down while they eat, and that someone is with them while they are eating or drinking.
  • Offer food that matches their chewing and grinding abilities.
  • Be aware of foods which are more likely to cause choking:
    • small hard foods that are difficult for children to bite or chew (eg, nuts, large seeds, popcorn husks, raw carrot, apple, celery)
    • small round foods that can get stuck in children’s throats (eg, grapes, berries, raisins, sultanas, peas, watermelon seeds, lollies)
    • foods with skins or leaves that are difficult to chew (eg, sausages, chicken, lettuce, nectarines)
    • compressible food which can squash into the shape of a child's throat and get stuck there (eg, hot dogs, sausages, pieces of cooked meat, popcorn)
    • thick pastes that can get stuck in children’s throats (eg, chocolate spreads, peanut butter)
    • fibrous or stringy foods that are difficult for children to chew (celery, rhubarb, raw pineapple).

Reduce the risk of choking on these foods – you can:

    • alter the food texture – grate, cook, finely chop or mash the food
    • remove the high risk parts of the food – peel off the skin, or remove the strong fibres
    • avoid giving small hard foods, such as whole nuts and large seeds, until children are at least five years old.

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