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WHAT WE eat can play a critical role in determining our health, whatever our age.
The eating patterns established in the first few years of life influence our health during childhood and adulthood. Encouraging good nutrition during the early years of life is therefore an investment in the health of our population for years to come.
With more parents working, increasing numbers of children are spending long periods of time in childcare outside their own homes. This has implications for their dietary intake, as a large proportion of meals and snacks is now eaten away from home.
Dr Rivane Chybar-Virgo, medical doctor and health and wellness coach, said good nutrition is essential during childhood, as it is a time of rapid growth, development and activity. This is also a vital time for healthy tooth development and the prevention of decay.
“General eating habits and patterns are formed in the first few years of life. Poor nutrition during these years is associated with an increased risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.
Growing children need plenty of energy (calories) and nutrients, for example, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. These needs can be met by including a variety of foods from each of the main food groups.
A main meal must include a portion of food from the following food groups to include potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates; fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins.
“It is important to include two to three portions of foods from the dairy and alternative food groups, which can be given at either main meals, snack times, or a mixture of the two. Wherever possible, healthier cooking methods should be used, for example, baking, boiling, steaming and grilling,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.
It is recommended that parents or guardians are given the opportunity to discuss their child’s food preferences and are kept informed about meals and snacks offered. Choose combinations of colours to make food look attractive. Three or four defined areas of colour look good on a plate.
“A combination of different textures increases appeal. Children will appreciate crispy, crunchy, chewy, smooth and soft foods. Taste should be varied, but meals containing too many new flavours may not be acceptable to children. Providing finger foods, as well as foods that require cutlery, allows variation at mealtimes. This is also a good way to encourage children less than two years of age to eat independently and to try new foods,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.
Child-sized cutlery and crockery, and being able to sit comfortably and safely at mealtimes may make it easier for children to serve themselves and learn to eat independently. Encourage children to try all the foods offered, but never force a child to eat.
“Meals are social occasions, so try to sit with children when they are eating and talk with them. If possible, eat with them. This can be used to help encourage good table manners; and if you are eating healthy, it sets a good example to the children,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.
Some children eat slowly, so it is important to ensure that they are given enough time to eat. Also, avoid distractions such as television during meals and snacks.
“Children’s appetites may vary, not only from day to day, but also from one meal to the next. Young children are very active and have high energy (calorie) and nutrient needs in proportion to their small body size. Children have smaller stomachs than adults, so it is important to consider portion size when plating food,” Dr Chybar-Virgo said.
Every day, children need three meals plus snacks, and should be encouraged to drink adequate amounts of fluids. A frequent intake of sugar and sugary foods and drinks between meals causes tooth decay. Snacks and drinks taken between meals should be sugar-free.
Foods and drinks containing sugar should only be given occasionally and should be limited to mealtimes. Sugar may also appear on labels as sucrose, glucose, syrup, fructose or dextrose.
Children grow and develop rapidly, and their bodies need the support of a nutritious childhood diet. There are so many benefits of healthy eating for young children, from supplying the energy needed to learn and play, to building healthy teeth, bones and muscles. Good early-years nutrition also offers protection from illness and disease later in life.