Earlier this decade, British culinary expert and well-loved chef Jamie Oliver, managed to highlight the importance of children eating quality and nutritious foods devoid of excess sugar, salt and saturated fats. He created a much needed awareness of a very serious issue and what is appearing to become a western world trend of unhealthy and overweight children.
One of the key ways that children learn how to advocate for their own health is to imitate what they are exposed to at home. Eating nutrient dense, unprocessed foods should be instinctive, but as parents we have a very hard task. Trying to foster a clean, healthy eating environment is a challenge in this technologically advanced world where children are unfortunately the targets of huge marketing campaigns for easily obtained processed foods.
As a parent, I think it is crucial to develop a collective family culture of creating excitement around healthy food. Here are a few simple ideas to help parents win the battle against the processed, sugary and fast food propaganda campaigns.
- Make shopping fun. Most parents would likely imagine the grocery shop experience to be a horrid display of child behaviour. An endless demand of ‘I want this, can I have that?’ But making shopping a little interactive and fun not only helps with filling your trolley with healthy ingredients, but can really help with the overall shopping experience. Make the experience fun, by working as a team to identify the healthier options in the main food groups. You could also play a game of ‘I Spy’ to point out the healthier options.
- Get into the Garden. Kids love using their hands to create things, and gardening is a very interactive and educational activity that will encourage them to learn about healthy foods and how they grow. What better way to show kids how much fun fresh foods are than by letting them plant their own. Here is an encouraging printable of a Gardening Certificate for you to use on the completion of their healthy garden.
- Get the children in the kitchen. There is no doubt that children like to eat what they have made and it gives them such a sense of achievement. There is plenty that children can do to help and learn in the kitchen that will get them excited about eating healthily. Almost any recipe or dish is child inclusive, but I have started a series called Kitchen Playdates that will give you some ideas and tips on getting started.
- Snack Swap. Snacking seems to be a big thing in our house, and I’m always on my toes trying to think of ways to avoid picking up those oh-so-tasty (more like ‘oh-so-unhealthy’) processed treats…though I am getting better at not having them in the house at all. We often do a snack swap, which is a game we play to try and come up with healthier version of snacks without giving up on the taste and delicious flavours too much. The kids get really involved in coming up with ideas, and I have to say, I am very impressed at the level of awareness of healthier options that my 4 year old already has. To give you an idea, we swap out sugar laden chocolates with fruits that are drizzled with melted dark cocoa chocolate, or make a cocoa based nut smoothie. My children very rarely have snack chips, but one thing we do a lot is make homemade popcorn which still gives that satisfying crunch. If we are feeling like a hot alternative, we’ll have baked Kumara (sweet potato) chips instead. We have recently been making homemade nut milks, which are a great alternative to reconstituted juices. And we get in the kitchen to make our own sugar-free cookies.
- Make food fun. There is a limitless supply of creative food ideas in online forums like Pinterest. We have done some fun things with healthy food to get the children excited, and they never fail me for that ‘healthy’ afternoon snack. Try out ‘Mr Dancing Banana’, ‘Peachy Parrot’, ‘Vege Skeleton’, ‘Hungry Caterpillar’ and ‘Vege Flowers’ which are a popular one with my little ladies.
Ultimately, the idea is that you help to foster a mindset, where healthy food can still be as exciting as unhealthy food. Enthusiasm for food is so important, even for adults, so try to include a variety of foods when planning your meals. Cook from scratch with fresh ingredients where you can, and eat more fresh vegetables and fruits. By eating a wide range of different foods, you’ll stand a better chance at getting all the nutrients you need. And by teaching children about food, where it comes from, the differences between ‘healthy’ and ‘un-healthy’, how food affects their bodies and how to cook it, we are laying down the foundations for them to form their own positive eating habits that will last a lifetime.