Family food facts
Late last year the most recent survey on the state of Australian children’s nutrition and physical activity was released. The survey*, conducted jointly by the Australian Government and the Australian Food and Grocery Council, collected data on food intake, physical activity levels and the physical measurements of 4 487 children divided into four groups: 2-3 years, 4-8 years, 9-13 years and 14-16 years.
The key findings included:
- 72 percent of children were at a healthy weight, with 17 percent classified as overweight and 6 percent as obese.
- On the days surveyed, 69 percent of children in the 9-16 year old group met the National Physical Activity guidelines of at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity every day.
- In terms of nutrition, consumption of fruit and vegetable declined with age.
- 61 percent of 4-8 years old consumed adequate fruit (1-3 serves per day),
- Only 22 per cent of the same age group consumed sufficient vegetables (2-4 serves).
One of the most common laments of parents of toddlers and preschoolers is the dramatic switch (almost overnight, it seems) from the child that ate everything in sight, to the food fussy toddler that refuses just about everything.
The advice repeated over and over by child health experts is do not panic or fight over food! The rate of growth of toddlers slows after 12 months, so it is logical that their appetite and energy requirements are also reduced.
Most important, toddlers are little people who are learning about what they can and can’t control in their world, as they should, developmentally speaking. As a parent you are on a hiding to nothing when the dinner table becomes a war zone – it will end in tears and there are no winners!
Remember these 5 key rules:
- Healthy children will not starve if they miss a meal, so keep your cool.
- Accept that sometimes they just aren’t feeling hungry (sometimes adults don’t have much appetite either, but no-one forces them to eat against their will!).
- You are not a short-order cook – but it is okay to offer a plain cheese sandwich, banana or apple and water as the only available alternative.
- It’s not fine to cave and provide icecream in a desperate attempt to get them to eat – if they’re not hungry for dinner, they’re not hungry – accept it.
- It’s a rare child who refuses to eat what they’ve helped prepare – try it and see!
As a parent or carer, you are responsible for what they eat. Your toddler however has an inborn ability to determine whether they are hungry and hence they should decide how much or whether they eat at all. Toddlers can regulate their energy intake over a day, so even if they don’t eat much at one meal, they will usually make up for it in another meal.
Research has shown the children who are forced to eat lose their ability to determine when they are full, which is a risk for the development of obesity later in life. As long as you provide them with nutritious options, your job is done!
Have a good balance of foods. All foods are ok, but some only in moderation. Do not use food as a reward as this food can become more desirable to your child and cause over consumption of it in the future. If you need a reward, use other things such as the opportunity to play their favourite game.
Offer your child water for drinks. Cordials, fruit juices and soft drinks are all high in sugar and energy, which can lead to dental caries or excess weight, and should only be provided occasionally.
Sesame Street Healthy Habits for Life
Sesame Workshop (the not-for-profit organisation behind the popular television show, Sesame Street), has developed resources for parents or playgroups looking for fun activities that encourage healthy habits in children by integrating nutrition and physical activities.
Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach and educational practices, says that the key messages about healthy living are not easily available to children.
‘This may be the first generation that may actually have a shorter lifespan than their parents, all due to issues around obesity or facts about nutrition and the amount of physical activity’.
Fortunately, there’s a window of opportunity during a child’s preschool years in which her early social environment can impact the development of healthy habits. This is the point in a child’s life where information provided by Sesame Workshop can have a big impact, Betancourt explains.
Research shows that through repeated exposure to key health messages and with the help of positive role models, preschoolers can learn to like wholesome foods and can develop good dietary practices.
The kit is divided into three sections and using the familiar Sesame Street characters of Elmo, Cookie Monster and their friends, there are activities, games poems, songs and dances and ways to include learning about healthy choices into everyday routines.
Get Moving! - focuses on physical activity and how it builds strong, healthy bodies.
Food and Drink to Grow On – highlights ways to make healthy food choices.
Every Day is a Healthy Day – builds on the first two sections to help children remember what they’ve learned.
Healthy Habits for Life is available online to freely download in PDF format from Seasame Workshop.
Below are just two examples of the types of activities parents can do with their children.
Listen to your Body
Listen to your body, (whisper)
Listen to your body, (louder)
Listen to your body, (really loud)
As you jump, jump, jump!
Listen to your heart, (whisper)
Listen to your heart, (louder)
Listen to your heart, (really loud)
And hear it pump, pump, pump!
Listen to your stomach, (whisper)
Listen to your stomach, (louder)
Listen to your stomach, (really loud)
Does it say, ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m full’?
Listen to your body (whisper)
Listen to your body (louder)
Listen to your body (really loud)
What is it telling you?
After reading the poem with children, ask them to listen to their own bodies.
- How are they feeling? They may be breathing harder, feeling warmer, or noticing a faster heartbeat.
- Why might they be feeling this way? Tired? What should they do?
- Energetic? What can they do to use their energy?
- Hungry? Thirsty? What can they do?
Do this activity at various times of the day: first thing in the morning, before lunch, after outside play and so on. Pay attention to the way time of day affects how kids feel.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2009. Updated July 2009.