What’s the most important part of parenting? Being kind and supportive? Providing a stable environment? Introducing your children to new experiences? The chances are that if you ask most parents what matters most in early life, they’ll tell you that it’s all about providing a peaceful environment in which kids can thrive.
And while that approach is based on solid science, the attitude of most parents to child nutrition isn’t. Currently, about one in three American children are overweight or obese. That number is expected to rise to one in two over the next decade if we don’t do something about it. The result of all that weight gain will be a life of disability, body image issues, and terrible health consequences according to the NIH and the CDC. Our children could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents, and the prime culprit is diet.
Science-Backed Ways To Get Kids To Eat Healthily
Getting people to change what they eat later on in life is incredibly difficult. Weight loss experiments since the 1950s have shown that adults can’t maintain calorie deficits in the long-term: it just requires too much willpower. Instead, they carry on until they can continue no more, break and then pig out on whatever food they can find – usually all the food that they’ve denied themselves. Once that happens, the weight returns and they often end up even heavier.
This is one of the reasons so many health authorities tell families to focus on “primordial nutrition.” The thinking is that if they can get children eating healthily at a young age, they’ll get used to the taste of healthful food and choose it over sugar, fat, and salt as they grow up. What they’re essentially saying is that it is up to parents to stop the obesity epidemic in its tracks, because they’re pretty much out of ideas!
Of course, many people think that feeding children a healthful diet is expensive. They focus on the cost of produce (which is relatively expensive) but forget about the fact that the majority of calories actually should come from the cheapest foods on earth: potato, corn, oats, brown rice, wholemeal wheat, rye, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, and lentils. Go to the supermarket and check out how little these foods cost. Often you’re able to buy a 40-pound bag of rice that will last you the entire year for less than $20.
You can save money on produce too. Some items like brussels sprouts, red cabbage, red onions, cauliflower, broccoli, spring greens, and bananas have incredible nutritional bang for the buck. Red cabbage is the cheapest source of vitamins and antioxidants in the American diet, and it’s delicious when cooked with currants or as part of a stew.
You might also worry about the fact that your kids are picky eaters. Many parents find themselves getting exasperated when trying to get their kids to “eat their vegetables.” Science has investigated this question and has found two strategies that seem to work well. The first is where you actually hide all the veg in the meal itself. Let’s say that you’re making bean chili, but your kids hate greens. Getting greens into a bean chili is simple: just blend up a few sprigs of spinach or kale with the tomato sauce to make a subtly green passata. Then pour into the pan once you’ve finished sauteing your onions and carrots. It’s foolproof, and kids can rarely taste the difference – yet they’re getting all that brain- and body-boosting nutrition.
The other approach is to change the way that food is presented. Scientists have found that if children are given pieces of fruit and vegetables in the shape of objects they like, then they’re willing to eat more of them. So the way veggies are presented can make an enormous difference in how many are eaten at any given sitting.
Taste Buds Change Quickly
If you were to suddenly dump a load of greens and whole grains on your kid’s plates, they’d probably scream their heads off all night, especially if they’re used to sugary, fatty meals. So what should moms do to tackle the problem?
The first thing to do is to accept that there will probably be an awkward transition phase. Taste buds primed for sugary drinks and fatty meals are overstimulated in a way that makes natural, regular food taste bad.
But the good news is that this transition doesn’t actually take very long: scientists estimate that resetting taste buds takes about three weeks. Because of this, it’s entirely possible to shift kids diets over to something a little healthier in a relatively short period of time.
Successful parents start off slow. They don’t even inform their children of the changes. Instead, they start including more wholesome foods in their recipes and less junk. Going back to the bean chili example, this might mean making your own homemade tomato sauce instead of store-bought (which contains loads of sugar and salt) and replacing some of the meat with beans. Don’t go straight in with kidney beans: this might freak your kids out. Instead, start them off with milder beans, like adzuki or haricot beans, and then build from there. Continuing with the example, the next thing you might change is the rice. Instead of using white rice which is almost entirely devoid of nutrition, partially replace it with brown. Some parboiled brands of brown rice cook in as little as 10 minutes and taste utterly delicious.
From that point onwards, keep changing little bits in the diet to slowly transition their taste buds to more natural foods while eliminating any of the problem foods, like candy, fizzy drinks and ice cream, which can wreak havoc with their taste buds. (If your kids love ice cream and don’t want to give it up, you can make healthy “ice cream” using just a blender, frozen bananas, dates and added fruits of your choice. They’ll love it: it’s sticky, creamy and more delicious than the original).
How Does Diet Affect Child Development?
Although it might be a hassle to transition kids over to a healthier way of eating, it’s totally worth it. Here are some of the ways it can benefit kids’ development.
Better Intellectual Development
It’s hard to believe given how much they eat, but many children in the US are actually undernourished. They’re not getting enough brain foods which contain fiber, folate, B-vitamins and vitamin K. Neither are they getting enough of the thousands of important phytonutrients in plants associated with healthier development. Research published in the Journal of Nutrition says that children who aren’t properly nourished have a 16 percent higher chance of failing at school. What you feed children has a direct impact on their education and life chances from an early age.
The idea that sugar causes hyperactivity has been largely debunked. Children are just full of energy. But perhaps too much of that energy is coming from the wrong sources of food and it’s putting them at risk. According to research, children who don’t get adequate nutrition tend to be more withdrawn than those that do. This withdrawal makes them less active which may contribute to health problems further down the road.
Healthier Emotional Development
Nutrition, it seems, is a package deal, affecting all aspects of infant health. Research shows that great nutrition can also help reduce emotional dysfunctions. Undernourished children have a higher propensity of developing depression, anxiety, and autism than those who grow up eating healthier.
The downsides of not eating right are sobering. It is estimated that around 90 percent of three-year-olds are in poor health. It’s not because they’re smoking: it’s not because they’re drinking alcohol or failing to do enough exercise. Rather, it’s because of the diet they’re eating. Nearly a third of children under the age of three have regular hospital visits to medicate a diet-related condition. Suffice to say, it shouldn’t be like this.
Moms who make recipes that use healthier ingredients: whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and beans will have a massive impact on their children’s development and health. It’s amazing just how big a difference small changes can make. And you don’t have to buy expensive ingredients. Tinned beans are just as good as cooked from dry. Frozen vegetables are usually as healthy as those fresh in the produce aisle. And whole grains are unbelievably cheap compared to many processed foods, making them a great alternative for forming the bulk of their diet.
Of course, to make such a diet stick, you’ll need plenty of delicious recipes. But with so much choice out there – and so many flavors – you shouldn’t be stuck for ideas. Healthy breakfasts could include things like Ceylon cinnamon-spiced oatmeal with raisins (always choose Ceylon cinnamon because the other type of cinnamon, cassia cinnamon, can be toxic to the liver), smoothie bowl with granola and fruit with muesli. Lunch box meals might include whole wheat pitas with hummus, salad and carrot sticks. And in the evenings, you can make dozens of things, from healthy pizzas to curries to Mexican food, all made from whole, natural ingredients.