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Children are what they eat

Sameerah Karolia

Giving children healthy food will improve their attention span and also make learning easier.

What we eat and the way we prepare our food are, to a large extent, determined by our traditions and customs, according to the South African guidelines for healthy eating published by the department of health in 2004. It is ultimately the responsibility of parents to ­cultivate and firmly encourage healthy ­habits from a young age because healthy habits grow healthy minds.

Teaching healthy choices
Eating healthily should be a lifestyle choice and parents should lead by example, say Fathima Bux, registered dietician at Together for Health in Houghton, Johannesburg. “Parents need to be aware of the importance of healthy food choices and then educate their children about making these healthy food choices. Once a child understands how his or her body functions and why it is ­important to make healthy food choices, he or she will eat healthy most of the time.”

Bux says that eating healthily is essential for all children because they need to grow and develop sound minds and healthy bodies.

“Children require adequate calories and essential vitamins and minerals for their daily functioning. Healthy eating ensures optimal physical growth and mental development of a child and must be ongoing for these children to become healthy adults.”

Sue Scharf, consulting dietician and manager of Dieticians at Work in Randburg, Johannesburg, also believes that “Healthy eating and a nutritionally balanced diet has a direct influence on growth, behaviour patterns, immunity to disease and long-term good eating habits.”

Eating healthily means eating a balanced diet. This includes carbohydrates, proteins, fruit, vegetables and an adequate amount of water. A healthy meal should include vegetables or fruits, which should constitute at least half the plate. The other half can then be divided between a ­protein and a starch or carbohydrate.

Healthy food, healthy mind
Good eating habits should eat healthy because it directly influence ­schoolwork and concentration, says Bux. “Carbohydrates that take long to be digested will keep a child full for longer and hence improve ­concentration. Highly refined foods and foods or drinks that contain too much sugar will affect a child’s ­concentration and may lead to hyperactivity. Also, insufficient water intake may affect concentration or cause tiredness and restlessness due to dehydration.”

It is not always easy to eliminate all junk food and Scharf suggests that “parents should insist that the healthy foods are eaten before the ‘treat’ is offered. Healthy treats such as popcorn, dried fruit bars, digestive biscuits, biltong, nuts, et cetera can also be offered. Junk food such as high-fat fast foods and takeaways should be limited to only once a week at most.”

Having a healthy lifestyle will result in healthier, happier children who will reap the benefits both at home and at school, she says.

Starting early
Babies and toddlers: Healthy eating should begin at six months, when solid foods are introduced into a child’s life. Starchy foods such as porridge, unsweetened cereals, cracker- breads, rice, pasta, mashed potato and sweet potato should be included in the diet. Protein foods such as ­tender meat, chicken, deboned fish, egg, yoghurt, cheese, beans, lentils and legumes are also good food choices. In addition, fruits and vegetables should also be given. A balanced diet over a two- to three-week period will work better than one forced on a child each day.

Nursery and preschool children: Their diets should be similar to those of a toddler, but a slightly broader variety should be offered. Make use of ­colours, shapes and textures of different foods to make a meal look colourful, interesting and appealing.

Junior primary: Ensure that half the plate includes vegetables or fruit. For lazy eaters, fruit can be cut up in some yoghurt.

Alternatively, a nutritious smoothie containing fresh fruit, yoghurt or milk can be provided. If a child is reluctant to eat ­vegetables, you can cleverly disguise the veggies by steaming and pureeing butternut, pumpkin or squash and then cooking it into a cheese sauce served with macaroni. You can also bake health muffins. Ensure that food from all the food groups is given.

Senior primary: Smoothies, ­salads, whole fruit and vegetables are good options. Try incorporating ­different food groups into a single meal. For example, you could serve a scrambled egg, a slice of bread with some cheese and salad, with a handful of grapes for dessert.

Also encourage the child to drink lots of water.

High school: In high school teenagers become more self-conscious and may not eat enough. It is important for them not to skip meals and to eat at least two fruits a day. A salad is a healthy option.

Carbohydrate foods such as ­wholegrain bread, high-fibre ­cereals, pasta, rice and corn must be included to ensure a sufficient intake of energy. Legumes and lentils are excellent sources of protein and fibre.

Snack ideas

  • Crackers and cheese

  • Cucumber, carrot or celery sticks with hummus or avocado dip

  • Salad

  • Homemade popcorn

  • Sweetcorn crumpets

  • A handful of nuts

  • Low GI bread sandwich (peanut butter, tuna, chicken, cheese)

  • Baked beans or pasta salad

  • Low fat fruit yoghurt

  • Smoothie

  • Corn on the cob

  • Fruit salad

  • A handful of berries, grapes, ­strawberries or litchis

  • Fruit or vegetable skewers (older children)

  • Yoghurt
  • Cheese or chicken sandwiches

  • Rusks

  • Bran muffins

  • Cold meat

  • Digestive biscuits

  • Tuna

  • Dried fruit

Some useful reading material

  • Healthy Children’s Eating Plan by Lorraine Kelly, Ebury Press, 2009
    WHY? The book will change your children’s eating habits in six weeks
  • Children’s Healthy And Fun Cookbook by Nicola Graimes, Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
    WHY? Get 100 fun, step-by-step, easy-to-make, nutritious and mouth-watering recipes that will make children want to eat healthy
  • Smart Foods for Smart Kids: Easy Recipes to Boost your Child’s Health and IQ by Patrick Holford and Fiona MacDonald Joyce, 2010
    WHY? It is a colourful guide designed to help parents
    improve their children’s diet.

Useful classics

  • Grandpa’s Garden Lunch by Judith Caseley, Green Willow Books, 1991 (Book is out of print, so get it at the library)
  • This Is The Way We Eat Our Lunch by Edith Baer and Steve Björkman Scholastic, 1995 (Book is out of print, so get it at the library)

Originally published in: The Teacher

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