A child's diet should be high in fruit and vegetables, high in complex carbohydrates such as brown bread, brown pasta and brown rice and relatively low in fat and sugary foods. It should also be low in salt. But as many of us know, getting children to eat what is good for them can be easier said than done. So how do you get your child to eat a healthy diet?
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Eating is essentially a learned behaviour — so here are eight simple tips to encourage better eating.
1. Get a fruit bowl
Buy fruit and bring it into the house. Children like to graze and grab food when they are hungry. If there are bags of crisps around they will grab them. But if there is fruit then this is what they will find when they are hungry. So buy grapes, satsumas, small bananas and apples and place them in a fruit bowl. Then put the fruit bowl in a central place where your children can reach it whenever they feel hungry.
2. Use mindless eating in a good way
Where you are when you eat makes a difference to how much you eat and what you might eat. And distraction can be used as a tool. Throw a box of grapes into the back of the car or try giving your child a bowl of chopped up fruit or carrot sticks when they are watching the TV and watch it disappear as they make their way through it without thinking.
3. Buy what you want them to eat
You are in charge of the money, the shopping and the cooking. They are not. So buy vegetables, brown bread and fruit and bring them into the house. Then give them to your children. They cannot eat vegetables if they are not on offer. And will only eat white bread if that's what you buy.
4. Use peer pressure
Children may well not eat cauliflower/broccoli/beans/brown pasta at home but strangely will wolf them down when at a friend's house. So when they are going to a friend's for tea never say "they don't like X" and if you're asked "what do they like?" just answer "feed them whatever you were going to cook". Likewise when you have children back for tea give all the children the same food and even use it as a time to cook a food you know your child says they don't like. If their friend eats it, then they may well eat it as well.
Keeping going is always the key. Children like what they know and know what they get. And some don't like change. But if you just persist, very soon what they know will shift and so will what they like, particularly if you eat with them and show them that you like the food you want them to eat. One day they will just eat it. And don't forget the peer pressure, as this is particularly effective if they have a friend round for tea. If their friend eats their broccoli your child will too.
6. Don't mention it
At its simplest, if you don't mention that the pasta/rice/bread are now brown then children won't notice the difference. They actually don't taste that different particularly when covered in sauce or toasted and buttered.
But if you feel that your children are more sensitive to such things then mix it up for a while. Cook pasta that is half white and half brown and see how they get on. You could mix it in with orange, green and brown pasta so it is all just a different colour and the chances are they will eat it. Nowadays there is even wholemeal bread that looks white that you could use. Then after a while tell them "by the way that's brown bread you've been eating" and shift to the proper thing.
7. Be a good role model
Eat with your children as much as possible and comment on how nice the vegetables are. Instead of saying "eat your beans they are good for you", try saying "have some beans, they are really juicy". Then be seen to eat your own vegetables and enjoy them.
8. Say the right things
Don't say "we're going to eat brown bread as it's healthier". Health doesn't really work as a motivation for children as its too long term and they live in the present. Be positive and say "this bread is much more filling" or "this pasta goes much better with this sauce" or even "this rice is much less mooshy than the other rice" or just "ooh this is lovely". Then eat your food with pleasure in front of them.
Jane Ogden is Professor of Health Psychology at University of Surrey.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.