Online health tips debunked

healthy eating

Image: US Department of Agriculture

With so much conflicting information online around healthy eating, we spoke to consultant dietitian Lucy Jones for her top tips on childhood nutrition.

Parents get a lot of confusing information about nutrition, especially online. What are the most basic, essential things to know about helping a child eat well?

The National Eat Well Guide should form the base of healthy eating for all children over the age of 5 (working towards it gradually from age 2 for younger children). Take a look here:

It shows us that most of their food intake should be made up from vegetables, fruits, wholegrain carbohydrates and smaller portions of meat, fish and dairy. Most children still consume a lot of sugar meaning that around 15% of their energy is coming from sugar rather than the recommended 5%. The best way to avoid this is to avoid sugary drinks and limit treats like sweets, desserts, chocolate, flavoured milkshakes and ice cream to once or twice a week.

Most of us still don’t eat enough of the good stuff either, like fruits, vegetables and fibre, so finding ways to incorporate more of these is really important. The average intake of fruit and vegetables for children aged 11 to 18 years is only three portions per day for boys and 2.7 portions per day for girls. Only 10% of boys and 7% of girls in this age group meet the “5-a-day” recommendation. Aim to include fruits, vegetables or salad with every meal and if your kids don’t like brown rice or pasta, try doing a 50/50 mix as a compromise. This will still really help to improve their fibre intake.

Our national diet survey also shows that many children and young people don’t get enough essential minerals in their diet such as iron, calcium and zinc so try to include foods like fish, white meat, lean red meat (unprocessed), beans and pulses, nuts and seeds and green leafy veg.

It’s important to remember that children have higher energy requirements for their size compared to adults, and often benefit from eating more little and often. Three small meals and 1-2 snacks often works well and allows a good variety of foods to be offered at different times.

Online sources to trust and avoid

The internet is awash with information about healthy eating, but some of it is based on opinions rather than evidence and written by people without adequate nutrition training. Knowing where to get trusted information is really important. Try some of these:

British Dietetic Association Food Factsheets:

British Nutrition Foundation: Healthy Living

Try to avoid following trends or search terms like clean eating, gluten and dairy free (unless medically indicated due to an allergy etc.), low carb, high protein diets as these tend to be written by unregulated people online and may contain harmful nutritional advice for young people.

Have you got any advice on tackling picky eating in kids?

Fussy eating is really common in young children with one study finding that 50% of parents labelled their 19-24 month olds as ‘picky’. Most children grow and thrive without significant impact on their health and development despite short periods of fussy eating.

For others, however, the behaviour becomes persistent, which can be a very stressful time for parents.

In essence, the key to managing it is to ignore the behaviour, not the problem. This means try to avoid stress and fuss at mealtimes and start working behind the scenes, without making the child too aware of it using the following techniques:

1. Repeated exposure

Keep offering the same foods time and time again as it can take 10, 20 and even 30 exposures to the same food before a child will start to accept it. Most parents stop offering it after only five attempts, so persistence is key.

Simply seeing, touching, learning about and handling food also increases the chances of it being accepted at mealtimes so you could try a grow-your-own vegetable patch or getting them involved in shopping, prepping and cooking.

2. Modelling

Eating as a family and using your children’s friends to influence eating habits can be really helpful (if their friends aren’t fussy eaters too). Children are much more likely to accept foods that they see others eating. Try to get together round a table whenever possible so you can model healthy eating behaviours on a regular basis.

My 10 golden rules for healthy, happy mealtimes are below:

  1. Same time, same place. Establish a stable routine with known times and locations for meals and snacks. Familiar places and times can help childen feel relaxed and comfortable.
  2. You set the rules. Offer simple, healthy food and don’t ask them what they want. Offer a little, and then more if they finish it with lots of praise.
  3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Refusal of new foods is entirely normal. Remove uneaten food without comment. Continue to offer the same food alongside more accepted foods at future mealtimes. It could take 15-25 exposures before acceptance.
  4. No pressure. Don’t force or pressurise your child to eat, studies show this makes it worse.
  5. Resist choccy rewards. Don’t reward eating with liked foods – use a trip to the park / cinema / new magazine instead.
  6. Don’t restrict access to liked foods. This could reinforce their desirability.
  7. Be a role model. Don’t offer vegetables whilst you eat a takeaway. The best mealtimes are where the child has someone to copy such as parents, siblings and friends.
  8. Make mealtimes happy and fun. Avoid telling off or bad atmospheres.
  9. Look at what I did. Involve your child: grow-your-own, pick-your-own, helping with food preparation. Handling foods helps towards acceptance, in the same way as repeated offerings at mealtimes.
  10. Relax about mess. Allow self-feeding from a very early age. Freedom increases their sense of control and helps them eat more.

Making healthy eating fun for all the family

Make a weekly chart of evening meals by looking in recipe books and letting the kids pick out some of these. Then challenge them to get involved, be it with prepping, cooking or serving.

Meals which are great fun include homemade pizzas where everyone picks their toppings and decorates them themselves, or mezze type pick and mixes with salad sticks, tapas small bowls, dips, and lots of different things for them to try.

Keep your family favourites, but aim to try new things each week as a family too.

In the summer, eating in the garden can be great fun, either as a picnic or a BBQ.




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