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food for kids

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Community Educator at Ngala, Stephanie Fairbairn, explores some reasons toddlers become averse to vegetables, and suggests some strategies for getting them to eat more greens.

Have you ever wondered why your once-vegetable-loving baby turned into a vege-phobic toddler at around 14-18 months of age? Why does this happen, and how can we get them back on track with their greens?

Firstly, developmentally, toddlers have a growing sense of independence and this self-determination can also sometimes affect their food preferences. They push boundaries and some tend to say “no” a lot.

Scientists studying behaviour and evolutionary adaptation have proposed some fascinating possible reasons for this. In other words, how humans adapted to their environment in order to survive. Scientists have put forward the idea that babies being carried by an adult in the ancient savannah were relatively safe from harm and potential hazards, but as soon as they became mobile and independent, self-protecting behaviours had to kick in to prevent them from putting anything and everything into their mouths.

This applies particularly to green vegetables. Spinach, broccoli and other green leafy veg possess a group of chemical compounds that provide an ‘alkaloid’ taste – think of the smell when we’ve left the brussel sprouts on too long. Plants have sophisticated defence mechanisms, like spikes, thorns, stingers and chemical poisons to dissuade from being eaten, and many poisons have bitterness as a hallmark taste whereas sweetness tends to be ‘safe’, like breast milk – hence our preference for sweet tastes. The aversion to bitter taste is heightened at toddlerhood, to alert them to potentially harmful things to eat.

The aversion to bitter taste is heightened at toddlerhood, to alert them to potentially harmful things to eat.

To test this theory, researchers from Yale University in the US conducted an experiment with toddlers, looking at how they interacted with non-food items like wooden spoons, metal toys and cardboard, compared to green leafy plants. They found that the toddlers were significantly less likely to touch the green leafy items compared to the other objects, and took longer to reach out to them. There is also research to show that humans are likely to possess a gene that makes us particularly sensitive to detecting bitterness from our taste receptors. As children have more taste sensitivity than adults by nature of their age, adults may not taste flavours as sensitively as children.

 

All this is very interesting, but how do we overcome the battle to get our toddlers to eat their greens? There are several strategies that we can put into practice:

  • What tends to work in the long term so that we enjoy our five vegetables and two fruit a day later in life, is for parents to be seen to role model eating a variety of vegetables and fruit at mealtimes and snacks. You may have noticed already that your toddler copies your actions; what you say, do, and items you use (think mobile phones!). You may have also noticed that there are times they eat food off your plate that they would never eat off their own, this is down to feeling safe to eat food you eat. 
  • Have a fruit bowl in the middle of the table for visibility and accessibility. Think creatively about how you prepare and serve vegetables – cut them in different shapes, use a crinkle cutter, keep vegetables raw rather than cooked, use a dip or sauce, get your toddler to help you wash vegetables and put them on a plate.
  • Be persistent and patient – it can take many times presenting the food to your toddler before it’s accepted.
  • Let your toddler help themselves from a serving plate on the table. 
  • Grow something simple like herbs or tomatoes with your toddler – it’s worth the effort and they learn along the way.
  • Google it! If you are fresh out of ideas pick the brains of millions of others who have gone before. Pinterest and image sites are a good resource for triggering your imagination and creativity.
  • Offer healthy foods and snacks. If your toddler refuses to eat their vegetables, it does not mean they get rewarded with non-healthy food.
  • Relax! We are working towards a long-term habit not a mandatory daily chore. Vegetable success will only come when your child gets there in his own time.
  • Remember, toddler’s tummies are tiny – appropriate servings at this age are two vegetable and two fruit a day – about the size of their own fist.

Remember, toddler’s tummies are tiny – appropriate servings at this age are two vegetable and two fruit a day – about the size of their own fist.

 Unhelpful strategies include:

  • Force feeding: You might win the battle, but you lose the war in the longer term.
  • Cheerleading! Parents who get really excited their two-year-old has finally put the broccoli up to their mouth should not be surprised that this overly emotional response encourages the toddler to press their emotional buttons by putting it down again. It’s a great game!
  • Bribing: ‘If you eat your carrots now, you get ice-cream later’ – this will tend to create a negative association that ‘I have to eat the nasty stuff to get the good stuff’.
  • Telling a toddler that a particular vegetable is good for them and therefore they should eat it. You can try this strategy, but toddlers are not that easily convinced – and it may become the trigger sentence that reinforces an automatic ‘No’.

Check out further information and parenting workshops at www.ngala.com.au

Have you noticed how much you need to pack in your kid’s lunch box as well as to share with the class? What ever happened to the classic Vegemite sandwich?  Now, it’s fruit plates, sushi muffins and so much more!

There’s a lot of talk, this time of year, post-hols-and-with-the-schoolyard-looming, of the humble school lunchbox and what should go in it.

My son is going to Kindy this year, so I’m new to all this. I must admit, I’m a bit gobsmacked by the AMOUNT of food that’s expected to be packed for a six hour stint in the classroom and playground. There seems to be all manner of muffins, and snacks, and fruit platters, and sushi, and rice paper rolls, and bread rolls, and olives with cubed fetta and sundried tomato and some sort of marinated mushroom. Plus a drink, half a sack of popcorn and a tub of yoghurt. And some grapes, preferably seedless.

There are lots of fancy lunchboxes, with nifty little slide-out compartments, so you can send a veritable buffet of food options for lunch and your child can pick and choose. There are fabulous cool bags, and ice block-thingies to keep your sushi fresh, and neat little pockets to store a drink bottle in. It’s all terribly organised, and the expectations are clear. Buffet up, Mama, you have work to do.

I am a child of the 70s; a latchkey kid, with parents who favoured the Free Range approach before it was even called that. Basically, I’m so old I am almost desiccated. Even so, the buffet-lunchbox approach seems excessive to me. I hate to play the ‘in-my-day’ card but, heck, I’ll do it anyway.

In my day, I distinctly remember being sent to school with:

1. A vegemite and cheese sandwich on wholemeal bread.

2. An apple.

3. A mandarin or carrot.

4. Possibly a water bottle, if anyone remembered and usually they didn’t. If I needed a drink, I could find a water fountain somewhere or, failing this, a puddle. Like I said, Free Range. Use your initiative. Find your own way, even if it does involve slurping from a puddle to avoid dying of thirst. All of that.

My lunch was packed in a recycled paper bread bag, which more often than not retained a veritable avalanche of bread crumbs that stuck to everything inside. I did envy the other kids who had proper brown paper lunch sacks, clean and crumb-less, and always hoped that Mum might buy the same. Great expectations, and all that. She never did, by the way, being somewhat embarrassingly before her time in regards to waste and recycling.

If I needed a drink, I could find a water fountain somewhere or, failing this, a puddle.

My school also put on Dry Roll Days semi-regularly. On Dry Roll Day, the whole school abstained from bringing lunches and, instead, purchased plain dry rolls – white and fluffy as clouds – for about fifty cents. The reason for this was twofold. Firstly, it was an attempt, well intentioned but perhaps misguided, to make us comfortable middle class kids experience how it might feel to have limited food options and be a bit hungry. I’m not sure how successful this was, given we had breakfast before school and afternoon tea and dinner afterwards, and could buy as many dry rolls as we pleased, and we did. Secondly, all those fifty cent pieces we handed over for our dry rolls went to a charity, which provided food to people who needed it.

All well and good, but I’m not sure if Dry Roll Day would cut it today. There would be all sorts of worry about malnutrition and the like. Stern notes might even be sent home, reiterating the value of healthy food choices. It sounds dramatic, but I have heard of such things. Teachers policing lunchboxes and pouncing on illegal biscuits, only to have a tetchy word with Mum at the school gate about sending broccoli florets instead. That sort of thing.

It’s all rather daunting if you think too much about it. You can’t spend your whole life dodging behind the lavender bush near the school gate, because you sent a donut to school for your child’s morning tea. Or can you? There are fourteen years of school, counting Kindy and Pre-Primary. That’s a heck of a lot of dodging. Bad for the knees, I’d wager. It’d be better for everyone to Mum up to things, and learn to make rice paper rolls and the like. Even if your child turns up their nose at them and asks for a vegemite sandwich instead.

Not that I’m worried about my boy doing this, of course. No, not one little bit.N

Accredited Practising Dietitian, founder of and Mum of three, Kate Bullen has gone from A for Additives to Z for Zinc, providing you a guide to keeping your family’s food healthy and nutritional.

 

 

 

Additives – may include preservatives that help keep our food safe to eat, or colours and flavours added to make food tastier and more appealing to eat. Most people don’t react to food additives, but some people do. If you think your child might be reacting to food additives, please speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Breakfast – it really is the most important meal of the day. Research has shown that children who eat breakfast are more likely to have a healthy diet. Quick and easy breakfasts include a piece of fruit, some toast, a smoothie or a couple of Weetbix with milk.

Calcium – needed for strong bones, which is most important in growing children. Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are our best sources of calcium. But, we can also get calcium from other foods including almonds, tahini, salmon and dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy.

Drinks – the easiest, cheapest and healthiest drink is water, followed by milk. Drinks are important to stop children getting dehydrated – particularly in our hot summer months. Encourage regular drinks of water throughout the day and get children in the habit of having water as their first choice of drink.

Eggs – boiled eggs are our family’s easy meal. My children will have boiled eggs at least once a week – add a bit of salad to the plate, and some toast – and an easy, healthy and tasty meal is ready to eat. Children typically love eggs and they are a good powerhouse food with plenty of protein and other vitamins and minerals.

Fruit – summer fruit is the best! Watermelon, grapes, mangoes, stonefruit – all so tasty and plentiful. Fruit is great for snacks, but also delicious when whizzed up with some milk and yoghurt to make a smoothie, or used in baking muffins. Frozen grapes are an easy fruit to add into the lunchbox – and stay cool till lunch which increases the chances of them being eaten!

 

Genetically Modified Food – relatively new in Australia, and really comes down to personal choice. As yet we don’t know if there are any long term effects of eating genetically modified food. Most foods will be labelled if they contain genetically modified ingredients.

Hunger – does this phrase sound familiar “Mum – I’m hungry”? I hear this many times a day! Sometimes it’s true hunger, sometimes it’s ‘boredom hunger’. Children typically need to eat every two to three hours as they only have little stomachs – so this can be a clue as to whether they are truly hungry. If you don’t think your child is hungry, try re-directing them to another activity until it is time to eat to avoid ‘boredom eating’.

Iron – if you have a teenager at home, you might want to check if they are getting enough iron as the amount of iron they need increases during the teen years. If they don’t get enough iron, anaemia can develop. The best sources of iron are red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, wholegrain breads and cereals.

Junk food – it is almost impossible to completely avoid junk food, but keep it to special occasions. Once a week is occasional, when junk food is eaten every day then you may need to reassess a child’s diet.

Kilojoules – the preferred unit of measuring energy in Australia, abbreviated to kj. Kilojoules are what you will see referred to on food labels. Calories are the alternative measure of energy. One calorie = 4.186 kilojoules.

Legumes – baked beans, chick peas, lentils and kidney beans are all lentils (sometimes also called ‘pulses’). They are a great sources of protein and fibre – try adding some legumes into your next mince dish. Lentils go almost unnoticed by children, so can be a good one to try.

Meat – choose lean meat with very little visible fat. Red meat such as beef and lamb is a great source of iron and zinc.  Eating lean meat a couple of times a week is a great way to make sure your kids get plenty of these nutrients.

Nuts – fantastic sources of protein, fibre and vitamins. Great snacks for older children, although not appropriate for taking to school due to the risk for any children with nut allergies.

Overweight and obesity – current research shows that 23 per cent of primary school aged children are overweight or obese. If you are concerned about your child, speak with your GP and an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Probiotics – good bacteria to help keep the digestive system healthy.  Most useful to reduce the likelihood of antibiotic-induced diarrhoea. Whenever my children have a dose of antibiotics, I usually get some probiotic yoghurt and milk drinks to have daily for a couple of weeks.

Recipes – involve your children in cooking and planning family meals, and they will be more likely to eat the food. This is a win-win!

Sugar – naturally occurring sugar in fruit and milk is unlikely to be a concern in a child’s diet as they provide other important nutrients. Added sugar in foods (eg. biscuits, cakes) is something to watch out for, as sugar can be easily over-eaten – particularly by children.

Trans Fat – avoid as can increase cholesterol levels. Most often found in processed foods such as biscuits and pastries, fried foods and takeaways.

Underweight – less common than overweight, but can still be cause for concern. If you are worried about the weight of your child, please speak to your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Vegetables – very few of us eat enough vegetables. Children will typically model their eating from their parents. If there is one change you make to your families eating, then I would strongly encourage it to be eating more vegetables. This is a change you won’t regret!

Whole grains – choose whole grains instead of refined and processed grains to get more fibre and antioxidants.

Zinc – essential for normal growth and development in children. Good sources of zinc include lean meat, chicken, fish, lentils, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals.

For more information, head to Kate Bullen’s website www.dietitianonline.com.au