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keeping kids healthy

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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

Ari takes inspiration from her own childhood when planning school holidays for her child.

Okay, so now that I’m a mother, I can see the flawed and horrible logic that is the summer School Holidays.

SO LONG! Why so long? And why so sunny? Not only do the weeks last forever, each day seems like about ten days because the sun never goes down so you can’t do the old, it’s-dark-now-so-go-to-bed-and-leave-me-in-peace trick until about 9.00pm. Gruesome. Badly planned. Too hot. Whoever decides on these things needs a couple of mothers on the committee to arrange things properly.

When I was a kid, I loved Summer Hols, even though they mostly consisted of going to swimming lessons. I mean, there were a LOT of lessons and they kinda sucked. We didn’t get merit certificates for putting our heads under the water, or anything like that. No, me and my three siblings used to front up to the fifty metre non-solar-heated pool and some Old Boiler would make us fling ourselves into the lap-lane and bitch at us about our stroke. Every. Single. Day. I joke not. The only day we didn’t go was Sunday, and that’s because we had to go to church. My folks liked structure.

All of us kids were at different swimming levels and each lesson lasted about an hour – no pithy 25 minutes in a heated pool for us – so we had to hang around the local pool for about five hours by the time we got through everyone. In between lessons my mother, who engineered the annual Swimming Lesson Bonanza, would instruct us to do about a million more laps for ‘practise’, while she leisurely swam about seven lanes away from us pretending, I see in retrospect, that we didn’t belong to her.

Anyway, all that lapping took us through to about 2.00pm every day, and after five hours of swimming in waters that felt sub-Arctic, we had a lot of our collective Energizer Bunny burnt out of us. Basically that meant we were too tired to whinge and fight at the level we were accustomed to. Plus, we were starving.

My mother is a wily woman, non? She was deliberately, and delightedly, onto something and, now that I am a harried veteran of School Hols myself, I can see she utilised this strategy shamelessly throughout my childhood.

Summer hols meant overdosing on swimming lessons and Old Boilers brandishing megaphones but I think our winter holidays were worse. In winter, we’d take a trip down to Bluff Knoll and have to climb the mountain pretty much constantly. Once was never enough.

I, personally, do not understand the point of mountain climbing. I know there is a point and people feel all I’ve-Conquered-The-Mountain kind of thing when they’ve slogged up the rock face and are standing at the top, but I am quite happy for the mountain to conquer me. The mountain can win and I am MORE THAN OKAY with that. There. I said it. Go mountain. Victory is yours. Unfortunately, my folks are conquering types so I have actually conquered Bluff Knoll – miserably and without grace – more times than I care to recall. Sorry ‘bout that mountain. Won’t happen again.

If we didn’t climb the mountain, we’d go on long bush walks – like six hours or something – with an apple and a vegemite roll for sustenance, and only one another for company. I am not sure why. My parents thought this kind of thing was Fun With A Capital F. I mean, they really dug stumbling along some bush track for hours playing ‘I Spy’ for kicks. There’s only so many times you can Spy a Tree, if you know what I’m saying.

And being winter it rained quite a bit. Basically it rained whenever we had to do a Challenging Outdoor Activity, which was every day. It did not matter if there were fecking hail stones the size of golf balls – we still went mountain climbing or roaming around in the wilderness. My mother packed an odd assortment of raincoats for such weather and flung them happily at us, along with random too-big gumboots, and off we went.

We did complain to our parents, of course. I might have, ahem, complained more than anyone else but they took precisely zero notice and we still had to do these God-awful Extreme Sport like holidays, except we didn’t look cool like they do in Extreme Sport commercials, we just looked random and mis-matched, dodging hailstones in our weird raincoats.

So anyway, this School Hols we had a few weeks of the child bouncing-off-the-walls and me and the other half were starting to get a bit desperate and tetchy. The days were sunny and hot and, above all, long. So, so long.

“I have the solution,” I said, one morning after trying and failing to persuade the child to bounce on the trampoline in the broiling son without Mummy.

The other half raised an eyebrow.

“He needs to know how to swim better than he does,” I gabbled. “Much, MUCH better. We need to book him into swimming lessons EVERY DAY for the rest of the holidays RIGHT NOW.”

I grabbed my phone and started dialling swim schools and, gosh darn it, I did not stop dialling until someone told me they would take him the very next day. Huzzah!

And so he went. And he put his head under the water and blew bubbles and stuff. And he got a merit certificate and a colouring in book and lots of high fives. Unfortunately, it seems Old Boilers are now extinct, but he still got tired-ish. Sort of.

Next hols, I’ve decided that we’re off to Bluff Knoll. I plan to nominate myself for tea duty, while my husband and son conquer the mountain.

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