Every day we are exposed to ultra-processed packaged food and drink that is fancy looking, hyper-palatable, super-cheap, and easily accessible. And generally unhealthy.
Whether online, on the TV, at school, on public transport, or at the weekend sporting match, it is hard to avoid the temptation of such offerings by the “Big Food” industry.
In the face of this, getting kids to eat well can be challenging. While the occasional junk or ultra-processed food is okay, these should not be the mainstay of anyone’s diet. What one eats is inextricably linked with health outcomes and quality of life, in the short and long term.
We must do what we can to ensure kids are provided with healthful, nourishing foods each and every day. This encourages good health, supporting their growing bodies and brains while influencing how children feel and go about their everyday lives.
Eating well can also protect against malnutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Poor-quality diets are now believed to be the single biggest risk factor for the global burden of disease. Many children are not getting the nutrition they need.
Assessing the eating habits between 2015-2017 of 132,489 European children aged 6-9 years, as part of the European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI), the World Health Organization (WHO) found only 22.6% consume vegetables every day.
Sadly, nearly 10% consume soft drinks every day.
Statistics for Australian children are also worrying.
In 2017-18, only 4.4% – that’s 1 in 25 children – aged 5-14 years ate enough vegetables. 34% of children aged 5-14 consumed sugary drinks 1-3 days a week, and 6.3% did so daily.
We need urgent action by policy-makers to encourage healthy eating by children (action that would help parents and carers along the way). Ensuring whole foods are accessible and affordable, ceasing junk and ultra-processed food advertising to children, and implementing strict criteria and procurement policy for healthy food and drink offered at schools, hospitals, reaction centres and other public places would be a start.
Removing junk food from checkouts at supermarkets is another idea, taking away from kid’s the temptation to ask for (or demand) some shiny-packeted junk you don’t want them to have as you pay for your weekly shop.
What can we do?
In the meantime, there are things you can do each day to encourage healthy eating habits for the kids in your care.
- Keep packaged and ultra-processed food and drink in the home to a minimum. Always keep in mind that you have control over what food and beverages kids are exposed to in the house, as well as any food you send your kids off with.
- Fill your fridge and pantry with whole or minimally processed foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole food dips, nuts, seeds, and plain dairy are good places to start for a quick snack.
- Get the kids involved in preparing meals and even growing food! This can foster an appreciation and respect for healthful foods.
- Do your best to serve meals comprising mostly whole foods. Be patient and persistent if kids resist new flavours or foods. Importantly, don’t force them. You choose what goes on the plate; they choose what to eat.
- Always put something wholesome on the plate you know they will eat when transitioning to or trying out new whole foods. Eventually, they should give any new stuff a go. This can be more successful if meals such as dinner are eaten together. Role modelling is essential for kids to adopt healthy eating habits.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Most of us live in an environment where it is pretty much impossible for anyone to avoid being exposed to ultra-processed and junk food. Getting kids to eat well is challenging, but every healthy food consumed instead of something unhealthy is a win.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)