Feeding kids isn’t easy: You want them to eat more greens, while they only want to eat chicken nuggets and hot chips then skip straight to dessert.
(Don’t pretend you weren’t the same at their age.)
Parents must deliver all the nutrients required for development, balance healthy foods with sometimes foods, negotiate with fussy eaters — oh, and teach their offspring the fundamentals of nutrition and set them up with a relationship with food that will define their entire lives.
Dr Joanna McMillan is a leading Australian dietitian who’s partnered with fitness and nutrition hub Voome to craft Healthy Families, a program aimed at helping mums and dads make healthy food choices with minimal drama.
Speaking to Coach, McMillan lays out everything you need to know about feeding your family.
Sam Downing: What’s the average Aussie kid’s diet like, and in what key areas could it improve? I’m guessing “too much sugar” and “not enough veggies” are likely answers…
Joanna McMillan: Aussie kids are basically eating too much junk food and not enough plant food, including veggies, fruit, nuts, wholegrains and legumes. They eat too much added sugar, too much refined starch and not enough fibre.
We also know that many teenagers are not meeting their calcium requirements as their intake of dairy products is less than younger children. Magnesium is also low in this age group, reflecting their poorer food choices.
Overall, we also have a big problem with overweight and obesity in our kids and that has to be addressed through nutrition and lifestyle changes for the whole family.
RELATED: How crafty parents can trick their children into eating more fruit and vegetables
What are your thoughts on strategies that “trick” kids into eating vegetables — like blending them up into other foods?
I don’t mind a bit of sneaking veggies into kids foods, but if you only ever use that approach you don’t teach them to like them!
How can parents make vegetables more appealing to kids?
I think the one thing we always forget is that none of us like to eat food that is not delicious… so make veggies delicious! One of the biggest mistakes families make is serving the kids their veggies steamed or boiled on the side – and often overcooked. This makes the texture horrible and the taste either bland or in the case of broccoli and other brassica veggies, sulphurous smelling and tasting.
If you cook veggies well and flavour them, they are a whole load more enjoyable. Even lightly steaming and then drizzling with extra virgin olive oil and seasoning with a pinch of salt and pepper makes a difference.
But you can also add sauces — make them integral to the meal rather than on the side — or flavour with a pesto, grated cheese, feta or sprinkle with slivered almonds or pepitas. Suddenly the meal is quite different.
If you’re the parent of a fussy eater, what’s one of the most important first steps to changing their relationship with food (without driving yourself crazy)?
Don’t make a drama of it! Try to keep mealtimes pleasant and don’t let the table become a battleground.
Kids won’t let themselves starve so don’t cave to always just serving them what you know they’ll eat, or giving in to them leaving your lovingly prepared meal and giving them an alternative. Encourage them to taste everything on their plate, and if they really don’t like it they can leave it, but be clear there is nothing else.
Serving new foods alongside trusted favourites can also be a good strategy.
Eat as a family where possible and make sure you model enjoyment with eating and mealtimes so that they relax around food and look forward to mealtimes. Finally, don’t expect success overnight!
Why are some children more likely to be fussy eaters? Is it a learned behaviour, or an innate personality trait, or some mix of the two?
We don’t really know but yes, it is likely to be a mixture of reasons.
Some kids can be fussy due to associations with earlier eating experiences. If they were sick in their toddler years, for example, that can lead to long-term problems with chewing and eating more adult foods.
Some kids have issues with textures or strong tastes. For others it is learned through copying adults – if you don’t eat your veggies they probably won’t either – or through realising they have some power over you when it comes to food!
It is normal for kids to go through a fussy stage and sometimes we as parents unwittingly don’t help them through it and it becomes prolonged. The tricky part is if the behaviours are well-established. If this is the case, your family might benefit from professional help.
How do you suggest talking to kids about food in ways that encourage them to have a healthy relationship with what they eat?
Role model your own good relationship with food and with your own body. Never dis your own body in front of your child. Focus on health rather than weight and discuss in age appropriate language why it is important we eat well, and don’t eat too much junk.
It’s better to talk about everyday foods and sometimes foods rather than labelling foods as good or bad. Then make mealtimes a place for chatting and enjoying food, rather than another chore to be done in the day.
What sort of consequences might happen later in life if children don’t have a healthy relationship with food?
Eating disorders, body image problems, anxiety and insecurity, and then of course the myriad of health problems we see from poor eating from overweight, underweight, nutrient deficiencies to chronic disease in the long term.
A lot of parents feel quite anxious their child isn’t eating well enough or doesn’t have a good relationship with food — especially parents of fussy eaters.
Please don’t feel anxious. My new Healthy Families program is designed to help families and not to provide yet more pressure to be “perfect”, whatever that may be!
Give yourself praise for doing the best you can and recognise that we don’t live in a microcosm of our own household and everyone, including the kids, are under the influence of many other factors and situations. Hopefully I can help parents to feel empowered to know what to do, tricks and quick fixes to help them get and stay on track and generally to make healthier eating easier for the whole family.
What’s your go-to shortcut for busy parents struggling to find time to prepare healthy meals for their families?
Be prepared. If you have key foods in your pantry, fridge and freezer you can pretty much always throw together a quick meal in 20-30 minutes. Get the kids involved too – in cooking, setting the table and/or clearing up afterwards. When you do cook, make extra to eat the next night too, or to pop in freezer for another day.
And it’s OK to get takeout or to eat out on those nights when you really can’t or don’t want to cook!
What are some challenges you’ve faced with feeding your own family?
I have one fairly fussy son and one who loves his food. It’s taught me that kids really are different inherently in their appetite and what they need to learn about how they eat.
Like most families my kids also love dessert, lollies and the sweet stuff, basically. That can be a battle to get them to understand why we don’t have these foods every day. A trip to the cinema is torture for me when they want to fill that giant cup with lollies!
But for the most part we manage to find a balance and my strategy of “whatever I put on the table is all they get for dinner” has mostly won. If they don’t eat it, that’s tough. There is nothing else.
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