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Food On The Go

If you are too busy to cook for your child or simply don't know how, join the ranks of parents who have little control over what their children eat. But better yet, maybe it's time to do something about it. "We go out for dinner nearly every night." Martin says. At least twice a week, the family visits fast food outlets as the children clamour for hamburgers."My wife is too tired to cook by the time she finishes work and anyway, neither she nor the maid cook well."

The children get to eat homecooked food only on weekends, with their grandparents. Does he worry about whether his children are putting junk into their bodies? "No," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes I tell them not to eat things that are too oily or to cut down on the sweets. But I just want them to enjoy their food. I also want to enjoy my food and I think trying to cook at home would be too much of a hassle."

What Are The Consequences?

The trouble is, if parents like Martin - and there are plenty of them around - does not watch what his children eat, "less hassle" now may mean more trouble down the line. Having a regular diet that is high in fat and sugar could turn a chubby child into an obese adult. Obesity in children may put them at a high risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and other health problems in their adult life. 

Being content that the child eats what the adult eats is also not enough. Though younger children are smaller-sized and may eat less food, they actually require more nutrients per kilogram of body weight than older children or adults. Nutritionist Irene says that, for instance, the recommended level of calcium for children aged three to six years is 40mg per  kilogram of body weight a day, whereas children aged seven to 17 years need 19mg of calcium per kilogram of body weight a day.

"Coupled with the smaller stomach capacity of younger children, this means that some supervision is necessary to ensure dietary quality," she says. "Poor nutrition can impede not only physical growth and development, it can also affect cognition and motor development. The adverse effects are particularly evident if nutrition is sub-optimal during the first five years of life." She adds: "Food deemed to be healthy for an adult might not be the optimal s choice for a child." So while drinking low-fat milk may be good for an adult, it is not sufficient for a child below two, who needs the extra energy from full-fat milk.

Putting in the effort to ensure that a young child eats well will pay off in the long-term in terms of physical development, but the bigger payoff may be in ensuring that he develops good eating habits that will last him a lifetime. Research has found that the preschool years, when a child is two to six years old, is a critical period when food preferences are being shaped, as the child transits from an exclusive milk diet to a diet consisting of a variety of food."

What Can Parents Do?

If possible, experts recommends that parents plan or supervise two homecooked meals - breakfast and dinner - daily. She says parents should also eat breakfast with their children to encourage the habit of eating in the morning, and to avoid eating in front of the television so that mealtimes can become quality family time. They can involve the children in meal preparation, too, so that they are more accepting of the food they helped to cook.

The worst thing parents can do is to engage in what American paediatrician Dr Christine Wood calls the "Battle Zone diet". In her book, How To Get Kids To Eat Great and Love It!, she wrote: "The more you force (the child to eat), the less they eat. Battle zones create stress and conflict at the dinner table." However, if busy working parents have no choice but to eat out with their children, they can still make sound food choices. Beverly says: "Food on the go can be nutritionally equal to the homecooked food if chosen carefully."

Here Are Some Tips

Educate Your Child

Get your child to eat right instead of labelling food as "good" or "bad", says Beverly. Educate children on food that should form the basis of an everyday diet, like rice, noodles, chapatti or pasta, fruit and vegetables, fish, chicken, lean meat, milk, and beancurd. And tell them that some food should be taken less often, such as fried food, high-fat food or snacks and drinks.

Don't Use Force

Don't force children to eat healthily. Beverly says: "To compound the problem, children sometimes seem to actively resist efforts to feed them nutritious food. No-one wants mealtime to turn into a battle of wills, with the kids refusing to eat the food so carefully prepared, so it can be tempting for parents to abandon efforts to encourage healthy eating habits." Parents should work out a compromise by allowing them to still enjoy the "junk food". One suggestion is to incorporate a smaller serving of the junk food into the family meal, since the diet is evaluated in its entirety, rather than individual food items.

No Time To Cook Breakfast?

Beverly says you can stock up on low-fat granolas, muesli bars or fruit that children can eat on the way to school. Feed the kids cereal with milk or make a fruit smoothie -which only takes a few minutes - with the child's favourite fruit, yoghurt and milk.

Be A Model

Studies have shown that if the child did not like a certain vegetable, such as broccoli, and if he saw his parents enjoying broccoli, the child's preference and intake of broccoli would increase as a result. So practise what you preach!

Beware Of Menus In Restaurant

Beware of children menus in restaurants or products that are packaged specially for kids. They are usually fried food or could conceal food made from cheap and unhealthy ingredients.

Stock Up Healthy Food

Keep a ready supply of healthy snacks like fruit, vegetables and low-fat yoghurt at home and only allow chips, candy and cookies on the rare occasion. Dr Wood wrote in her book: "Children will find themselves in many situations in which they will have to decide for themselves what and how much food to eat. Realise that these decisions must be allowed. A party with a few hours of junk food eating isn't worth getting annoyed about."

Allow the child to snack. Beverly says: "Growing children do need to snack as it is very difficult to provide all the nutrients they need with only three meals a day." That said, stock up with fruits like bananas and apples, dried fruit, roasted nuts, wholewheat biscuits and cheese for ready-to-eat snacks. "Studies have shown that eating cheese as a snack reduces cavities and protects teeth from cavity-forming bacteria," says Beverly.

Plan And Prepare

You can whip up simple meals like macaroni soup or claypot rice for the children. You just need to prepare the ingredients the night before or in the morning.

Fast And Good?

In recent months, some fast food outlets have been selling salads, healthier burgers and providing nutritional information on their food so consumers can make informed choices. Does this give parents and children good reason to eat it without guilt? The verdict from nutritionists is still the same: Fast food is okay, but not too much.

It should not be assumed that the healthier choices at fast food chains would be healthier with the addition of more vegetables. The fat, as well as the sodium content of the food, can still be relatively higher than the average meal. Fast food can be eaten once or twice a week as part of a balanced and varied diet.

Parents can take the opportunity to educate the children on how to make healthier food choices, like asking for juices, low-fat milk or asking for unsalted fries. Beverly says not all fast food can be labelled as "junk food". "A plain hamburger, for example, can supply about 25 per cent of the recommended intake of protein, zinc and iron, and 20 per cent of calcium if cheese is included.

Just avoid the french fries and soft drinks." At the end of the day, parents must care about their children's diet, and not leave it to others or chance. It is important that parents are motivated and believe in living healthily ...setting exemplary behaviors and attitudes for children to follow.


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