Healthy eating for children means offering and allowing children to consume a variety of foods, ensuring that they get everything they need - vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and proteins. By getting the proper amount of nutrients each day, children will be well-nourished, and their bodies will have all they need for normal growth and development.
The United States leads the world in the number of children who are both malnourished and obese. While being malnourished and obese seems a contradiction in terms, knowing that many children suffer from both helps to solidify the fact that what children eat is just as important as how much they eat.
Importance of Healthy Eating
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a majority of children do not meet their daily nutritional needs 5 out 7 days a week. The USDA reports, “Two-thirds of teens do not get enough zinc or vitamin E, one-half do not get enough calcium and one-third do not get enough iron or vitamin B6. Of American teenage girls, 75 percent do not get enough iron.”
Dietary deficiencies can lead to a variety of health issues and problems. For example, as zinc is need for a healthy immune system, and normal growth, those with low levels of zinc can experience: hair loss; impaired smell or taste sensation; diarrhea; rough or dry skin, and slow wound healing. Low levels of calcium, called Hypocalcemia, can cause muscle twitching and spasms, numbness and tingling of the fingers and toes, and mild depression or irritability.
Obesity, defined as a body mass index of 30 or greater, is an epidemic in the United States, where 34 percent of adults are over-weight and 30.5 percent are obese. Between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of overweight and obese children ages six to eleven has tripled, from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent. During this same time period, the percentage of overweight and obese adolescents aged twelve to nineteen has more than tripled, increasing from 5 percent to 18.1 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overweight and/or obese children are more likely to become obese adults.
Families should learn to cook, serve – and consume as a family – a healthy meal of lean proteins, vegetables, and good carbohydrates. In addition, parents, teachers, and medical professionals should aid in educating the child on eating healthy and finding alternatives to their former unhealthy choices.
Whether due to limited activity, limited time for school meals, vending machine access or the presence of fast food venues in school cafeterias, many believe the school systems are partly to blame for the malnutrition and obesity epidemic in our nation’s youth. Healthy eating for children is important at school, too.
During school months, the majority of children have a limited amount of physical activity during the day. Some may have an hour total activity between gym class and recess, while others, in schools where cut-backs have removed phys ed from the school curriculum, have as little as fifteen minutes, if any at all. It doesn’t get better after the school bell rings, as many children retreat to their room, “vegging out” in front of a computer, television, texting or playing video games.
Many school cafeterias are catering to outside fast food vendors. School cafeterias are beginning to resemble the local mall’s food court. Add the decrease amount of time kids and teens are given for lunch – some as little as 15 minutes – and it only comes to reason that children have neither access nor time to get the adequate nutrition at school.
There are ways that schools can bounce back and help all children become healthier. Cafeterias can remove the vendors and their unhealthy food choices, replacing them with nutritious options – such as all natural hot dogs and hamburgers, whole wheat buns, and fresh fruit. Even the pizza options can be healthier if served with whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese, and nitrate-free pepperoni. Schools can supply a “bake sale check list,” suggesting options to traditional, high calorie, high fat, baked goods, such as dark chocolate in place of milk chocolate, reduced sugar recipes, or organic options.
Another option available to help combat these unhealthy school lunches, is to adopt a “do it yourself” mentality. Parents can choose to allow their children to bring a lunch from home that they have helped to plan, prepare, and pack. By bringing their own lunch, children and teens no longer have to worry about reducing their already short lunch period by standing in line. In addition, both children and parents know that the lunch choices are healthy and taste good.
Parents Can Help
Most families today require that both parents work outside jobs. This makes it very difficult for parents to ensure that their children are eating healthy and well-balanced meals. However, parents can be sure to offer healthy options by knowing what’s in the cupboards and the refrigerator, so children will have healthy options available to them, even when their parents aren’t home.
Parents can also help by being a good role model. Children often to look to their parents for direction, and have a strong impulse to imitate what it is they see. It’s not realistic to ask your children to eat their vegetables when on your plate is simply a burger and chips. Your actions can easily undo your good thoughts, directions, and intentions.
Healthy Eating for Children Begins with Teaching Good Habits
There are several ways to begin teaching children good habits for healthy eating. These include:
Eat at home - Eating at home allows parents and children to eat healthier, as there are no questions as to food content or how food is cooked.
Make time to have regular family meals - Children do well with structure, and knowing that dinner will be served at approximately the same time each day, with the entire family sitting down together for a meal, offers a sense of stability, comfort, and gives your children something to look forward to. In addition, it gives parents and children alike an opportunity to talk and discuss things that might not be otherwise due to time constraints, jobs, or school.
Involve the whole family - Children love to help, so let them. Giving children smaller jobs – such as opening packages, measuring ingredients, cracking eggs – makes them feel important, and allows them to take pride in their accomplishments. As a bonus, children will be more likely to eat a healthy meal or a food they have never tried before if they helped prepare it.
No Food Fights - Never insist that a child clean his plate, or force a child to sit at the table until they do. This will only cause a larger resistance to eating, not cause a child to give in. Also, using food as a bribe or reward can lead to children using food as a comfort or coping tool. In the long term, this can lead to issues with food and weight.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). https://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. NCHS Health E-Stat: Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents. (June 2010). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_07_08/obesity_child_07_08.htm.