As a parent, feeding children requires successful parenting skills, an understanding of nutritional requirements, a willingness to set a good household precedent and ensuring sound eating habits for the future.
In our experience with servicing nutrition plans to children, our youngest being just 7 years old, there have been some fundamental issues that are initiated by parents early on in the child’s development that cause weight problems, poor eating habits and a bad relationship with food.
This usually becomes problematic when:
- The child is a picky eater
- Food is used as a reward
- Parents are unsure as to the requirements of their child including nutritional requirements and portion sizes
- Poor eating habits already exist in the household
We will address each of these and provide strategies to better your child’s physical and mental health, starting with their nutrition.
Child obesity affects 1 in 4 children in Australia and as the level of excess weight increases, so too does the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, some musculoskeletal conditions and some cancers. In addition, being overweight can hamper the ability to control or manage illness and chronic disorders. Managing a child’s weight at any age can pave the way for a healthy mind and body as they develop through adolescence and adulthood.
Table of Contents
The Picky Eaters
Many parents have good intentions for their child’s diet, though feel hindered by the fact that they like ‘less of the good stuff’ and more of the ‘junk’. So instead of feeding for health and fuel they just don’t want their child going hungry. Generally, this means more food sources that are less nutrient-dense which can generally mean a higher calorie intake.
Picky eating isn’t really about food. It is about control, a reluctance to try new things, sensory sensitivity, chewing and/or swallowing problem, or another issue. We encourage from an early age to explore diversity in your child’s diet and if they’ve surpassed the ‘early age’ bracket then try and slowly bring in new foods without stressing the necessity to eat one food group on the plate over another, which can often cause rebellion.
Food as a reward or comforter:
In a recent study, researchers found that children were more likely to turn to food when they were upset and eating when they weren’t hungry if their mothers used food as a strategy for soothing them. In another study, researchers found that mothers who reported using food to soothe their infants had heavier children. When emotions are attached to a child’s eating, it creates a tendency to divorce the parent of what is reasonable and acceptable in regards to food choices in order to emotionally satisfy the child. Refrain from rewarding or comforting your child with food and instead find a substitution with a greater benefit to the child’s mind and body, like a novelty activity. For example, flip out, ice skating etc. Try not to set a foundation in the household for emotions to trigger a behaviour pattern of resorting to food. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when a child is emotional ensure they still follow through with eating their meals and don’t stop eating as an emotional reaction.
Uncertainty as to the requirements of a child:
There is clouded speculation amongst parents in terms of what nutritional intake is required for children, together with the appropriate portion sizes for their age and genetic makeup which determine the weight and build of the child. The nutritional requirements of a child are based on the same principles as nutrition for adults. Everyone needs the same types of nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat:
- Meats and dairy are good for meeting essential protein requirements through foods such as seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and legumes, yogurt, milk and cheese.
- Fruit, vegetables and grains such as bananas, apples, oranges, broccoli, carrots, sweet potato, white potato, bread, oats, cereal and pasta are good sources to meet carbohydrate requirements.
- Nuts, avocado, salmon, full cream dairy products, nut butter etc. are good for meeting essential fat requirements, but remember these foods are high in calories, containing 9 calories per gram of fat as opposed to 4 calories per gram of protein and carbohydrates.
Therefore, the requirements are the same as adults nutritional needs. Children, however, need different amounts of specific nutrients at different ages. See below the caloric requirements recommended for boys and girls:
- Girls and boys between 2-3 years old require roughly 1,000-1,400 calories per day, depending on growth and activity level.
- Girls and boys between 4-6 years old require 1,200-1,800 calories per day, depending on growth and activity level.
- Boys between 4-8 years old require 1,200-2,000 depending on growth and activity level.
- Girls between 9-13 years old require 1,400-2,200 calories, depending on growth and activity level.
- Girls between 14-18 years old require 1,800-2,400, depending on growth and activity level.
- Boys between 14-18 years old require 2,000-3,200, depending on growth and activity level.
While you don’t have to be obsessively calorie counting, giving the right intake can be facilitated through serving the right portion sizes to the child. If you have a balanced dinner of lean protein like a marinated chicken fillet, potato wedges and vegetables, use the palm of your hand as an indicator of chicken portion as it’ll be roughly 100g. Another tip is to be sure to fill the plate with vegetables if your child is hungry, rather than something less nutritious like wedges. Spice up your veggies by adding a little bit of honey to your carrots, making shapes out of vegetables or sprinkling with a bit of cheese.
If your child’s meal is toppling over the plate and you’re aware that they’ve had full meals throughout the day, be mindful of portion sizes and their intake requirements.
So where do parents go wrong?
Imagine giving your child a bowl of cereal for breakfast with full cream milk (390 calories), then a piece of fruit and muesli bar for recess (160 calories) and a lunch order consisting of a pie and chocolate milk for lunch (500 calories). Then they might come home and have a packet of crackers and a piece of fruit (200 calories) followed by a chicken schnitzel, mashed potato and carrot dinner (490 calories) … and then a little fun-size Freddo for dessert (100 calories). So for a moderately active 6-year-old, it’s easy to see how a diet like this (which is extremely common) can clock up calories potentially put the child over their required intake.
What we suggest..
Try making them low-calorie snacks and if dinner is going to be quite calorie-dense, be mindful while making lunch. Remember your child’s requirements over the entirety of the day and not just focused on in one particular meal. Fruits, yogurts, selected muesli bars, rice cakes and cheese make for great lunch box snacks while chicken barley wraps, ham sandwiches, and rolls make filling lunches and selected bread varieties are a great way to add fibre to your child’s diet.
If poor eating habits already exist in the household:
Your example and lead in the household ultimately paves the way for the child’s eating habits down the track. By setting a good relationship with food by diversely accepting all foods and avoiding categorising food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, this will discourage rebellion and the child wanting to consume based on feeling like they can’t. Eating with your child in this circumstance can show moderation and control and seeing you enjoying fruits and vegetables in a balanced diet can set good foundations for similar eating preferences.
There are always a handful of children that are crowded around the party food table at a birthday because it is such a novelty from what they’re confined to at home. While as a parent you may be of the belief that banning foods in the house is better for the child, in fact, studies have shown that children that are denied treats have a tendency to fanatically overcompensate by obsessing over food. It’s not suggested to offer your children pizza and chips every day or cave into their demands for ice cream at breakfast. But if they do ask for a treat, say: ‘OK, why don’t we have it on Friday after dinner?’.
Be neutral in your approach and compromise, but not so you’re using food as a reward or forbidding it altogether. The next thing you know, they’ll be swapping their lunch for chips and snacks with friends at school to make up for lost opportunities at home. By incorporating variety and balance habitually within the household, it can aid in removing the emotional fuel that can spark poor eating habits.
So conclusively, like adults children have nutritional needs in protein, fat and carbohydrate intakes as well as a range for energy consumption daily. Meeting these requirements needs not only a fair and reasonable knowledge of nutrition but also good parenting governed by seeing the best interests of the child both short and long term. Balance, moderation and a good example is key to ensuring your child grows healthily, both physically and mentally towards sustainable food behaviours throughout their lifetime.
1. Blissett, J., E. Haycraft, and C. Farrow. 2010. “Inducing Preschool Children’s Emotional Eating: Relations With Parental Feeding Practices.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition92: 359-65. Musher-Eizenman, D. and S. Holub. 2007. “Comprehensive Feeding Practices Questionnaire: Validation of a New Measure of Parental Feeding Practices.”Journal of Pediatric Psychology 32(8): 96–972.
2. Stifter, C. A., S. Anzman-Frasca, L. L. Birch, and K. Voegtline. 2011. “Parent Use of Food to Soothe Infant/Toddler Distress and Child Weight Status. An Exploratory Study.”Appetite 57: 693-99