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Building good eating habits

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Lindiwe Whati
Building good eating habits 

You have seen it. They pull their faces at the sight of any food that is green, yellow or red! (broccoli, carrots and sweet peppers) You have also moved to the dark side and considered chips to be a vegetable. (After all, they are also made from potatoes!) 

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

A lot goes into raising a healthy well-rounded child. The first seven years of a child’s life are widely regarded as indicative of the kind of adult a child will become, with many behaviours instilled during this important time. Making sure that a child develops healthy eating habits is one of the important behaviours that need to be honed during this critical period. For this article, we will focus on the ages three to six years of early life and refer to children of this age as preschoolers.


There are many factors that can influence your child’s eating behaviour, depending on your circumstances. Most working parents leave home at the crack of dawn and just make it in time for bedtime. For the globetrotter, quality time with your child is furthermore limited by long-distance travel and different time zones. The stay-at-home mom or dad has a long list of household chores, sports practise events, endless shopping and community obligations to fulfil and therefore rarely has the luxury of just sitting and ‘watching your child grow’.


There are the grandparents who step in to take care of them during the day on date night and during school holidays. There is the child’s nanny who bathes, feeds and keeps her entertained all day. For many parents, there is the reality of preschools and aftercare where teachers and childminders take care of their child while they work to provide for the family. Other children at the local park, at play dates, family restaurants and the inevitable birthday and family celebrations also play a huge role in influencing your child’s behaviour.

Environmental influences such as the availability of fast foods will affect what you buy for your child, thereby also influencing your child’s eating habits. Even the well-intentioned play date can have your child eating inappropriate food served by the hosting parent. Fortunately, as is the case with the many aspects of raising a child, there are ways and opportunities to impart what is the most critical to their growth and development. As a parent you have the responsibility to provide children with what they need, to model certain behaviours and teach the people who help take care of your child to do the same.

There are four key habits that are important and appropriate for pre-schoolers, which caregivers are in a position to instil. Caregivers include the parents, nannies, grannies, relatives and preschool staff – basically anyone who looks after your child for a considerable period of time.

Ensure regular meals
Children aged three to six years have small stomachs. Therefore, they can only take small amounts of food at a time. Whatever they eat must be packed full of nutrients. Therefore, four to six meals and snacks per day should be enough to provide them with what they need in amounts that they can handle.

The planned meals and snacks do not only provide nutrition, but they support the development of healthy eating habits. For example, children who are taught to have breakfast every day from a young age, have been found to be more likely to do so even after they have started formal schooling. Furthermore, children will learn to eat unhurried, focusing on the tastes and textures of the food. Eating slowly also teaches them to recognise a full tummy so they know when they have to stop eating. Lastly, as a parent, planning a meal means you will have to think about what your child will eat and as a result you will likely give healthy foods compared to when you hurriedly fix them ‘something’ to eat. You should make sure that your child takes their meal at the table and not in front of the television. Also make sure that at least one meal a day is with a family member or better yet, the entire family.

There are some parents who may feel that they should let the child dictate when it’s time to eat. The problem with this is that eating is rarely a priority for any child. They have more important things to concern themselves with, like playing with their pets or toys. Inevitably, they will simply not eat, and their growth and development will be negatively affected. Furthermore, you will not be able to monitor when they have eaten well and when they haven’t. Since a consistently poor appetite is a sign that something is wrong (e.g. the child may be developing a cold), you will not be able to see that particular warning sign.

It is important for those who have a nanny to also teach them about healthy eating habits. To teach them specifically about mealtimes, check in on them regularly to ensure that they have provided the meals and snacks as per schedule until it has become a habit for them. When it comes to relatives taking care of your child, it may be more difficult as they may not appreciate being taught childcare by someone whom they have raised to be the ‘well-functioning adult’ that you are. It may be useful in these cases to highlight how different the environment that you are raising your child in is to how you, the parent, was raised – therefore requiring a different approach. Grandparents are especially notorious for not following schedules and when this happens, bring your child back to the schedule as soon as possible and they will come to understand that granny’s schedule is not the norm.

Ensure a variety of foods
It is quite common for preschoolers to prefer a specific food for main meals and/or a particular snack – for example, the little boy who could have macaroni and cheese for breakfast, lunch and supper! This is, in fact, very normal and is acceptable to a point. Consider it to be his favourite food and indulge him maybe twice a week if you can, but don’t encourage the behaviour by keeping a tubful in the fridge just for him or resort to the tub each time he refuses to eat anything else served to him. Foods contain various nutrients in levels varying from low to high, and in some cases even zero amounts. It is only through ensuring variety that the child’s diet will include everything they need.

Different nutrients are also needed in different quantities. Let’s start with macronutrients which are nutrients needed in large quantities by the body. Carbohydrates are where most of the energy needed for the body to function should come from. Examples of energy-giving carbohydrates are bread, rice, cereals, pita and crackers. With carbohydrates, parents should also prioritise the wholegrain variety to provide the body with fibre – the good stuff that allows your child to have regular bowel movements. Examples of carbohydrates with high amounts of fibre are wholewheat pasta, wholegrain breads and cereals, and brown rice. Providing a variety of energy-giving carbohydrates means using a different one as the basis of each meal. As a basis of the meal, you may give a cereal for breakfast, wholegrain bread as a snack, spaghetti for lunch and rice for supper.

The second macronutrient is protein which are found in meat, fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, milk and legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils). Proteins are the body’s building blocks, are what the hormones in our bodies are made of and have an important role to play in the functioning of our immune system. Proteins can also be broken down to produce energy, but they are not meant to be the main source of energy. In fact, when proteins are the preferred source of energy in growing children, as is the case with an adequate diet, it can lead to a condition called wasting. It may even stunt their growth if allowed to go on for very long.

A child’s diet should include both plant and animal protein, so as to get the different quality proteins from both. Some parents may choose to avoid certain animal proteins and follow a vegetarian diet. As this diet still includes eggs, milk, legumes and in most cases even fish, a child’s needs can still be met on such a diet. It is, however, not recommended to have a growing child on a vegan diet, which excludes eggs, milk and fish. Parents who have their children on a vegan diet for religious or health reasons must be well informed to ensure that sufficient amounts of other foods are included to make up for the animal products which have been restricted from the diet. In most cases, this requires giving your child vitamin and mineral supplements which should be prescribed by a healthcare professional.

Next up, we have fats. They provide energy, but double the amounts that we get from carbohydrates and fats and therefore we don’t need as much. Fats keep the body warm, protect vital organs such as the liver and heart, and are an important part of cells – including those that are key to the functioning of the brain. Fats are relatively easy to include in a meal, as they form part of the majority of home-cooked foods. They are added as oils or butter when cooking, and are used as bread spreads (e.g. peanut or sunflower). Fats are naturally found in dairy (except for fat-free variants), in meat cuts and under the skin of chicken.

Some essential fats like Omega-3s – so called because the body cannot make them and therefore they must be included in the diet – are needed for the optimal functioning of the brain. Examples of good food sources are tuna, pilchards, mackerel, salmon, flaxseed and walnuts. Certain foods such as eggs, spreads and milk are fortified with essential fats and offer you another way of getting such fats into your child’s diet. Most families consume enough food sources of plant and animal fats. You can ensure that your child gets enough essential fats by giving oily fish at least twice a week or ensuring that your milk of choice is fortified with essential fats.

Micronutrients are those that are needed in small quantities by the body and without which the body systems would simply stop working. These are the various water- and fat-soluble vitamins as well as minerals. A group of water-soluble B vitamins, commonly referred to as B-complex, are needed for the body to produce energy to function and stay alive. B vitamins cannot be stored by the body and therefore daily intake is necessary. If one takes in too much of such vitamins, the excess gets excreted in the urine. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, so they can be stored by the body and excessive amounts can build up to toxic levels. Fat-soluble vitamins play a key role in ensuring your child’s growth and development, as well as maintaining a good immune system.

Some well-known minerals needed by the growing child include calcium, iron, iodine, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc. Minerals have, amongst many others, the following functions: the development and maintenance of bones and teeth, the forming of red blood cells and helping in their proper function, and maintaining healthy hair, nail and skin. Vitamins and minerals are found in various forms of vegetable leaves and their fruits as well as in animal products.

It would be hard to remember which foods to give for each nutrient – be it macro- or micronutrients. Ensure that your child receives all the nutrients they need by ensuring that whatever goes onto their plate is of good nutritional value. Your child’s plate of food should have a source of carbohydrate, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals namely:

  • Breads/cereals.
  • Eggs/meat/legumes.
  • Vegetables/fruits.


Dairy products are a particularly important part of a child’s diet. They promote healthy bones and teeth as well as being a good source of vitamins and minerals. Dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese and milk can form part of the meal as a snack.

Water is an important component of a child’s diet. Preschoolers need between 1.5 – 1.7 ℓ of fluids a day to stay adequately hydrated, with the main fluid being water. Give your child water with food and in between meals. In addition to counting as fluid intake, 150 mℓ of fruit juice is the maximum to be given a day. As is the case with other foods, a variety of fruits are important. Therefore, fruit juice is not to be given daily. Milk also contributes to a child’s fluid intake and including the amount given with cereal, total milk intake should not be more than 500 mℓ per day. Giving your child this much milk will give them their required amounts of calcium and vitamin D, as well as good amounts of other vitamins and minerals.

To monitor fluid intake, keep 1ℓ of water for your child in their own container to drink from each day.

The right amounts of the right kind of food
Not all foods are equal. Children should be taught that there are those foods which are most beneficial to their growth and development, and which foods are just for pleasure. When you as a parent know which foods these are, it’s possible to teach your child the same. For example, breads and cereals are for energy and by repeatedly telling your child each morning when they have their breakfast cereal that “your cereal will give you the energy to learn and play, and the milk will help you grow”, it reinforces the benefits. When you give them a treat, tell them that this is for fun and they must just enjoy it. Do not use a treat as incentive for any reason.

Give your child half of what you as an adult should eat. As an adult, you should have half a cup of carbohydrates, a cup of vegetables (preferable two different types adding up to that 1 cup) and a palm-sized amount of meat. This means your child should have a quarter cup of carbohydrates, half a cup of vegetables and meat the quantity of half your palm. It is worth noting that the amount of food eaten at each meal will vary day to day, as the child’s appetite fluctuates, which is also based on the kind of activities they took part in before the meal. On occasion, the child will also experience a growth spurt and eat way more than normal.

With their relatively small stomachs, a child can only eat so much at a time and a snack is meant to be a small meal that still provides the child with good nutrition. Be careful not to give your child foods of poor nutritional value like potato chips and sweets.

When children are provided with regular well-balanced meals and snacks, their bodies are able to regulate the amount of food they eat to ensure they take in enough of what they need to meet their nutritional needs. If you are concerned about their food intake and how it’s affecting their growth, a visit to the clinic every four months for a weigh and measure will let you know if your child is maintaining a steady growth along his or her growth curve. Keep in mind that they will not grow at the same rate as when they were infants, so what you are looking out for is them falling off their growth curve.

When introducing or sustaining a varied diet is a challenge, you should continue offering even those disliked foods and not bend over backwards catering to your child’s food preferences. It may help to have at least one food on the plate that you know they would enjoy. Furthermore, give the meal at the table and allow reasonable time for the child to eat their food. When the time has lapsed and the child is not showing any interest in the food, meal time should end and the child should continue with the day. At the next scheduled mealtime, offer the same meal – especially if the child barely touched the food.

Other things you can do are:

  • Avoid giving lots of water before a meal.
  • Make sure there is nothing taking focus away from the meal, e.g. cartoons on television or a favourite toy.
  • As was the case when introducing solids, expose the child to the same food repeatedly. You may need up to 15 positive exposures.
  • Avoid switching to supplements to avoid the hassle of teaching healthy eating habits.

It has been proven ineffective to pressure, argue, coerce or reward children for eating certain foods. It is also important to note that it is a safety risk to save partially eaten food for the next meal.

Strive for wellness Good nutrition is more than providing the body with the nutrients it needs to grow and develop. It is also about the absence of illness. Obesity is a huge problem, with the risk of developing obesity having been observed even in the first 1 000 days of a child’s life.

During the preschool years, a lot of what you can do to reduce your child’s risk of developing obesity can be summarised as follows:

  • developing obesity can be summarised as follows:
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods.
  • Give your child the appropriate portions of food; even the good foods should not be in excess.
  • Minimise their exposure to unhealthy foods.
  • Respect hunger and satiety clues.

An import rule to follow as a parent is that it is your responsibility to provide the food, but it is the child’s responsibility to decide how much. Children are born with the ability to recognise the signals of hunger and fullness from their bodies. Even as babies, they stop eating as soon as their bodies tell them they have eaten enough. But from time to time, a well-meaning parent gives another spoonful or as is the case with those feeding themselves, tells a child to eat everything on their plate. This teaches them to ignore the fact that they have had enough (satiety cues) and to continue eating regardless. This tends to continue as they grow older and this is part of the reason why we find adults doing the same. Parents need to be aware that this is one of the things which may lead to obesity.

Keep your child moving and minimise screen time
Preschool children should engage in 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity every day. This does not need to take place all at once and should be accumulated throughout the day. Not being active enough can lead to obesity, because with most children sitting down it means watching television or playing video games. This is when unhealthy snacks tend to be consumed absent-mindedly and children ignore satiety cues.

Parents should offer foods in a structured family-focused environment and avoid giving them food in front of the television. Furthermore, recommendations are that screen time be limited to no more than one hour a day for preschoolers.

Ensure adequate fruit and vegetable intake
Recommendations about the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables are based on a significant amount of research, which has shown their intake as vital in the prevention of obesity. In fact, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is associated with the greatest likelihood of following a healthy, balanced diet. It is such a simple thing to do, but somehow very difficult for young and old to do.

To ensure that a sufficient number of portions are consumed per day:

  • Offer your child at least two vegetables during lunch and supper.
  • Give sliced vegetables (with hummus) as a snack.
  • Smoothies made of yoghurt and diced fruits are a good way to combine two different fruits into one drink.
  • Add fresh greens and tomatoes to sandwiches.
  • Be adventurous when doing your grocery shopping. Pick that vegetable that you have never bought before and try out different ways of cooking it. The family will eventually enjoy it as part of a dish or even on its own.

There are situations which can make sustaining good eating habits difficult. In the case of birthday parties, parents should use healthy foods to fill party packs so that the kids can have that as a snack or lunchtime meal, depending on what they have decided to pack. Small slices of birthday cake or small cupcakes should be given straight after lunch – not before or instead of. When hosting the birthday party at home, do your best to serve mostly healthy food.

Make lots of water available to drink and limit juice to one per child served at a particular time – no juice on tap! Parents can make eating healthy fashionable, instead of conforming to the status quo of serving mostly unhealthy options. At the same time, it is important to note that allowing your child to have unhealthy foods occasionally will not lead to bad eating habits.

There are many aspects that contribute to a child’s overall health status and good nutrition is particularly important. Parents should take ownership of when their children eat and also make the right choices regarding what goes onto their children’s plate. In so doing, they will be teaching their children valuable lessons that will have a positive impact for the rest of their lives.

*IMPORTANT NOTICE. A-well balanced diet, both during pregnancy and after delivery, helps sustain an adequate supply of breastmilk. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended during the first 6 months of life followed by the introduction of adequate nutritious complementary foods, along with sustained breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond.

“NANKID® 4” is not a breast-milk substitute. As babies grow at different rates; seek advice with your health professionals on the appropriate time when your baby should start receiving this product.

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