How to encourage children to eat healthy

To avoid malnutrition, you can feed your children foods such as vegetables, lean fat.           

What you need to know:

‘The health of children is directly related to the food they consume, and, just like adults, they end up being what they eat,” Dr Paul Kasenene

What children eat and drink during their early years can affect their health for many years to come. General eating habits are formed in the first few years of life, so we must encourage our children to eat nutritious foods.

Bella is 12 years. Cute and shy, she is bubbly and chubby. While it is normal for adolescent girls to be chubby as they grow, Bella’s weight is above normal for a twelve-year-old and she is considered obese by Body Mass Index (BMI).

Tendo, a girl of the same age and class, is in one of the public primary schools in the dingy suburbs of Kampala. She is underweight, stunted, eats little, lacks appetite, is less active, and is always feeling tired. In short, she is malnourished.     

For long, obesity has been associated with the developed world while malnutrition was associated with the developing world. But now, the developing world seems to be experiencing both extremes (over and under nutrition) in not-so-flattering cases, there will be negative health consequences to these children’s bodies.

According to Edson Mworozi Arwanire and Lucy Amaniyo in a paper titled The Underestimated problem of obesity among children in Sub-Saharan Africa: A case of Uganda and South Africa, presented in London UK, in 2018, obesity stood at 32.3 percent and 21.7 percent among school children in Uganda with the most prevalence being among those in private schools (16.6 percent) compared to those in public schools (11.5 percent).

Children’s cells divide faster than adult’s cells and that is why they grow. This growth must be enhanced by a balanced diet. As a parent you can make a balanced diet for your children possible because you have total control of the food they eat.

So how should you go about what they eat?  

Be a role model

It begins with you. It is unreasonable to expect your children to eat healthily when you the parent are not. If you eat healthily, at the table, and do not skip meals (unless you are fasting), then children will naturally follow, at least. “Monkey see, monkey do”, as they say. Children copy and paste. 

Experiment with as many healthy foods as possible

Uganda is gifted by nature. We have abundant rains and fertile soils. We are potentially the bread basket of Africa. 80 percent of Uganda’s land is arable.

It is ironic that despite this giftedness, a USAID report quoting from the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2018, indicates that 33 percent of Ugandan children under five years are stunted (have low height-for-age) and 4 percent are “acutely malnourished or wasted” (have low weight-for-height).

To avoid malnutrition, you can feed your children foods such as vegetables, lean fats (such as fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds such as pumpkins, avocados and avoid margarine, candies, and fried foods), proteins, fruits, milk, and whole grains.

Make right food quality and quantity choices

Make the only food you want them to eat to be the only food available to them in the home. For instance, healthy snacks such as fruit juices and water.

As a guide, Robert Masaka Ssemwezi, the Director of Home-Based Medical Services- TV in Kampala suggests that “a child between two and 13 years should eat an increasing amount of different nutritious food servings daily as they grow which include: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat/poultry and dairy products.”

Team play with children in food processes

This is the perfect school for teaching healthy eating habits. Anne Kasule, a graduate of Food science and technology and a passionate nutritionist, uses this approach with her three children. She involves them in shopping, cooking (and trying out new recipes), and gardening where in gardening they make the vegetable garden together in the ground or pots that the children can help look after until harvest time. “The pride in watching their vegetables grow, harvested, cooked, and eaten boosts their desire for healthy eating and also shows them that food does not grow in the market!” she says. 

Avoid junk food

 Junk food is “food that is high in calories from sugar and/or fat, and possibly also sodium, but with little dietary fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals or other important forms of nutritional value. It is also known as HFSS food (high in fat, salt and sugar).”

Avoid or limit soft, sweetened drinks such as sodas and fast foods such as French Fries, and pizzas, sugary foods, pastries, and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and white flour. These foods contribute more calories than necessary which contribute to mood disorders, hyperactivity and risks such as obesity. Cook and eat your home-prepared meals before you go out.    

Schedule meal times at home

Scheduled meal times are great times for the family. Make them enjoyable moments by preparing nutritious food they can look forward to. For instance, breakfast and dinner should be eaten together by the whole family at the table. If they leave home well satisfied, they will have little appetite for junk or any other food.  

Physical exercises

Sports and games are good for children to supplement healthy eating. Limit their screen time and encourage them to expend that extra energy in some sort of activity such as riding a bicycle, playing football, dance, running, swimming, and walking. Research shows that children who cut down on TV watching also cut down on body fat.

Avoid using food as a reward

Some parents will “bribe” their children with food to elicit obedience. “You can have this food or that if you do this or that,” you tell them. We forget to recognize that we might be building in them a tendency to turn to food as a source of comfort in the future when they are emotionally distressed.

It is called “emotional eating”. This is dangerous for their health for it might pile some unnecessary pounds on them.    

Medical attention

If your child is obese or malnourished or experiencing digestive disorders such as Ulcerative Colitis (a chronic inflammatory disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract), vomiting, persistent diarrhea, Celiac disease (an autoimmune reaction to eating gluten-proteins such as rye, wheat, and barley), it is good to visit a doctor to see how they can be helped. A doctor may check for nutrients such as vitamins or iron, blood, pre and albumin tests for protein levels.   

Healthy eating should not be a challenge for your children if you set the tone yourself as a parent and intentionally guide them toward it.