Good nutrition must start early

 Limit salty, fatty and sugary foods, low-fibre foods, and drinks with caffeine or a lot of sugar. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Your children’s early eating experiences can affect how they eat as they get older.
  • That is why it is important to introduce them to healthy foods from the very beginning.

In order to develop healthy dietary patterns, it is important that children copy good nutrition practices while they are still young. In fact, for one to have a healthy baby, a mother must feed well even before they conceive, during and after the child is born.

According to United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef), children need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential. 

“The most critical time for good nutrition is during the 1,000-day period from pregnancy until a child’s second birthday. What, when and how children eat is more important before the age of two than at any other time in life,” states

Amanda Twebaze, a nutritionist at Human Mechanic Physiotherapy Ltd, says poor diets in early childhood can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients. These deficiencies weaken a child’s immune system and increase the risk of diseases such as obesity. 

“When a baby is born, they entirely depend on milk until they are weaned off. The quality of the breast milk depends on a mother’s diet but as the baby grows, there are extra nutritional demands placed on the body. It is, therefor, important that we adjust to the nutritional changes depending on the different life stages,” Twebaze says.

Introducing solid foods
Breast-milk supplies a baby with the required nutrients, fluids and energy up to about six months. Solid foods should only be introduced to infants after six months of age. However, breastfeeding should continue until 12 months of age and beyond, or for as long as the mother and child desire. 

“Weaned babies should be given foods rich in iron and zinc such as cereals, meat, poultry and soybeans. Fruits and vegetables are vital but do not add salt, sugar or honey,” she warns.

In the first two years of life, breastfeeding saves lives, shields children from disease, boosts brain development and guarantees children a safe and nutritious food source. Unicef and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend that infants begin breastfeeding within one hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Breastfeeding should continue until two years of age or beyond.

After weaning
According to Twebaze, weaned infants usually become picky but it is important that you serve a variety of healthy foods. Also, their food intake depends on their growth level and physical activity. Many infants and teens are being fed poorly and there are increasing numbers of children that are overweight and diabetic. 
“It is important to limit the amount of processed and fast foods as well as sweetened processed juices because it increases the risk of tooth decay, obesity and diabetes,” Twebaze warns. 

Pre-teens and teenagers need energy as they grow as well as nutrient-dense foods to fill the energy gaps. Children at this age will copy the nutrition practices at home and they will carry them throughout their lifetime.
It is, therefore, important that parents and guardians make good diet choices by replacing fast and processed foods with foods that are rich in nutrients to help build their muscles and immunity while keeping them healthy.

The dos 
It is important to note that children do not do what they are told but rather what they see. Therefore, parents should be role models by setting a good example when it comes to choosing healthy foods. 

At home, you can have a meal plan to include healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat or fat-free dairy. The snacks between meals should also be healthy foods instead of junk and fast foods.

Have a variety of foods, especially those of different colours. Twebaze recommends that for each meal, choose at least one or more foods from these categories: 

Fruits such as bananas, mangoes, apples, strawberries, pears, oranges, melons or avocados. 
Vegetables such as cooked spinach, kale, cabbage, carrots, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, or beets. 

Whole grains such as brown rice; carbohydrates such as posho, cassava, bananas; lean meats and poultry such as beef, lamb, chicken, fish, or turkey; legumes such as peas, groundnuts and beans.

Keeping children well hydrated is essential to prevent dehydration. Exercise is also a good practice that the children can copy from adults.

The don’ts 

Both children and adults alike must limit foods that are high in sodium and added sugars. Avoid as much as possible to add extra salt to your meals.
Limit the intake of sugar added and carbonated drinks. Replace these with plenty of drinking water and freshly blended juices or smoothies from fruits and vegetables. 

Avoid giving honey and unpasteurised drinks and honey to children below the age of two years. This is because unpasteurised drinks may contain harmful bacteria that can cause severe diarrhoea. Honey can cause food poisoning to infants below one year. 

How to create healthy mealtimes

Creating and maintaining a stable routine in your diet will help you, and it will help your child look forward to mealtime. Here are ways to help create healthy mealtimes.
● Plan weekly meals together, so you can talk about healthy food options.
● Take your child to the grocery store so they can see healthy options and talk about them. Have them pick produce from each different nutrient to consume throughout the week.
● Read the labels for nutritious facts together. 
● Cook meals together to show them that what they are eating matters. 
● Challenge your child to fill their plate with as many different colours as they can; eat the rainbow.
● Make a contest by having your child try a new produce they have never tried before. Maybe they will end up loving it.
● Sometimes the battle is making sure your child is consuming the foods they need to reap the health benefits that these foods provide. Teach your child the importance of each nutrient and in which foods it can be found. Many times, children do not want to eat something, but when it has a benefit or “superpower” that they can understand, they may be more willing to try.

*Additional information source: