Helen O’Callaghan says it’s important to encourage children to eat a wide variety of food and to start from a very early age so they can absorb a wide range of nutrients.
YOU are ordering lunch with your family in a restaurant.
“Sausages and chips,” Junior pipes up when the waiter approaches. His two siblings want pizza and chicken nuggets. If kids are stuck in a rut when it comes to eating out, can we really blame them?
A 2013 Safefood survey of 180 eating establishments (pubs, cafes, restaurants, fast food outlets) found children’s menus very limited. Almost one in three didn’t offer a main course alternative to battered fish fingers/chicken nuggets/burgers or pizza.
About 40% exclusively provided chips with the main meal — availability of lower fat alternatives like mashed potato or rice was limited. And less than half of the menus listed vegetables.
Deep-fat frying was the most common cooking method for sausages, chicken and fish. More than one in three establishments seasoned food with salt, while most used the same portion size for all ages of children.
A 2010 Eating out with Children study commissioned by the Nutrition & Health Foundation discovered 78% of children choose their own meals in restaurants. Pasta dishes followed by chicken nuggets and chips were the most popular options.
According to Safefood, kids’ choices are driven by ‘taste’, ‘marketing and presentation of food’ or ‘foods they associated with a particular establishment’.
Research by Japanese restaurant chain YO! Sushi reported more than two in three parents say they’d like their child to be more adventurous and eat a wider food range.
Yet, one in four parents dissuade their child from trying out new food in a restaurant, fearing they wouldn’t like it — almost half said they’re prefer their child chose something they’d definitely eat.
Dr Gillian Harris of Birmingham University, clinical psychologist and expert in childhood food refusal, says kids like chicken nuggets and chips because it’s predictable — it looks the same every time and has an easy-to-manage texture. But Safefood nutritionist Dr Marian Faughnan urges parents to guide children.
“If they always get sausage and chips, that’s what they’ll expect. Parents can change this by encouraging their children to have half an adult’s portion of a healthy meal,” she says, acknowledging it takes time and patience to make these changes and is best done in small steps.
Orla Walsh, dietitian with Dublin Nutrition Centre, agrees that “a bite is less scary” for children than ordering something completely new and different. She says it’s important for parents to be adventurous role models.
“Lead by example. Let your child see you trying and enjoying new foods.”
Reluctance to try new dishes may simply reflect what goes on at home. The study found that it if a child refuses a particular food, more than two-thirds of parents would only try to introduce it again. Nearly half would only encourage a child three to five times to try a new food and one-third would try just once or twice before giving up.
Yet, Harris points to clinical research that shows it can take up to 10 tastes for a new food to be accepted by children. She recommends persisting with one or two foods at a time.
“Remember the second taste of a new food may be the hardest of all as your child will have formed an opinion they don’t like the food.”
Walsh says encouraging a varied diet for children develops good eating habits for life. “Each food has only a certain amount of nutrients so a varied diet is the key to avoiding nutritional gaps.” She also urges parents not to fall into the trap of indulging fussy eaters.
“Don’t cook more than one meal. Cook one meal and that is the meal everyone will eat. If [children] don’t eat their dinner, take it away.”
She counsels against offering an alternative when a meal is refused. “This will positively reinforce their fussy eating behaviour.
“Focus on the whole family as much as possible. If one child’s a fussy eater and they realise it gets them more parental attention, it could encourage them to continue being fussy.”
Genes may even explain why some children dislike particular food tastes and textures. “Ability to taste some types of bitter or sour compounds probably does lead to differences in diet among people,” says Walsh.
“Non-tasters of these compounds are more likely to consume more bitter vegetables than those who taste them. One study showed total vegetable consumption was higher in children who didn’t taste these more sour compounds — only eight percent refused to eat any vegetables during the experiment compared with 32% of the children that did taste this compound.”
Harris warns against threatening a child around food or coercing them to eat. This simply backfires. She advises getting them used to sight and texture of different foods as early as possible – ideally within their first 12 months so they see foods as ‘safe’ and are more likely to eat them.
Meanwhile, Walsh suggests parents often simply assume children will prefer the unhealthy option.
“Just because a bit of fast food or confectionery is your favourite food, it won’t necessarily be your child’s. Don’t push these foods, focus on the healthy.
“In restaurants, this is often a smaller portion of the regular meals and not the nuggets and chips option.”
* Allowing kids prepare their own food improves their willingness to eat it. Get them involved in setting table for dinner, measuring and mashing foods and tidying up. Get them washing, peeling, chopping, stirring and tasting.
* Eating is a family activity — avoid treating it as punishment or reward. Studies show children/teens who eat with family eat more vegetables and fruit and less fat.
* Don’t expect children to eat vegetables if you don’t. Make gradual changes: introduce new foods without fuss. Show how much you enjoy eating them.
* Stay positive and stick with it. Focus on enjoying healthier options and don’t scold about unhealthier choices. Persist with changes: it can take 10 tastes for a child to accept a new food – don’t give up after the first ‘no’.
* Try one small step at a time – swap battered fish for fillet of fish, served with beans and chips. Or swap chips for mash or potato wedges. Every healthy choice is a step in the right direction.
* Use dips with new vegetables such as hummus, tzatziki and yoghurt. Deliver favourite vegetables in new ways – add grated carrot to their sandwich. Keep it colourful – it’ll appeal more.
* Offering a few vegetables at dinner instead of just one has been shown to increase overall vegetable intake.
* Dessert shouldn’t be daily: kids are less likely to eat all of their healthy meal if they know dessert’s on the way.
* In restaurants, aim towards child receiving child-size portions of adult meals.
* Let children have some safe foods they like but let them select small amounts of some new foods to try.
* Offer new foods in small portions on separate plate — this can be as a taster from your meal, thereby avoiding ordering a whole meal you aren’t sure your child will eat.
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