As parents, it’s our job to ensure our children grow up strong and healthy. But should we control what our kids eat?

 All foods are okay in moderation as long as your child eats well generally.

Whether it’s because of concerns about additives or because they want to feed their children healthy food, moms prefer to skip the junk. Unfortunately, it’s just too freely available. It’s also closely associated with other pleasure activities and parents usually find they are fighting a losing battle.

Health and weight

A 2010 study by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline found that 17% of South African children nine years or under are overweight. “The obesity problem in South Africa is the same as any Western country,” says Deborah Jacobson, a Johannesburg-based dietician. “We eat big portions, have fast lifestyles that are all about convenience and, despite our supposedly healthy concerns, we’re becoming less active.” While moms generally don’t encourage junk food they usually acknowledge that a little isn’t bad. “All food is okay,” says Jacobson. “But if we eat too much that is non-nutritious, there isn’t space for nutritious food.”

Junk food contains empty calories. It offers energy without the vitamins and minerals our children need for building muscles, bones, hormones, and enzymes. All it does is accumulate fat. “We can eat these things but we have to make wise choices about how much and how often; preferably not more than twice a week. Exercise also is important to burn off extra calories.” Studies show that banning junk food makes it more appealing. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in 1999 that showed restricting children’s access to junk food doesn’t promote moderate patterns of intake and may promote the behaviour its use is intended to reduce.

Behaviour and reward

“Using food as a reward is a big problem,” says Ruth Ancer, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist in private practice. “It reinforces their desire for things that taste nice. Obviously, the easiest way to get them through an injection or a mouthful of medicine is promising a lolly – and it’s okay for occasional use. But it does reinforce the appeal of these things.” Both Jacobson and Ancer agree that it’s important to lead by example. “You’re trying to set them up for a lifelong process of moderation,” says Ancer.

“At some point, you’re not going to be there, so show them that we can eat these things but that it’s not how we eat most of the time.” Ellyn Satter, author and authority on eating and feeding, suggests the occasional unhealthy food, such as chips, at mealtime and allowing your children to choose if they want to eat it before, after or during the meal. She even suggests an occasional snack between meals of as many sweets as your child wants.

“At snack time, you can let your child eat as many sweets as she wants because they aren’t competing with other mealtime foods,” Satter says. “At first, she will eat a lot of sweets but the newness will wear off and after a while, she won’t eat so many.” Satter’s approach works and the underlying philosophy is the same as our local experts: all foods are okay in moderation as long as your child eats well generally. Avoid making junk food appealing by not banning it outright or use it as a reward.

8 Expert tips

Dietician Deborah Jacobson gives a few pointers for getting kids to eat nutritious food.

  1. How we prepare food is important. Always aim for less fat and more nutrients.
  2. Use healthy oils like olive oil rather than butter or lard.
  3. Bake rather than fry.
  4. Make sure your children eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, even if they’re hidden in smoothies.
  5. Toddlers should have two portions of protein a day and two to three portions of dairy.
  6. Include legumes and split peas as a source of protein.
  7. Ensure your child drinks lots of water.
  8. Use herbs, spices, and vinegar to flavour food instead of salt, where possible.

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