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Encouraging Diet Diversity to Promote Healthy Eating Habits From a Young Age

Diet Diversity

Encouraging healthy eating habits from a young age can contribute to your children’s health in future. Children develop eating habits and coping tactics early on and these behaviours become engrained throughout their life. Adequate nutrition during a child’s formative years is, therefore, crucial to their overall development. On top of this, learning about healthy eating and its advantages from a young age can help them to cultivate a positive relationship with food into their adult life.

One way to ensure that your child is getting the nutrients they need is by promoting diet diversity. This is done through a diet consisting of food items from all five food groups, so it includes a variety of nutrients to support their physical, mental, and emotional development.

Ensuring adequate nutrition through diet diversity

Dietary diversity is about the proper intake of essential macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to achieve better nutritional outcomes. A diet made up of a balanced mix of foods – preferably from all five different fruit groups – is fundamental for healthy physical and cognitive development, particularly in children and adolescents.

Each food group provides different nutrients required by children’s and adolescents’ bodies to grow and function properly. This is why it’s vital that they eat a diverse range of foods, ideally from all five food groups.

Vegetables and fruit: Fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins and minerals. These provide children with energy, fibre, water, and antioxidants. Eating sufficient fruits and vegetables can also help to protect them against certain types of diseases later in life. Fruits and vegetables can be eaten as part of meals or snacks.

Sometimes, disguising vegetables and making your own ‘takeaway food’ at home is a good way to make sure your children get the nutrients they need. Try this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Enchiladas recipe, for example. You can do the same to get them to eat fruits. Make it fun getting creative and creating colourful fruit kebabs or arranging fruits in the form of an animal or one of your children’s favourite cartoon characters. Jamie Oliver shares some inspiration.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are found in various grain foods like bread, cereals, pasta, rice, and more. Consuming sufficient carbohydrates is crucial for providing growing children with the energy they need to function, develop and learn. Where possible, wholegrain options are the best as they have a low glycaemic index and will keep children feeling fuller for longer. You can make this Meatball Mozzarella Pasta Bake and replace the penne pasta with a wholegrain option.

Dairy and dairy alternatives: Dairy is a vital source of protein and calcium which forms two foundational requirements for your child’s overall wellbeing and development. Key dairy items include cheese, milk and yoghurt. To ensure that your children consume adequate dairy items, you can also pack cheese or yoghurt in their lunchbox to snack on throughout the day. Or add cheese to their sandwiches, as on these delicious Grilled Country Ham & Cheese Sandwiches.

If you prefer feeding your children dairy alternatives, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional to ensure that they still receive adequate nutrients.

Protein: Protein includes all your meat items and meat alternatives such as soy, legumes and pulses, tofu, etc. Protein is necessary for your children’s growth and muscle development, and also supplies them with important vitamins and minerals such as iron, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin B12. These Chicken Quesadillas are a healthy source of protein and are ideal for a quick and simple dinner or to pack into your children’s lunchboxes.

If you’re only giving your child meat alternatives, it’s recommended to speak to a healthcare professional to ensure that their diet remains well balanced.

Healthy fats and oils: Certain fats and oils contain essential nutrients that should form part of a healthy child’s diet. These fats and oils aid with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals and also provide energy. Sources include both plant and animal products such as avocados, butter, olive oil, and other plant-based oils.

Children can often be fussy when it comes to eating avocados but if you keep the recipe simple, like with these BBQ Chicken & Cheddar Wraps, they might just love it!

Advantages of diet diversity

Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies because they have such high nutritional requirements. They’re also predisposed to certain infectious diseases, some of which can hamper the optimal absorption of nutrients or decrease their appetite. This makes it even more important to ensure that they follow diverse diets for optimal nutrition.

By ensuring that your children receive the necessary nutrients, you can enhance their physical, mental and emotional growth and wellbeing.

Physical

  • A strong immune system that can fight off infections and illnesses
  • Healthy growth and development of organs, bones, and muscles
  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease

Mental and emotional

  • Enhanced cognitive function, resulting in better concentration and scholastic performance
  • Improved mood and emotional wellbeing
  • Better behaviour and peer relationships as children are able to focus for longer

Promoting healthy eating habits

Food preferences are an important determinant when it comes to children’s food intake, especially when they’re still young. Here are a few strategies that may help to drive healthy eating habits by encouraging your children’s consumption of all food groups:

  • Ensure a comfortable and enjoyable eating environment. Children who feel relaxed are less likely to make a fuss about what they’re eating.
  • Act as a role model and set a good example for your children. Children often do what they see adults do, so eating the same foods as them can encourage them to finish their food. Partaking in a family meal might appeal to your child’s natural desire for inclusion and acceptance, encouraging them to participate in eating whatever is being served.
  • Involve your children in meal planning and preparation processes. Explain each step of the cooking process to them and let them smell the ingredients as you go. Doing this might make them more excited to try out the end result. This also applies to the packing of lunchboxes for school. If they help to pack their own lunchbox, they might be more excited about it and eat all their food at school.
  • Be persistent but patient in offering children a variety of both new and familiar foods. Exposing them to new foods and flavours from a young age can help them to develop a taste for all kinds of foods, as well as a more adventurous spirit when it comes to trying new things. Also, remember that taste changes over time, so if they don’t like something today, they might like it later on.
  • Encourage children’s feeling of autonomy but prevent resistance by offering choice – telling them that they have to eat what’s on their plate is often the best thing you can do.
  • Avoid saying ‘it is good for you’ to persuade your child to eat something that they don’t like as this will most likely not make a difference to them.
  • Make fruits, vegetables, and other healthy snacking alternatives such as raisins, nuts or biltong increasingly available outside specific mealtimes, for example, during sports activities and parties. Prohibiting children from snacking may lead to them overeating or developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Teach them the value of proper hydration from a young age by encouraging them to drink water when they’re thirsty instead of juices or cooldrinks. Juices and cooldrinks contain large amounts of sugar which should rather be avoided.

By teaching your children about diet diversity and healthy eating from a young age, you can help to create a generation of healthier, happier individuals who are equipped with the knowledge and habits for lifelong physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.

FAQs

Why is it important for children to have a balanced diet?

A balanced diet ensures that children get the essential nutrients they need for growth, development, and overall health, while reducing their risk of chronic diseases.

How can diet diversity benefit children and adolescents?

Diet diversity exposes children and adolescents to a wide range of nutrients, while at the same time expanding their taste preferences.

What are some strategies to encourage children to try new foods?

Involving children in menu planning and introducing foods in a fun and appealing way can help to encourage them to try new foods.

How can parents support healthy eating habits?

Parents can lead by example, involve children in meal planning and preparation, and create a positive, encouraging eating environment.

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