As research suggests two thirds of parents haven’t spoken to their children about the importance of eating healthily, a dietician explains what they should tell kids about food and how growing their own fruit and vegetables can encourage children to eat well.
Eating healthy food is the backbone of a healthy life - but children often need encouragement to eat what’s good for them.
Some of that encouragement lies in actually understanding why what they’re eating is good or bad for them, and knowing that their food doesn’t grow in the supermarket.
However, research shows that more than half of kids (51 per cent) have never had a family discussion about where the food on their plate has come from. Perhaps because of this lack of healthy eating information from home, the Dolmio research found that many children believe jam (16 per cent), blueberry muffins (15 per cent), milk (12 per cent), cereal (12 per cent), and even water (six per cent), count as one of their ‘five-a-day’.
And British kids believe that food is healthy if they’ve been told it is by a teacher (78%), it’s included in a school dinner (19%) or it tastes good (18%).
Unfortunately, nearly 7% of children believe that a healthy food is “one that tastes bad”.
Registered dietitian Ursula Arens stresses that parents are role models for children’s eating patterns, and have a very large influence.
She said: “This is principally what parents do, rather than what they say, which may not be the same thing.”
She added that many children are exposed to diets containing a lot of low-quality takeaways or ready meals.
, and it’s difficult to counter the development of bad habits with just parental talks - mums and dads need to eat healthy food too.
“Healthy eating matters because it affects health short term and for kids, even more importantly, long term,” she says.
“What children eat also lays down patterns of food choice and preferences in later life.”
Arens points out that diets don’t have to be perfect, and there are many different ways to eat that result in good health.
“However, for most people, and especially children, the advice remains to eat more fruit and vegetables.
“For some kids, growing projects are an exciting and fun way to relate better to the foods they would do well to eat more of - children involved in food growing develop an interest and enthusiasm for trying new and fresh foods.”
Encouragingly, the Dolmio research found that 52% of the nation’s kids are now growing fruit and vegetables at school.
A great deal of this growing is in association with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Campaign for School Gardening, which now involves 15,000 UK schools.
The campaign encourages schools to create their own gardens, and is training thousands of teachers on how to use gardens as a teaching tool.
Mandy Morrison, regional adviser for the campaign, points out that healthy eating and growing food in schools has become more and more popular in recent years, stressing: “Learning where food comes from, growing it themselves and then tasting it is such a key thing now that schools are realising it’s something they really need to be looking at.”
Her advice for both schools and parents is to start off by growing something kids will enjoy eating, such as strawberries, fruit trees and bushes, carrots, tomatoes, and even spinach.
“Surprisingly enough, I’ve had great success with spinach,” she says.
“When kids taste it fresh off the plot, they absolutely devour it, even if they’ve never eaten it at home. It’s a different thing when you grow it fresh.”
She says vegetables such as peas, courgettes and runner beans are also good to begin children’s growing experience.
“Start with stuff they know well,” she says, “and once children feel confident with growing that, you can introduce other foods that they might have turned their nose up at, like Brussels sprouts, kale or chard.”
Morrison stresses that many vegetables are available in a multitude of colours to make them attractive to children, and if there’s a careful growing plan, kids won’t get impatient about waiting for their fruit and veg to grow.
“If you start new things off every week, before they know it things are coming up. It’s just getting the different seeds, and making sure they’re ready to sow at the right time of year.
“With a bit of planning, you can have fruit and veg ready all year round.”
She says radishes and salad crops are probably the quickest things to grow, and recommends a polytunnel for year-round growing, although windowsills can come in handy too.
“You don’t need lots of space,” she stresses, “you can have very effective gardens in just containers, or vertical gardens where you almost grow an edible wall.”
She says kids love to eat the food they’ve grown, and really enjoy the responsibility and ‘ownership’ of their fruit and vegetables.
She adds: “There are stories of children saying, ‘Don’t touch my leek, that’s mine and I want to eat it’, whereas they’d never have eaten a leek before.
“They really get a buzz out of growing their own food, and love eating it.”
:: For more information about the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, visit www.rhs.org.uk/schoolgardening. Dolmio is giving away 100,000 free packs of tomato seeds, available from www.papasbigtomatochallenge.com
Ask the expert
Q: “My 10-year-old daughter wants to wear a bra, but I’ve put her off because she’s not developed yet. When should I buy her one?”
A: Former teacher Beth Ryan, a mentor and adviser for mums and pre-teens, says: “Firstly, remember what it was like when you were her age. Buying your first bra represents the onset of puberty and is a wonderful opportunity to bond with your daughter.
“Talk to her about why she wants a bra. Chances are a lot of her friends are wearing one now because they’re developing. Explain that people develop at different rates and that she has quite a few years yet so it’s not a worry.
“Though some development is taught at school, it’s also the job of a good parent to find out the facts and discuss them with their children. You should prepare her for the attention she’ll get when she develops breasts - this is new and may be hard for her to come to terms with.
“She may be being teased at school if all her friends are wearing bras and she’s not. Remind her she’s wonderful the way she is. It’s natural to compare ourselves but try to discourage it before it starts. These years are the dangerous ones where self-esteem is built or broken.
“If you do decide to get her that bra, make sure you take her to a good retailer and get her fitted properly.
“Even if you decide together that now isn’t the time to get that first bra, it wouldn’t hurt to let her wear a bra-style vest or training bra - it’ll help her get used to wearing a bra.
“Having your first bra is a big step. Next step - starting periods. Your little girl is growing up, enjoy it together.”
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