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Q: My daughter says that she doesn’t want to eat meat. Is it OK for her to follow a vegetarian diet?
A: Your daughter is beginning to make some of her lifestyle choices based on a wider view of the world rather than being driven solely by her own needs and wants. Talk this idea through with her to check out her understanding of what she is giving up. Vegetarian diets can be a healthy way of eating, provided they are sufficiently well thought out. You will need to ensure that your daughter gets enough iron in her diet. Iron is associated with mental and physical development and a lack of iron (anemia) is one of the most commonly reported nutritional problems. As a vegetarian, your daughter will get most of her iron from eggs, cereals, vegetables, and legumes. This type of iron is not as well absorbed by her body as the iron found in meat. However, vitamin C improves absorption, so make sure she gets plenty of fruit. Nuts and peanut butter are a good alternative source of protein, minerals, and vitamins.

Do some research and plan your daughter’s diet out with her to show that you understand and support her choice. It may help to set aside a shelf in the kitchen cupboard and fridge for your daughter’s food. Agree to a trial period so you can review how things are going. Changing your diet is hard, so if your daughter decides not to keep it up, praise her for standing up for something she believes in and at least giving it a try.

Q: My child usually brings at least half of her packed lunch back home. Is she eating enough?
A: School lunchtimes are usually busy, hurried affairs as children rush to meet up with their friends, get through their lunch as quickly as possible, then make the most of their free time before lessons start again. Your daughter may simply not have enough time to eat everything you have prepared for her.

Alternatively, she may not like all the things in her lunchbox or she may be eating enough for her appetite. If you have no other concerns about her diet and she is eating a reasonable amount of her lunch each day, stay calm and try not to worry too much. At the moment your daughter feels confident enough to bring her uneaten lunch back home, knowing that you will find out but trusting that you will not overreact. If you make too much of this issue, she may start throwing the remains of her lunch away at school, leaving you none the wiser. Pack things that you know your daughter likes to eat, and don’t overwhelm her with too much food. Try varying traditional sandwiches with rolls, wraps, bagels, and pasta salads to keep lunch interesting, and make sure she has plenty of healthy snacks for break times—particularly if you are concerned she may be filling up on sweets instead. Most importantly, don’t forget to praise her when she eats well.

Q: How can I get my son to eat breakfast in the morning?
A: The saying goes, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and there is some truth in this. When he wakes, your son’s body has not had any food for several hours, and breakfast will give him the energy he needs to face the day. Research also shows that children who eat a healthy breakfast are less likely to be overweight, have fewer blood-sugar problems (which increase the risk of developing diabetes), may be more alert and better able to concentrate, are more likely to participate in physical activities, and tend to eat healthier overall. Like many children, your son may not feel like eating when he first wakes, and time pressure of the morning routine probably doesn’t allow you to wait around until he is ready. You could try getting your son up earlier, to give his body time to adjust. As an alternative, try making him a packed breakfast the night before. This could include fresh/dried fruit, nuts, a carton of fresh juice, and slices of fruit bread. Some cereals contain high levels of salt or sugar, so check the nutritional label. Breakfast bars are not always a healthy option, so, if you are going to include these, make sure you read the label first to look out for high levels of fat, salt, or sugar. You could also find out if there is a breakfast club at school; your son will probably be more willing to eat with his friends.
Q: My daughter eats everything on her plate except her vegetables. Should I make her?
A: Vegetables can taste very bitter to younger children, and if they don’t develop a liking for them early on, it can be more difficult to get your child into the habit of eating them later. Don’t make a battle of this situation. You can’t force your daughter to eat her vegetables, and as she gets older you will want her to eat them out of choice. Presentation can help; the shape, size, color, and texture of foods can make them more appealing. Try mashing and seasoning vegetables or finely chopping them. Since your daughter will probably be hearing about healthy eating in school, you could appeal to her increasing knowledge of food and discuss with her why vegetables are an important part of her diet. There are lots of vegetables to choose from, so take your daughter shopping with you and let her try something new. If you have space, you could also consider starting your own vegetable garden. Involve your daughter in deciding what you will grow, planting, caring for your crop, and harvesting. It’s amazing what children will eat if they have grown it themselves!
Q: Help! My child is getting picky about her food because she says she doesn’t want to be fat.
A: Your daughter is exposed to lots of messages on TV, in magazines, at school, and in society that emphasize the importance of healthy eating and the dangers of junk food. It is a fact that childhood obesity has increased significantly over the last 10 years, and your daughter should be praised for recognizing that she can take positive steps to improve her diet and well-being. However, it is important that you encourage her to take a balanced view and avoid labeling foods as either “good” or “bad”—a practice that can lead to eating problems later. A healthy diet should include some foods that contain the essential fatty acids your daughter needs. If she wishes to cut down on the amount of excessively fatty or sugary foods she eats and replace these with healthier options, this is a positive change that you can embrace as a family.

Talking about other factors that will affect your daughter’s body shape (such as physical exercise and the genes she has inherited from her parents) will help her to understand that she will not become overweight simply as a result of what she eats. Focus on developing a healthy lifestyle, and this should reduce your daughter’s anxiety about food.

Q: My son only eats half his evening meal because he says he’s full, but then wants snacks later. Where do I draw the line?
A: It is important to understand how much of an issue this really is before you address it head on. If you are worried, it can feel like problems are happening every day and you may forget the times when your son clears his plate without argument. Keep a simple food diary to record what he eats each day—including snacks and drinks as far as possible.

If your son is regularly leaving a large part of his meal, there are several possible explanations. It may be that he doesn’t like the food he is given; he may be overwhelmed with portions that are too big for his appetite; he may have eaten too many snacks after school and not be hungry at the right time, and, of course, he may be telling you the truth—that he has eaten enough and is full. A food diary should give you some idea as to which explanation seems most likely. Offer a light snack after school and avoid juice and soda, which will fill him up and can be high in sugar and sweeteners.

At mealtime, serve a sensible portion of food that you know he likes and water to drink. If he has eaten enough of his meal, allow a few snacks later, but keep track of them and set a limit—it’s easy to lose track over the course of an evening.

Q: My son insists on having energy drinks when he plays football. Are these really suitable for children?
A: Energy drinks have become very popular in recent years, and some are endorsed by celebrities, which appeals to children. There are two types of energy drinks available: Those that claim to give you a lift if you are feeling tired, and those aimed at the sports market (these are often labeled as isotonic). The energy rush delivered by these drinks comes from their sugar content, which gives them a higher calorie count. The combination of fast- and slow-acting sugars claims to give an instant energy boost plus endurance, so it is easy to see why your son feels these will make him a better player. Some also contain herbs, caffeine, and other stimulants. A young child is not used to the effects of caffeine on his body and may find it unsettling. Caffeine is also a diuretic and will make your son urinate more often, so he will actually lose fluids. If your son is eating a healthy, balanced diet, isotonic sports drinks in moderation should do him no harm—but check the label first. However, if he drinks plenty of water while playing and eats potassium-rich fruits such as bananas and oranges at half-time (as many athletes do) he will gain much the same benefits.

Little chef Helping out in the kitchen

If your child does not seem particularly interested in food and mealtimes are a real battle, try buying her a children’s cookbook.

Her reaction may surprise you. Your child may really enjoy taking charge of her food by trying out new recipes of her choosing and shopping for ingredients. Serving up her creations will also give her a sense of pride, and being in the kitchen means that you will get to spend more quality time together. If you can develop her interest in food and cooking you may even be able to hand over kitchen duties to her full-time in the future!

Variety, the spice of Life Introducing a guest

For months the only vegetable my daughter would eat was corn. Eventually I decided to introduce a “guest vegetable” alongside her favorite once a week. To get her interested I used vegetables she was familiar with, and others like sweet potatoes, artichokes, and asparagus. The whole family rated each guest out of 10, and the most popular ones were invited back. Making it a game in this way seemed to take the pressure out of the situation and she gradually added new vegetables to her diet.


If you want your child to eat a healthy diet, you need to lead by example

What is a healthy diet? Knowing your foodstuffs

A healthy diet will contain more foods from the first two groups, a smaller number from the next two groups, and occasional foods from the last group. Getting this balance right will give your child all the carbohydrates she needs for energy, protein for growth and repair, iron and calcium for healthy blood and strong bones, essential fatty acids for cell growth, fiber to keep her digestive system working well, and plenty of vital vitamins and minerals for optimal development.

Young children need nutritious food and plenty of water to fuel their activity, growth, and development. Learning how to eat healthily now will get them into good habits for life.

Q: What do children need to eat and why?
A: The five major food groups are:
  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Bread, cereal, and potatoes

  • Milk and dairy foods

  • Meat, fish, eggs, soy, beans, and legumes

  • Foods containing sugar and/or fat

Snacks and drinks

Allowing your child to have too many unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks could undo all your good work with the rest of her diet. Banning these foods from your home will make them even more appealing, so it’s best to allow your child to have these treats occasionally. You can encourage your child to eat healthy snacks by keeping a well-stocked bowl of fresh or dried fruit and nuts available. Remind your child that she can eat these when she has exhausted her cookie quota for the day! Smoothies are a great way to get children interested in fruit, and you can easily make your own. Give water with meals rather than soda or juice, which leave less room for food and so make children hungry later. Soda and many juices also contain lots of sugar, which creates a spike in blood sugar levels followed by a crash soon afterwards. Sodas and sugary drinks may also contain artificial colors and flavorings which some parents would rather avoid, as they feel that these affect their child’s behavior.

Lunchboxes and school dinners

Most schools now have a healthy-eating policy, so make sure that your child’s packed lunch and breaktime snacks are consistent with their goals. School meals should now have healthy options on the menu, too—although you can’t guarantee that your child will always choose them.

If you want your child to eat a healthy diet, you need to lead by example. Don’t expect them to get excited about fruit if every time you get hungry they see you reaching for the chocolate cookies!

Fruit and veg

Encouraging your child to eat a healthy diet will pave the way for good habits and help keep her fit and strong as she gets older.

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