It is a natural parental instinct to fill up the fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables and to never pass that enticing ‘sweets and treats’ aisle in the shop when we take our little ones on a grocery run.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with prioritizing nutritious foods over non-nutritious foods, as a dietitian, I agree! However, it is so important to understand how these actions and intentions might be perceived by younger eyes (despite the goodness of their intention!).
From a young age, children are learning about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, rather than ‘nutritious’ and ‘non-nutritious” eats. The labels we give food create a novelty around them, particularly when these so-called ‘bad’ foods are used as rewards for children for doing ‘good’ deeds; a rather confusing reward system in which children are encouraged to do ‘good’ things in order to receive what they understand to be ‘bad’ foods.
Naturally, this is very confusing for a young child. The whole system is a bit backwards! I was recently sitting at a 4-year old’s birthday party, observing the utter mayhem unfolding in front of my eyes. The sugar had been unleashed and the pandemonium started.
I am sure many of you reading this can relate. Children often binge on sugar when this is presented to them at these types of events, particularly if their exposure to sugar has been minimal in the past. Can you blame them? That one thing they always work towards as a reward, is now being given to them completely free of charge… why wouldn’t they take the bull by the horns and double dip that ice cream cone in the sprinkles? As much as I advocate for ‘lower-sugar and lower-saturated fat’ guidelines for paediatric nutrition, restricting sugar completely can sometimes have an adverse effect.
Children should learn to be comfortable with food from a young age, and this includes these so-called ‘bad’ foods. We should rather be teaching our children how to be comfortable around temptations by taking the novelty out of them. This might prevent addictive tendencies from developing later on in life. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that ice cream for breakfast or cake for dinner is the new ‘eating plan for toddlers 2022’, but we need to be conscious of how we interact with food in front of children. Experimenting at home is a brilliant way to take the novelty out of these ‘unhealthy’ meals.
Promoting a healthy relationship with food from a young age can have such a big impact on their nutrition throughout their lifecycle, and it can be done in so many ways! Make ‘homemade’ sorbet at home whereby you control the amount of sugar that goes into it and use fruit as a natural sweetener. Or homemade pizza night where you use nutritious ingredients to make a so-called ‘unhealthy meal’! Let them eat cake…albeit once in a while.
(Registered Dietitian, Sweet Paeds) – RD, BScHONS
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