Make a meal of it
It's important to take control of the food environment at home, writes nutritionist Susie Burrell. Photo: Getty
Good eating habits start early, and there's no better place to teach the kids than around The family Table, writes nutritionist Susie Burrell.
At first glance, Josh looked like a strong, fit and healthy 13-year-old. Although he appeared to carry a bit of puppy fat, you would not necessarily have classed him as overweight. Unfortunately, Josh was not 13, he was only nine, and he had a serious weight problem.
By the time children are brought to various health professionals with concerns raised about their growth and size, their weight is already a serious problem. They are eating too much, growing too fast and starting to experience the numerous psychosocial and physiological issues associated with obesity: sore feet, fatigue, high blood-sugar levels and the dreadful teasing that can scar young children for a lifetime.
Luckily for Josh, his parents were open to making significant lifestyle changes.
His father committed to coming home from work earlier to help Josh become more active (and ended up losing 10 kilograms himself). Soft drink and other processed foods, including potato chips, snack bars and biscuits, were thrown away and screen time was limited. While Josh's progress was slow, he did go on to lose five kilograms over the next 12 months and slowed the rapid growth that was likely to have seen him go through puberty early. Long term, this means he will start high school and his teenage years with his weight under control.
While this is an ideal case study, it highlights the predicament many families find themselves in. Busy schedules mean that quick and unhealthy food choices are made all too often, working parents are too busy to be active with their kids and the increasing use of technology encourages sedentary lifestyles. However, there are simple yet powerful habits that can help support optimal health for all the family - young and old.
1. Schedule family meals
Research has shown that families who sit down to enjoy a meal together on four occasions throughout the week have teens who perform better at school, have higher levels of psychosocial functioning and are less likely to be depressed and abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Such findings would suggest that there is something very special about the way families communicate over a meal, so even if you can only manage it a couple of times during the week, sit down to eat together as a group, with the television switched off. Another benefit of actually sitting down at the table for a meal is that people are much more likely to eat nutritious food, such as lean meat with vegetables, as opposed to quick meals consumed on the go, such as chicken nuggets and two-minute noodles.
2. Eat the way you want them to eat
If you do not eat well and rarely exercise, is it surprising that your kids don't, either? Start to look after your own body by feeding it good-quality food and moving it regularly. This way, you will feel healthier, have more energy and keep your weight under control, while being a role model for your children.
3. If you don't want them to eat it, don't buy it
If there are foods you know your kids should not be eating, then don't keep them in the house. Excuses like, "But they are for guests" or "Only one of my children needs to watch their weight", ignore the fact that keeping poor-quality, high-fat, high-kilojoule foods at home basically means they will get eaten.
4. Be active as a family
While shopping centres and cinemas may be filled with families during weekends and holidays, it should be remembered that the more recreational time that is spent outdoors, the better. Not only will you move more when you take a trip to the beach, park, bush or any other place for outdoor activity, you will also avoid being seduced by the poor-quality foods usually for sale at "family"-type activity venues. Commit to getting outdoors and into nature as a family at least once a month and instil an appreciation for this in your own children, so they, too, can one day pass a love of outdoor activities to their kids.
5. Don't be afraid to be firm
Some time during the 1990s, parents learnt to forget that their role is to be direct and firm with their offspring, particularly in relation to their food intake. Making separate meals for different children, only buying foods that their kids ask for and not insisting that various healthy dietary habits - such as eating vegetables - be adhered to, have resulted in a cohort of children who eat a limited variety of foods and forgo the key food groups they require for optimal growth and development.
Don't be afraid to take control of the food environment at home. Insist that food only be eaten at the table and develop a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Not only does this ensure children learn to eat a range of different foods, it stops kids negotiating to eat snacks or chicken nuggets instead of dinner.