Parents can never overestimate the importance of good nutrition and the vital role that this plays in the future of their children’s health and learning ability. A child’s nutritional intake determines both their physical and cognitive growth, which in turn determines whether they will reach their full potential. The eating habits and behaviours that children learn are the habits and behaviours they will carry through into adulthood, and that will in time determine their health into old age.

Eating habits and behaviours, both good and bad, are learnt from parents and peers. As a parent, if you are not happy or in any doubt about your own way of eating, state of health or weight, then it is worth changing things now so that your children do not battle with similar problems.

Parents are in the fortunate position to teach and influence their children in almost any direction, and eating habits should be taken as a serious behavioural responsibility. Children also learn by copying, so it is important to take a step back and think about what example you are setting, and what your children are learning from your own eating habits. For example, a parent who displays an obvious dislike of a specific food will likely influence their child to arrive at that same conclusion.

One of the main concerns is, of course, the quality of the food that children receive. Nowadays there is an increasing reliance placed on the ‘quick cook’ options that put a meal on the table in under ten minutes. We are dedicating less time to food preparation which means that we are becoming more dependent on processed foods. These may provide energy and therefore satisfy, however these foods have poor nutritional value and are referred to as ‘empty kilocalories’.

The other major concern with processed and convenience foods is that they contain chemical additives such as preservatives, flavourants, colourants and enhancers that make them visually more pleasing, taste nicer and last longer. It is the chemical additives that affect a child and result in problems such as poor concentration, hyperactivity, attention deficits, behavioural problems and low energy levels. They also contribute towards increasing a child’s risk of contracting any number of diseases, including cancer, throughout their lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the sugar in foods that have this effect. It just so happens that the majority of sugary foods also contain chemical additives. Pure sugar actually has very few immediate or short-term ill-health effects.

All processed foods containing chemical additives must be avoided. These include, but are not limited to: sweets, chocolates, cakes, muffins, crackers, chips, juice, cold drinks, biscuits, processed cheese, sausages, fish fingers, chicken nuggets/strips, ham, salami sticks, bacon, viennas (hotdogs), burger patties, microwave meals and noodles to name a few. Remember that both sweet and savoury foods can be the culprits. Even pre-chopped vegetables and fruit contain preservatives.

Children should be allowed treats; however, these must be controlled, sporadic and limited to once or twice a week or kept for a special occasion. These types of foods should ideally not be kept in the house nor seen as a normal or routine part of a child’s diet. For example, a child who routinely gets biscuits or cupcakes at school or at home will see this as a normal and acceptable way of eating. They will come to expect these types of foods regularly, and therefore potentially develop bad eating habits.

If you are concerned about your child’s long-term health then investing in their nutritional intake from as early on as possible is a worthwhile consideration. As a parent, you are able to control your child’s food intake, be it at home or at school. You need to establish rules and boundaries around food and eating. Remember that the more consistently your child observes habits or receives a message about food or eating over a period of time, the more it will become entrenched in their behaviour.

Live the good life that you would like your children to enjoy.

Article Credit: Kerryn Gibson (Kerryn is a registered dietitian in private practice in Durban and Ballito working as a paediatric dietitian and a sports dietitian).