A Lifetime Of Food

By Jenna Schmitt 2019-06-03 20:38:22

Building healthy attitudes toward nutrition

Everything you do as a parent is geared toward setting your children up for success. From experiences to education, we’re trying to give them the best possible start in life. But there’s a key part of a bright future that’s going unnoticed: childhood eating habits and nutrition.

This is an issue that goes far beyond a late-night sugar rush at bedtime or fuelling up before a test or sports event. The World Health Organization lists childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The problem is especially severe in urban areas like Shanghai, where pre-packaged food is more readily available than natural ingredients. It’s not always easy to convince a child that high blood pressure, joint problems, asthma, heart disease, depression, and other serious consequences of obesity are reasons to eat wisely. But as parents we have a responsibility to build healthy relationships with food early on; the same way we emphasise learning as positive experience to last a lifetime.

What is a “healthy relationship” with food?

For a young child, a healthy relationship with food means enjoying varied, appropriately sized meals that contain fresh and natural ingredients, while sticking to the most consistent eating schedule as possible. Many cultures have an attitude of avoiding both hunger and food waste, that results in a “finish-your-plate” mentality and often oversupplying kids with snacks.

Dr Fariba Sabet-Sharghi, Dietician at ParkwayHealth, says that in addition to creating an unnatural rhythm of eating times and portions, making food readily available or part of a reward system (like offering ice cream for finishing all of the vegetables) also create an unhealthy perspective.

“In the mind of the child, the vegetables become the chore, and the ice cream is the desirable thing,” she explains. “There is no ‘good food’ or ‘bad food’ per se, but it’s the way that one looks at food. There is no reason a healthy child should not enjoy dessert once in a while, but it should not be part of a regular diet (or a reward).”

The consequences of these behaviour-and-attitude-shaping habits are long-term. For example, if sugary food becomes a reward, or if parents shame kids about eating too much/eating a certain way, these actions can start a vicious cycle that push the child into more of those unhealthy behaviours as a response to teasing from family and peers. Overeating, eating in secret, becoming less social and less active, are results of an unhealthy relationship with food and ultimately make the problem worse.

Forming Habits, Shaping Perspective

From the first day your baby starts eating “real” food, you know the battle that is trying new and suspicious foods. Once rejected, it’s usually easy to never bring that zucchini back to the table, but this moment is crucial. To form new taste buds that help us like or even love an unfamiliar food, scientific studies tell us to try that food ten times in a period of about two weeks. That might be an unlikely goal for very opinionated children, but adults and kids alike can learn from the idea that trying something once is not a good test of whether or not we like it. If at first you don’t succeed: try, try again (times ten!)

Making new foods an interactive experience can help. Ditch the old-school idea that “kids’ meals” are sugary or salty foods different from adults, like boxed macaroni and cheese or breaded chicken and fish fingers, and involve your children as much as possible in food prep shared by the whole family. Colourful fruits and vegetables cut into shapes or served with a variety of dips can make cooking and eating more engaging. If you want to take it to the next level, try imitating the beautiful bento box tradition from Japan, where school lunches are transformed into cartoon characters, farm animals, and other goodies that look too cute to eat… in a good way.

And yes, helping your children develop healthy habits and a positive perspective on nutrition means that you too must lead by example. Consider this your chance to adjust your own relationship with food by trying new things and focusing on fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables right along with your kids. Be honest about it; if green leafy vegetables weren’t a part of your daily diet in the past, you can explain, “Mummy/Daddy didn’t have the chance to eat this when we were growing up, so we’re learning about new foods that make us strong so we can play with you!” After all, what parent couldn’t use the extra energy from an improved diet?

Early Warning Signs of Obesity

These habits and signs are indicators that your child may be on an unhealthy path due to overeating. Talk to you paediatrician if you observe these symptoms getting in the way of your child’s daily life.

• “Picky” eater gravitating toward high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages

• Frequent headaches

• Mood swings or short temper

• Trouble sleeping and often fatigued

• Changing percentile brackets on the paediatrician’s growth chart, e.g. jumping from the middle percentile range into the upper bracket at the next check-up.

• Majority of free/play time spent on sedentary activities like watching TV

Growing Portions

Dr Sabet-Sharghi says that as a general rule of thumb, children under six should eat about one-third of an adult portion, while children from six to nine years can eat about half of an adult portion. Err on the side of less, and discourage snacking between regularly scheduled mealtimes. Your child will let you know if they’re still hungry, and these moments of between-meal hunger, like coming home from school or finishing prolonged physical play, “are the best times to feed them healthier options, like cut vegetables with a healthy dip.”

She especially warns of fad diets that criticise carbohydrates, because “a growing child needs the energy that comes from simple carbohydrates; they don’t need a lot of meat [which often contains antibiotics and growth hormones].” For early primary school children, this might look like two medium sized fruits, one and a half cup of vegetables, four ounces of meat or protein, five servings of complex carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains), and about two cups of dairy products each day. Liquids are a sneaky culprit, because even fruit juice has unnaturally high sugar content. Kids need about two litres of water every single day, but soda, juice, and sports drinks aren’t an appropriate substitute.

More important than any one diet rule, emphasises Dr Sabet-Sharghi, is a “mindful eating” approach that considers how sleep, hydration, nutrition, and physical activity all affect one another. If you feel confused or discouraged as a parent of a picky eater or overeating child, she recommends getting together with other parents willing to take an introductory course or two about building healthy habits, and introducing your child to a love of nutritious food. Talk to fellow parents or ask your children’s school to organise a class through a licensed medical clinic or hospital.

Make It Relevant

To help your children view food as an important and enjoyable part of their active lifestyle, explaining potential adult diseases may not be tangible enough to connect. Instead, relate their meals to helping them get through that day. Eggs and salmon have the protein and fats to nourish the brain before a test, while dark green leafy vegetables have vitamins K, B6, and B12, that build synapse connections in the brain to aid learning and memory.


When it comes to each individual child, health needs, allergies, and other medical conditions can influence dietary requirements. Please speak to your paediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s eating habits. Correcting small patterns early on, in order to build positive and health habits, is always easier than making big diet changes later in life.

Dr Fariba Sabet-Sharghi