By Dr. Neha Sanwalka*
One of the most common concerns of parents is that their child eats a lot of high-calorie, fried or instant foods, along with sweets such as chocolates, ice-creams, and pastries—essentially, junk food. If you are a parent with similar food concerns, here are 17 simple tips to introduce good eating habits in your child and swear them off junk food.
1. Start young
The very first step is to teach about healthy and junk food right from childhood. Habits and knowledge that are imbibed from childhood last for a lifetime. Whenever you introduce a new food in your child's diet, tell them why it is good for them. When your child observes someone eating a food you wouldn't want him/her to eat, explain why that is unhealthy food. For example, you can explain that carrots are good for the eyes, milk has calcium for their bones and that instant noodles are high in calories but contain little nutritional value to help them grow stronger.
2. Focus on positive modelling
There is a strong psychological and environmental influence on eating habits. Positive modelling is shown to be more effective in preventing junk food consumption rather than negative modelling. This means that instead of focusing on the side effects of junk foods, you should focus on the benefits of including healthy eats.
3. Be a good role model
Children learn the best by observation. To encourage your child to eat healthy, you need to do the same and avoid eating junk. If your child sees you eating healthy food, he/she will definitely be motivated to eat healthily.
Have a discussion with grandparents and relatives to get them on board your plan to restrict unhealthy food and promote consumption of vegetables and fruits.
For example, when eating out, opt for healthier food options like a sandwich over a burger. If you crave for noodles, prepare them from scratch rather than using the instant variety.
4. Create a conducive family environment
In India, it's not just the parents who influence the eating patterns of the child. Grandparents, aunts and uncles play a major role in the food decisions of a child. They are also often known to offer chocolates, chips and ice-cream to children. Have a discussion with them to get them on board your plan to restrict unhealthy food and promote consumption of vegetables and fruits—greater eating competence is associated with more health-promoting family eating patterns. There should also be family food rules in place.
5. Don't use junk food as reward or a bribe
Many times, parents tend to use chocolates or chips or other calorie rich snacks as rewards or bribes for making their children complete a homework assignment or help them at home. If you use junk food as a bribe, the child gets the message that it is absolutely ok to eat these foods.
6. Pack a healthy lunchbox
If you give your child pocket money to purchase lunch or snacks from the school canteen, he or she is more likely to choose unhealthy, fat-laden junk foods as they are kept on the front display on shelves. So instead of giving money, pack your child a healthy and nutritious lunchbox. For snacks, you can give your child a fruit or a mix of nuts. Learn ways which will not result in your child coming home with that unfinished lunchbox.
7. Take your child shopping with you and buy only healthy foods
Involving your child in the process of grocery shopping, reading food labels with them and shopping only for healthy foods, promotes the idea of eating well. Avoid shopping for instant noodles, pasta, soups or popcorn. Read food labels with your child when grocery shopping and check the ingredient list. If there are more than 5-6 ingredients listed on the label, chances are the food is highly processed, so avoid purchasing it. This food shopping experience will empower your child and make him/her more confident about food choices right from a young age.
8. Offer water
Often thirst is confused with hunger and food cravings. If your child demands a particular food and you know that he/she is probably not hungry, encourage your child to drink a glass of water. Drinking water half hour before meals will also reduce food cravings and appetite.
9. Plan a protein-rich diet
Proteins in food make one feel fuller, reduce appetite and are also known to decrease cravings for high-calorie junk foods. Plan protein-rich meals especially at breakfast to reduce junk food cravings. Foods rich in protein include milk, eggs, sprouts, soy, lentils, poultry, fish and meat.
10. Make sure your child does not get extremely hungry
When your child is extremely hungry, food cravings reach their peak and they are more likely to grab junk food or other high-calorie treats. To avoid consumption of junk food, it's a good trick to feed your child at regular intervals to make sure he doesn't get extremely hungry.
Teach them healthy stress management techniques such as yoga or meditation from a young age so that they do not turn to comfort eating.
11. Keep your child busy
Most children crave for junk food during evening hours when they are sitting idle after completing their school assignments. Such desires are often a result of not having any constructive work to do. So, if your child has a similar food craving problem, make him/her busy during those hours. Enroll them in a sports activity, an art class or a dance class. When your child is busy, he/she will not think about food and consumption of junk will go down.
12. Have a "cheat day"
It's almost impossible to stop your child from eating junk food completely. If you are a very strict parent, your child will end up eating junk food without your knowledge using the pocket money you give. So rather than having an absolute "NO" rule, set aside a day in the week where your child can eat one of his favourite foods. You could start the meal with a portion of soup or salad and reduce the portion size of his/her favourite food if you want.
13. Break the monotony
If you prepare the same food every day, your child is more likely to get bored and crave for junk food. Add some new and different food to your child's diet regularly. The more variety you provide your child at home, the less likely he/she is going to crave junk. Also, try different cooking methods—for example, you could include banana in the diet as a fruit, as a milkshake, as a part of whole wheat banana bread, even as a vegetable etc. Here are some recipes to try.
14. Fruits and dry fruits to the rescue
Children love eating chocolates, ice-cream, pastries or other sweets. Fortunately, fruits and dry fruits are great substitutes to satiate that sweet tooth. Next time your child wants to eat a sweet, cut him a fresh fruit or give him some dates and figs. Pureed fruits like orange, strawberry and banana frozen in ice cubes to can be used as substitutes for ice-cream.
15. Organise food optimally
When we are hungry, we tend to grab whatever is stored on the front of the shelf of the refrigerator or pantry. So, store healthy foods such as roasted nuts, seed mixes, dry kurmura bhel, roasted khakra on the front. Even in the refrigerator, store fruits and chopped salad vegetables in front, ready for them to grab when hungry.
16. Teach them how to manage stress
With an increase in competitive studies, there is a proportional increase in stress seen in children. Children tend to reach out to chocolates, cakes, pastries or chips when stressed. Teach them healthy stress management techniques such as yoga or meditation from a young age so that they do not turn to comfort eating.
17. Make sure they get enough sleep
According to a study published in the journal Sleep, those who were sleep deprived have less ability to avoid junk snacks. Make sure your child sleeps at least 7-8 hours every day. This will help them regulate their appetite too.
Dr. Neha Sanwalka has a PhD in health sciences, a master's in nutrition & dietetics and is a certified diabetes educator. She specialises in neonatal, paediatric and endocrinal nutrition, bone health & SPSS (a statistical software). She is the director of a start-up, NutriCanvas, which provides diet consultations and conducts various nutrition workshops.