Food choices and nourishment during early childhood
This blog is an extract from a session on nutrition with parents of children in their early years. Ms. Anjali Dange is a Nutrition Consultant by profession and has almost two decades of experience in counseling various global communities and different age groups of people on nutrition, diet, fitness, holistic health care, and wellness. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Starlite Nutrition and Wellness Center which provides nutrition focused integrated wellness programs to the people of Vizag.
Experiences and relation with food
Food is associated with a variety of memories and emotions from a young age. The way it is introduced, prepared and served creates an impression in the mind of a child, which as they grow, determines their relationship with food.
To develop the food palette and openness in children towards different flavors and textures, it is important to provide them with the right experiences during the early years. It is often misconstrued that bland or sweet food is easily accepted by the digestive systems of young children. But, gradual and progressive introduction of flavours does not disturb the metabolism, rather accustoms the digestive system naturally.
Balanced food regimen
Children begin to recognize the flavours as early as 4-7 months of age. During this ‘flavour window’, they must be provided with the taste of all flavours - sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory, not influenced by the likes and dislikes of adults. As they grow, a balance between macro and micro nutrients also becomes significant for their development and nourishment.
In this regard, the classification of food groups by the U.S Department of Agriculture provides a useful reference to identify a healthy and balanced diet intake in children. It identifies -
‘go foods’ as those that give energy and nutrition for play, physical activity which largely includes carbohydrates (such as rice, wheat, oats,millets) and fats (such as ghee, cold pressed oils - sesame, groundnut, coconut, sunflower);
‘grow foods’ like protein (such as lentils, pulses, egg, meat, fish) and mineral-rich foods (such as dairy products, sesame and jaggery, green leafy vegetables, green gram dates, raisins, nuts, roasted seeds) for the development of body and mind; and
‘glow foods’ which are vitamin rich foods (such as fruits, vegetables) that benefit skin care, hair growth and build immunity.
Distributing the proportions of each meal across these food groups serves the purpose of a balanced diet for children. But, a conscious planning of the meal timings is also critical for a healthy routine. This can be mapped according to the activities and daily routine, such as giving a protein and carbohydrate balanced breakfast for required energy levels and avoiding sugar intake at the beginning of the day or before going to bed that may lead to high levels of energy or crankiness in children.
Most often, the quantities of intake by children is a matter of concern for adults. However, it is counterproductive to force feed them and rather helpful to let the child recognise when he/she is full which will go a long way in developing mindful eating. A gradual increase in portions, allowing time to get used to the taste, spreading the food intake throughout the day will benefit in improving their appetite according to the energy they expend.
In the current times with an overwhelming imposition of unhealthy food in the market, fussy eating and rejection of healthy food is not rare. Though setting boundaries and not stocking up at home prove to minimize the inclination towards unhealthy food, making it sustainable is possible when parents involve children in their journey with food.
Here are some practical ways and insights on creating a joyful relationship with food for children:
- Active involvement of children in various steps of food preparation works wonders. When children grow plants, select fruits and vegetables, clean and store them, see-smell-touch-cut-mix the food, they start experiencing a variety of foods. Keep the kitchen as a place where children are welcome.
- Eating together as a family with adults and children involved in roles like setting the table, arranging water and serving makes mealtime a warm ritual they look forward to.
- Narrating a story about the dish, introducing the traditional background on how and why certain foods are consumed in a specific season makes children more open and willing to eat.
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