“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. The old adage rings true and has proven itself repeatedly as we are guided in how we bring up our children in an effort to nurture well-meaning citizens that positively contribute to our society. Most of the habits we carry with us into adulthood have been a part of us for as long as we can remember. Therefore, it is imperative that we foster good habits in our children that will guide them throughout their lifespan. How we were brought up and what we knew then as being ‘healthy’ is a far cry from what obtains today as ‘food’.
Culturally, we have assumed that children can be fed anything that is readily available, as they are resilient. “It’s just baby fat”, “He will grow out of it”, “He’s a growing child”, and “Let children be children” are just a few of the phrases we as adults use to feed our children whatever they will consume, giving little thought to the nutritional value of the foods. We’ve merely settled for convenience in a hectic environment. Salty snacks and sugary drinks are almost synonymous with childhood it would seem, because what else can we put in their lunch boxes?
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and certain types of cancers are strongly correlated with the lifestyle habits which we observe. With the digital age we have become sedentary, are more dependent on ultra-processed convenience foods – continuously moving away from what our bodies are naturally inclined to do. NCDs are highly preventable. More and more children are being diagnosed with these conditions at a surprisingly young age (which were initially associated with ‘old age’). It simply means that we need to make significant changes in the way our children eat, if we want them to lead healthy productive lives.
STARTS FROM CONCEPTION
Healthy nutrition starts from conception. From the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, her doctor prescribes a prenatal vitamin to ensure that she is getting all the essential vitamins to maintain good health for herself and her growing baby. Most babies are able to benefit from breastfeeding soon after birth. It is recommended that babies be fed no other food than breastmilk for six completed months. This is known as exclusive breastfeeding. Breastmilk can also be expressed and fed to the baby from alternate feeding devices. This will ensure optimal nutrition in cases where mom and baby are separated, for example, returning to work. Exclusive breastfeeding has a myriad of benefits for both mom and baby, including a reduced risk of the development of NCDs in children and cervical and breast cancer in women. Babies’ immune systems are given a boost as breastmilk carries antimicrobial properties that have been shown to be protective for many years to come. Breastfeeding also presents the unique opportunity for mom and baby to bond in a personal way. Suffice it to say, breastmilk is always readily available, at the right temperature, with all the necessary nutrients in the ideal amounts at no additional cost.
After six months, the baby can now start to eat from the family pot. This is the perfect time to ensure that everyone in the family is eating well so that your baby will feel comfortable exploring new foods. Usually, they start out with foods such as cereals and porridges that are smooth and easy to swallow, minimising choking hazards. Breastmilk is still valuable at this stage and can be added to foods to soften them and add a familiar flavour. Foods such as pumpkin, Irish and sweet potato, green banana as well as vegetables such as broccoli, callaloo and carrots can be puréed and are excellent starter foods. Caregivers are encouraged to add one food at a time and be patient as your child expands their palate. Don’t expect them to clean their plate as milk still takes up a majority of their diet.
WIDER VARIETY OF FOODS
As the infant grows, they will be able to tolerate a wider variety of foods, and it is important as caregivers to ensure that they consume foods which are beneficial to their health and well-being and are supportive of optimal growth and brain development. Choose foods that are rich in proteins, carbohydrates and unsaturated fats as well as vitamins, minerals and natural sugars while minimising those that are high in salt/sodium, saturated and trans fats and added sugars. While it is better to prepare your own foods as you know exactly what is going into your meals, this isn’t always possible. A good way to steer in the right direction when it comes on to foods that you and your children eat is to read the food labels. The nutrition facts panel is a valuable resource in providing information about the serving size, calories and nutrients contained in packaged foods.
Eating a balanced diet for children can prove to be difficult. Children tend to be very picky; however, small steps can be made to encourage them to lead healthy lifestyles by modelling habits which we want them to employ. Whenever possible, eat at least two servings of fresh fruits and three servings of vegetables daily. Get creative and cut fruits and vegetables in a variety of shapes and sizes to keep them interesting for your little ones. Try as best as possible to offer fruits instead of drinks loaded with added sugars. Naturally healthy infused water can also be made by adding fruit slices to give a refreshing new twist to an otherwise plain glass of water. Blending fruits and vegetables to make natural juices and popsicles gives way for a healthy treat – especially on a hot summer day.
Pre-packaged snacks and juices are convenient and enticing. However, they aren’t necessarily the healthiest option for our children. Let’s do our part to ensure our children have a healthy start in life. Train a child in the way that he should grow.
– Simeca Alexander-Williamson is the advocacy officer at Global Health Advocacy Project, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica as well as a lactation specialist. Send feedback to [email protected].