September is just around the corner. That means it’s back to school, back to work… back into routine. No more carefree summer attitude. Once ‘Labour Day’ hits its time to get into your regular schedule. For many, this routine means racing against the clock, trying to balance work and extra-curricular activities. And sometimes with all this busyness, the most basic element of health – nutrition, is overlooked.
Nutrition is important to people of all ages but is particularly essential for children. Children need the proper nutrients to grow and develop, to prevent nutrient deficiencies such as low levels of calcium and iron and to protect from diseases such as heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. Children who eat healthy are more likely to be able to concentrate better in school, have energy for physical activity and most importantly – are more likely to carry these healthy eating habits into adulthood.
This fall, consider taking a step back from your routine and take a fresh look at the foods that you and your family eat. The following are 5 helpful tips on how to improve your family’s eating habits:
1. Use the “3 out of 4” rule
A handy rule of thumb for healthy eating is to choose foods from three out of the four food groups for each meal and two out of the four food groups for each snack. The food groups are Grain Products, Vegetables & Fruit, Milk Products and Meats & Alternatives.
For example, a healthy meal could be whole-wheat pasta with tomato sauce made with vegetables and ground beef. This meal contains foods from the Grain Products, Vegetables & Fruit, and Meat and Alternatives food groups. A nutritious snack for a child may be a cheese string and a glass of orange juice. This snack contains foods from the Milk Products and Vegetables & Fruit food group.
2. Keep healthy foods in the house
For the most part parents are the gatekeepers to what foods their children eat, because they are usually the ones that do the food shopping. If you buy high-sugar, high-fat foods and put them in a place that is accessible to kids, they will eat that. However, if you purchase only nutritious foods, children have no choice but to eat what you have in the house.
This does not mean that you have to ban “junk” food from your house. A little treat every now and then can be part of healthy eating, as long as it does not become a routine part of your children’s diet.
Here are some nutritious foods to have on hand for you and your children:
• low fat cheese strings
• fruit flavoured yogurt
• pre-chopped vegetables with a low-fat dip
• pre-chopped fruit with a dash of honey or chocolate syrup
• whole grained crackers and nut butter
3. Check labels when shopping for food
Most packaged foods have food labels that follow strict guidelines from Health Canada. Each label follows a specific format and lists specific nutrients that make it easy to compare from product to product.
For dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt choose the product with the lowest amount of saturated fat or % MF (milk fat). Saturated fats increase our risk for heart disease by contributing to an increase in bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. For grain products such as cereal, breads and pasta choose products with no trans fat and that are low in sugar and high in fibre.
If you choose to buy processed snack foods such as crackers, biscuits, cookies, pastries and popcorn look closely at the saturated and trans fat amounts on the food label. The majority of the trans fat in our diet is from this food category.
4. Involve your children
Involving your children in meal planning, food purchasing and food preparation increases the likelihood that they will eat the foods that you provide for them. It also helps them learn about and appreciate different foods and how they are prepared. Helping wash the produce and arrange them on a plate can be fun and empowering for a child. The next time you go food shopping, bring your children along and ask them to choose a fruit that they have never tried before.
5. Be a role model for healthy eating
As you know, your children look up to you. If you scowl when brussel sprouts are placed in front of you, your children are less likely to eat this food. If you scarf down some cookies when you get home from work while making dinner, your children may think this behaviour is healthy. Be positive and encouraging about nutritious foods, even if you have not incorporated healthy eating into your diet yet.
So – start this fall off on a healthy note and re-examine the foods that you and your family eat. Include foods from at least three out of the four food groups for each meal to ensure your family gets a variety of nutrients. Make a concerted effort to have healthy foods in the house and compare food labels to make sure you are getting the more nutritious product. Wherever you can, involve your children in food planning, purchasing and preparation so that they feel more in control about the foods they eat. And above all – set a healthy example for your children by promoting nutritious foods.
Guest Post: By Susan Finkelstein (@SusanFinkelstei), Registered Dietitian