How to get children to eat their veg
With one-in-four children now overweight, Gabrielle Monaghan looks at how parents can encourage healthier eating in the face of tantrums at the dinner table
Many Irish parents born in the 1970s and 1980s have childhood memories of being told they were not leaving the dinner table until they had finished their vegetables.
These kids often grew up viewing fruit and vegetables as an essential part of a healthy diet. But instead of passing on the same values to their own children, modern-day parents became more likely to give in to requests for snacks or fast-food rather than face tantrums.
Some experts partly blame this lack of parental discipline to Ireland's ballooning child obesity epidemic, where one-in-four kids is now overweight or obese. A fifth of the food Irish children now consume are treats high in fat, sugar or salt, and these foods have displaced fruit and vegetables in daily diets, according to Safefood, which launched a nationwide campaign this week aimed at giving parents practical steps to ensure their offspring maintain a healthy weight.
Annabel Karmel, a UK-based cookery writer who tells parents how to cook healthy meals for youngsters, has warned that our kitchens are fast becoming like cafés, with parents dishing up multiple meals to fussy family members every evening. Parents of kids who refuse to eat their dinner should not give them another option.
Richelle Flanagan, the president of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI), which runs workshops for parents of fussy eaters under five, does not advocate sending children to bed hungry. But she does believe parents cave in far too easily when their kids won't eat their vegetables.
"When parents come in after working for the day, they don't want to discuss vegetables with their children," says Flanagan. "But they have to keep trying, even if the kid doesn't want to eat the broccoli. A child has to have repeated exposure to a food before they will consider eating it.
"If you have a family sitting down to a meal together, and the child is engaged in conversation, they won't realise what they are eating as much," she says.
Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at Safefood, believes parents should not be handing out adult-sized dinners to their offspring. "Between the ages of two and four, children will only eat what they need to eat."
While Flanagan welcomed the Safefood campaign, she said it merely paid "lip service" to the fact that Ireland "is in the middle of an obesity epidemic". Funds spent on health promotion would be better used by giving more families from disadvantaged areas the tools to shop and cook, she says. Children from poorer families are more likely to be obese, the latest Growing Up In Ireland study shows.
Health Service Executive has told the INDI that public health nurses will begin weighing children in school and direct those at risk of obesity to a programme created by Temple Street Children's University Hospital in Dublin, Flanagan says.