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10 rules for healthy eating in children

Her book has the audacious title The Food Nanny: The 10 Food Rules to Prevent a Frighteningly Fat Future for Your Kids, and nutritional scientist Anna Burns has some strong opinions on how Irish children are being badly fed.

The 43-year-old Cork mum-of-four says: "Because of our desire for quick-fix meal solutions and instant gratification, we are breeding a generation of potentially overweight children with no appreciation for the simple tastes of non-processed food."

It is a fact that Irish children are getting fatter. They run the risk of health problems unless someone gets a handle on their bad eating habits. Trinity graduate Anna has 17 years of working in the area of food and she hopes to be the one to steer Irish families back to good old-fashioned nutritious meals.

Anna's children have unwittingly been her subjects for testing her old-fashioned approach to healthy eating for years. Here are her 10 rules for getting children back to eating well:

Rule 1: I can say 'No' to food

When a prospective client makes an appointment to see me about their overweight child, I always refuse to see the child. But I am happy to consult with the person who makes the call, usually the mother. Why? Because the child is eating what their mother allows them to eat. Kids can sniff out chocolate, sweets, treats.

If you think you can restrict a child in a house where there are cupboards full of variety packs, multi-packs, cereal bars and the like, you are wrong. Kids find them. Kids eat them. So I start with the parent. By addressing what the entire household eats, the child's dietary intake changes for the better with the rest of the family's. You can say no to food and not be a bad parent.

Rule 2: Eat only at the table

If your bum's not on a seat, you don't eat. If this were the only rule you adhered to, it could significantly change your child's habits around food, and for life.

Our habits have become very sloppy around food. We often just make it up as we go along. We can cook a few different meals a day, depending on who's eating what and when and quite often we will eat in front of the TV, or at a counter-top, because it is convenient. There should be a golden rule of 'eat only at the table' for your children, without exception.

Rule 3: Have they had their

fruit and vegetables today?

It is a little known fact that kids say "no" to anything new -- that isn't ice cream, of course -- up to a dozen times before they will say "yes". Mangetout is a recent addition to my four-year-old son's repertoire, for instance, after about a year and a half of refusing to put it near his lips.

Rule 4: We do not need

to buy organic foods

We don't need to buy organic foods to feed our kids well. A desire for perfection in food is a barrier to success: it sets you up for failure.

The middle ground is more my territory when it comes to food: first, aim to do your best and then aim to do so consistently.

The reason that I do not buy organically produced milk, for example, is that it is too expensive to justify at present, and my kids consume so much of it that any taste difference between the organic and the non-organic is of no significance to my family.

Rule 5: If you can name it,

you can consider it

Can you list the ingredients in your child's favourite snack food? All of them? My guess is probably not. In a good-quality yoghurt there should be a short ingredients list, such as: milk; the cultures that make it a yoghurt; and perhaps a live 'bio' culture, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. That's two or possibly three ingredients. You can name them in a flash and that is generally a good sign that you are getting a quality product.

When an ingredients list in what should be a simple product is as long as your arm -- which is often the case in fat-free products -- this is generally not a sign of good quality.

Rule 6: Say 'No' to

passive consumption

We do not want our children consuming hundreds of calories in excess of their requirement every day, without them even noticing them go down. So do not eat while watching television. In fact, always separate eating from other activities.

Rule 7: Eat only when you genuinely feel hungry

I find that one of my own children, for instance, at age six, still needs to be taught this. While my two eldest can happily leave food on the plate behind them, and go on to ask for dessert, my six-year-old has not yet fine-tuned her sense of feeling full so as to be able to resist finishing her favourite dinner (roast chicken).

She will go on to eat dessert until she feels 'stuffed', as she might eloquently put it. Unless I ask her, towards the end of dinner, "Have you had enough?" she will clear her plate. If I do not intervene, she will quite often overeat: in the short-term she will be prone to feeling worse for wear becuase of this; and in the long-term, if this is allowed to continue, she could possibly end up with a weight problem.

Rule 8: Get moving!

Nowadays, our fool-proof babysitter is the television, any time of the day or night.

We need to have the discipline to turn off the television and to send our children out to play. 'Go out and play before dinner' should be your mantra.

Rule 9: Just portion-control it

Your children's health does not depend on their getting so-called 'super foods' every day, nor is it detrimental to their health to allow them to eat 'rubbish' every now and again. Balance is what we are after. Keep foods good quality, wholesome and tasty for the most part and the odd digression will not add up to a whole lot of damage.

It does not matter if, on a rare occasion, your child eats chocolate-covered space balls for breakfast.

It matters a lot, however, if we allow these sugar-laden, nutrient-devoid concoctions to be a regular feature of our child's diet, in place of nutritious options such as porridge, muesli or wholemeal bread.

Rule 10: Have a strategy

Shopping is what it all boils down to, in my experience. Those who develop a foolproof strategy when it comes to having the right foods available at the right time are always prepared and get the most consistent weight-loss results.

Preparation in anything is an essential part of making a successful behaviour change. To be prepared I use a list (but then I would!).

The Food Nanny: The 10 Food Rules to Prevent a Frighteningly Fat Future for Your Kids is published by Gill & Macmillan, price €18.75.