Our preschoolers have one of the worst diets in the world, so how do you break your child’s packaged snack habit?
Few parents find it easy to feed young children: restless children don’t sit around the dinner table, their fluctuating appetites lead to wasted food, and capricious tastes mean even favorite foods are turned down on a whim.
So who can blame someone for giving their kids food they will happily eat and enjoy?
Sausages, fish sticks, not to mention ready meals and bags of pureed vegetables and sucked meals through a plastic spout can make mealtime a stress-free affair.
While packaged snacks for babies and children such as vegetable chips, straws and cream puffs, oatmeal bars, jelly bars and fruit juice bars, bags of yogurt and fruit and bags of vegetable puree have the power to quell tears, calm tantrums and stop whining.
There are few UK parents who haven’t stocked up on these items, while the vast majority consider them an essential part of their parenting arsenal.
But it appears that our addiction to these convenience foods may take a toll on the health of our children.
According to a forthcoming report from the First Steps Nutrition Trust, a public health nutrition charity, British preschoolers have one of the worst diets in the world due to the high proportion of ultra-processed foods (UPF) in their diets.
UPFs are defined by the United Nations as “formulations of ingredients, mostly for industrial use only, typically created by a variety of industrial techniques and processes”.
About 61 percent of two- to five-year-olds’ energy comes from UPF, beating the United States where this figure is 58 percent.
UK children in this age group get just 32% of their energy from unprocessed or minimally processed food (this is 34% in the US, 36% in Australia and 61% in Colombia).
The report, entitled ‘Ultra-processed foods in the diets of infants and young children in the UK. What they are, how they harm health and what should be done to reduce their intake” will be published this summer.
Dr Vicky Sibson, director of First Steps Nutrition Trust and one of the report’s authors, says: ‘Children’s snacks are very likely to contain UPF even if they are not high in fat, salt or sugar. Critically, they mimic adult snack foods, which are likely high in fat, sugar and salt, creating unhealthy preferences from childhood.
Sibson and her co-author, public health nutritionist Rachel Childs, also say that young children’s packaged snacks and ready-to-eat meals may contain additives “associated with adverse health outcomes” and are “packaged in plastic that may contain chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system”.
“The number one problem we have with children’s diets right now is that they aren’t consuming real food,” says Dr. Federica Amati, a nutritionist at personalized nutrition company Zoe, which specializes in maternal and child health.
“We’ve created a food environment where all of their food can come from packets. I’m not judging or shaming parents, but pointing to companies that have very powerful marketing that makes parents think that a packaged flapjack is a good option for their child.
“So we’re in a situation where kids don’t know how to peel a banana but they do know how to open a package.
“It’s tough being a parent, most of us are short on time and it’s tough if you’re traveling with your child, so there’s room for snacks in those situations, especially those who don’t make a big mess, but anything you take from home , such as apples, bananas, cheese cubes is more beneficial.
“If a child snacks on a banana, it’s packed with energy and nutrients,” she says. “But if you give your baby a banana wafer, he’s full of energy but has no nutrients to show.
“When we talk about ‘nutrient dense’ food, we mean with lots of vitamins, polyphenols, minerals, proteins and healthy fats like omega-3s – nutrients that aid growth.
“So if you give them a lot of high-energy, low-nutrient food, their little bodies will say ‘I’m full,’ but they won’t have had the nutrients they need because they got their energy from nutrient-deficient food.
“Children are growing and have increased requirements for nutrients and energy and the building blocks needed for growth, not just muscle and bone but brain mass,” says Dr. Love yourself.
“They are forming fabrics that will serve them for life. The base layer of the intestinal lining is fixed by age three, which is why the first three years of life are so important to the microbiome [the trillions of bacteria that populate the gut and impact overall health and wellbeing].
“But babies have small bellies, and you have to put a relatively large percentage of nutrients into that small belly.”
Yet there’s no escaping the fact that picky eating is all too common in young children and may be yet another reason why packaged snacks, ready meals and pouches become regular items in their diet.
Dr Amati is reassuring: “Between 18 months and two and a half years, children are asserting independence and may show neophobia, which is a fear of new food.
“There is also a natural slowing down of appetite from the age of two. Most parents panic, but try to keep offering a variety of foods so your child can choose what he likes.
“If your child isn’t losing weight and isn’t sick, he’s probably getting what he needs. They are small and need much less food than we do. By the time they are three, their eating habits often return to normal.
So if packaged foods are off the menu, what should we put on our kids’ plates? “Make sure your child has a wide range of foods including protein, vegetables, fruit and, if he’s not allergic, nuts. Diversity is more important than focusing on individual components.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated: chicken breast, carrot sticks, cucumber, carrot, cauliflower.
“Carbohydrates are very important, but kids don’t need as much fiber as adults, so white pasta and white rice are fine, as are potatoes and sweet potatoes. Sliced bread from the supermarket is considered a UPF, but whole-wheat versions are better than white.
“They don’t need to eat meat, cheese and dairy products all the time – excessive consumption of animals is linked to obesity in adulthood.
“We shouldn’t give them too much sugar, for their dental health. If your child eats dairy products, whole milk is more nutritious than semi-skimmed milk.
But don’t feel demoralized if your child’s diet has been less than stellar recently. Dr. Amati wants to empower parents. “Eating is a learned behavior,” he says. “Children learn to eat from us and recognize food as whatever you give them.”