The modern lifestyle has already been increasing children’s exposure to unhealthy foods and habits. Now, school closures and lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic mean regular playing, sports, exercise and other activities have practically halted. The major increase in screen time and erratic sleep schedules too have parents worried.
Food has also become a major source of entertainment and recreation, making unhealthy weight gain an inevitable side effect. India is said to have 14.4 million children who suffer from obesity, the largest number of cases in the world after China.
A 2016-18 survey Ministry of Health And Family Welfare, with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Population Council of India states that almost one in every 10 children from 5-9 years old was pre-diabetic. 5% of children between the ages of 5 and 19 years old were overweight.
According to a news report, some doctors estimate India’s childhood obesity prevalence is up to 15 to 20% in urban areas. Not only is obesity harmful to a child’s physical health, but it can also really knock their confidence and increase the likelihood of being overweight in adulthood.
We all want the best for our children and for them to be healthy and happy. A big part of this is supporting them with a balanced diet and good routines. Children need nourishing foods, exercise and a solid sleep routine. Here are some ways to help your children’s physical and mental health through a balanced diet and healthy daily routine.
Having a balanced diet is so important, it not only affects physical health, but it can also impact mood. Weight can be a sensitive issue and, as a parent, it is best to help your children maintain a healthy weight rather than have to encourage them to lose excess weight later. It is important to find a balance: you need to encourage your child to be healthy and mindful of their eating as well as have a good attitude and relationship with food. This will carry them through life. Here are some easy ideas you can implement right away.
In India, as with many parts of the world, we often link finishing our plates with good behavior. The more a child eats, the more they are praised. However, healthy eating habits go hand-in-hand with appropriate portion sizes and your child’s appetite at different ages. Use online resources for a guide to how much food to give your child. Don’t force them to eat when they are not hungry and provide them with healthy and wholesome foods and snacks when they seem ravenous (they may be going through a growth spurt). If your child is overweight, consult their doctor for further information on how to limit portion sizes. Encourage your child to eat slowly and ensure they drink plenty of water throughout the day. Hunger is often mistaken for thirst.
As often as possible, cook from scratch. Processed foods are usually packed with salt and sugar. Excess sugar may satiate your child’s appetite immediately but they will soon be hungry again as their blood sugar drops. Instead, choose healthy foods that are low on the glycemic index will digest slowly and leave them feeling full for a longer period. You could even make healthier versions of your children’s favorite fast foods. For example, make a vegetarian ‘pizza’ with a wholewheat base or chapati, topped with various vegetables, cheese and tomato paste/sauce. Or blend bananas with milk for a delicious and healthy refined sugar-free milkshake.
Fizzy drinks are not good for your child’s teeth. Each 250ml glass of cola has about 24 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of sugar. That’s an entire day’s worth of sugar recommended for a 10-year-old child. Packaged juices too are guilty of adding unnecessary empty calories and provide only a fraction of the nutrition and almost none of the fiber that fresh fruit has. If your child loves drinking fizzy drinks or juices, try weaning them off with flavored water. You can add mint leaves, berries and citrus fruits to water, making it tasty and sugar-free. For a treat, puree fruit at home to make delicious smoothies that pack in all the nutrients and fiber of fresh fruits.
Make cooking fun and something you can enjoy together by cooking healthy recipes and a few treats. A homemade cake is still much healthier than a shop-bought one. Experiment with recipes. For example, when baking sweets, swap out some refined sugar for jaggery powder or dates; a portion of all-purpose flour (maida) can be replaced with wholewheat (atta) or almond meal, or reduce the amount of sugar and fat in a recipe. Check online for tried-and-tested healthy recipes that are fun to make with children.
Be sure to set aside treat days, as banning all indulgent foods can make your children crave them more. Turn treat day into an opportunity to teach your children about homemade food that is healthy yet indulgent. For example, try baking some healthy banana bread or carrot cake – you won’t lose their attention.
Snacking is important for growing children. But you don’t want them to get into the habit of snacking too regularly and on sugary or fatty foods. Instead, consider what meals and snacks you can provide that will keep them fuller for longer. Oats, eggs, nut butters and whole grains are great for keeping tummies full and providing their body with healthy nutrients.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to help your children lose weight and it’s also known to enhance mood and improve sleep quality. Studies have found that exercise can help improve mood and reduce anxiety in people.
Children often spend lots of time on smartphones or tablets. This means more time being sedentary. Put some limits on how much time they can spend on their devices and encourage outdoor play.
Involve the whole family in being active and make it fun. Go for regular walks or bike rides and make a day of it by packing a picnic. Exercise is much more enjoyable for kids when they get the opportunity to chat, be competitive and bond with people they like.
Get your kids used to moving about for a purpose, not just for play and exercise. Wherever you can, swap transportation for physical activity. If possible, encourage your children to walk to school, tuitions or to the shops. This helps to integrate physical activity into your child’s daily routine without it feeling like a chore.
Establishing a solid routine, particularly for school days, really helps to cement good habits. A regular routine can also help children feel calmer, in control and secure in their environment as they know what to expect each day. Here are some tips.
Eating a nutritious, filling breakfast will give your children more energy to fuel their day and concentrate in class. Swap shop-bought cereals for healthier alternatives such as ragi or oat porridge, yogurt with fruits and nuts, or eggs and toast.
What’s available at the school cafeteria isn’t always healthy. Consider making a simple but wholesome homemade packed lunch for your child’s afternoon meal. You can keep it easy by preparing soups, sandwiches packed with veggies on wholegrain bread or colorful salads that include some of your child’s favorite elements such as nuts, croutons or cheese.
Eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime can cause indigestion and interrupted sleep. Aim to eat dinner several hours before bedtime.
A good night’s sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind. Children aged six to 13 need about 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night. Try and establish a regular bedtime routine. Do this by doing things to help them unwind as night approaches. For instance, do away with screens, get them to have a relaxing bath and read a book to help calm them down.
Sharing meals nurture a healthy relationship with food by making it an enjoyable shared experience. It’s a great way to connect during the day, strengthen ties and build better relationships. Try to sit down together for a meal every day.
Finally, remember the importance of being a good role model. Children learn by example, so be open in talking about the value of a healthy diet, show them what nutritious meal planning and a good routine looks like. Don’t make food a taboo subject. Instead, teach them that it’s something to be enjoyed, while also supporting great health and wellbeing.