Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Are you feeding your children well?

Left to right: Dr Emma Haycraft, Gaby Morris and Jill Wheatcroft 

Last thursday MNH was very excited to be invited to a talk arranged by childcare experts Riverside Cares titled 'Feed your children well'. As a cooking enthusiast continually short on inspiration I assumed it would be some cooking tips, with nutritional advice thrown in. Little did I realise that even though I was about to be served some healthy portions of both of these, I would also learn the fundamental principles around children's eating habits and the common pitfalls which, as a parent, I experience when feeding my children on a daily basis. In other words: gold dust. I hope I can summarise just a fraction of the incredible information around the psychology of eating and food that was shared. It won't be difficult as I immediately went home and papered my kitchen walls with the notes I took.

Professional childcare expert and co-founder of Riverside Cares (who have been providing a comprehensive range of childcare facilities since 1989) Jill Wheatcroft kicked things off with some sobering statistics, including that 1 in 5 children of reception age are obese, a figure that has been steadily increasing since 1995. According to the WHO, childhood obesity is now one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. I didn't realise that at the moment my children, who are both under the age of 5, should be doing a minimum of 3 hours physical activity a day! 

Jill then handed the floor over to Senior lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough university Dr Emma Haycraft, who highlighted some of the feeding issues experienced by parents and children which fall into 5 main categories: refusing food, unhealthy food preferences, pressure to eat, food as a reward and food restriction. 

Food refusal is something my children certainly demonstrate on a frequent basis, including food that they will have happily tucked into the previous week. This is linked to neophobia - a fear of new things, an innate instinct we retain from our caveman days when we had to exercise considerably more caution around what we ate, compared to nowadays, in case our foraging efforts were of dubious origins. It takes around 20 attempts of presenting a child with a certain type of food for a child to categorically confirm their dislike for that food. Anyone who has found there are certain foods they just didn't eat until later in life will understand this concept. I didn't really start eating cheese until my 20s. But as a parent where do you begin to track something like this? Why am I asking this? Of course there's an app for that (and an amazing website too for that matter). Also, when you present a particular type of food you might  find that your child might not enjoy boiled carrots but they will eat carrot sticks or mashed carrot. A little bit of creativity beautifully captured in my favourite saying of the day 'think outside the plate'. Another fantastic idea, which anyone who has done baby led weaning will relate to, is allowing your children to play with their food. I don't mean the kind of thing that as I child I was continually reprimanded for, but again being a little bit creative - potato printing, squeezing the juice out of raspberries or beetroot and then painting with it. 

It is not uncommon for children to have unhealthy food preferences and Emma's explanation for this was compelling in its simplicity. Children are born with an innate preference for sweet things because breast milk is sweet. Often by explaining to children the potential super powers they will gain by eating certain foods (such as carrots help you see in the dark) is great for motivating your child to eat certain foods. However, this links in beautifully with the next section regarding pressuring your child to eat. This sounds harsh but actually it's something I frequently find myself doing. Urging my children to clean their plates or just simply to eat up their vegetables. The two key points to consider here are: firstly that children are very good at understanding when they are full and that this may have no correlation with them finishing what's on their plate. As parents we must trust our children to know when they are full. Whilst gentle encouragement is fine, by continually urging your child to clean their plate they will stop listening to their internal cues telling them that they are full and follow external cues like the amount of food in front of them, which could lead to a life time of over eating; The second point is once again delightfully condensed into 2 words: portion control. A rough guide to the size of each portion of food being served on your child's plate should be around the same size as the palm of your child's hand. 

The section that as a parent I related to the most is that of giving food as a reward. This is something I was brought up on and I often use to manage my own motivation (there will be biscuits at the end of this blog post). Bribing your children to eat their vegetables by offering a pudding-based incentive, escape from sitting at the dinner table if they just have one more piece of broccoli or treats if they are upset or refusing to get dressed/get in the car/get in their buggy are a daily occurrence in my household. Rewarding good behaviour with food creates emotion around eating which can then lead to emotional eating. Rewards should come in the form of a trip to the park or a small toy for example. Also, consider the logic from a child’s perspective, that carrots surely must be horrendous if they warrant a reward such as cake or ice cream once they’ve been eaten. 

Immediately on hearing the term 'food restriction' I thought this would not be something that I could relate to but on further explanation I realised it was something I do frequently. Food restriction falls into 2 categories: overt (for example 'you've had 2 biscuits you're not having anymore) and covert (making unhealthy food or snacks quite simply unavailable in the first place) So by openly refusing your child to have something that they know is stored away on a high shelf makes it even more desirable to them. However, if you give them a 'treat' but it's made clear that there are no more left then this makes it easier for them to understand 'treats' and they consequently feel less restricted. 

The main question this left for me was 'when is the time to give treats in the form of sweets or chocolate and should they even be referred to as ‘treats’? Of course if there was a straight forward answer to this then I’m pretty sure we’d all be doing it already however, reminding your child that sweet treats are special and not an everyday occurrence and not giving in to a perseverant toddlers or offering sweets as a reward is a good starting place. I know for me one of the greatest things that impacted on the volume of treats I gave to my children was moving the treat tin out of MY reach. 

To find all of the above information in far more articulate detail along with how to download the app please go to http://childfeedingguide.co.uk

Mumsnet Hackney was allowed to attend this event free of charge courtesy of Riverside Cares in exchange for an honest review

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