Developing Healthy Eating Habits For You and Your Young Ones


As a mother of two growing children, I often struggle to keep their diets healthy and in particular, low in sugar. For me it’s a constant battle with sweets, crisps, biscuits, ice creams and sugary drinks tempting them (and me!) everywhere we turn. I feel I am constantly saying “no" especially over the summer months when routines are a little more relaxed. I think as parents, it's possible to control the amount of sweet things young children eat but my real concern is the huge amount of hidden sugar in foods on our supermarket shelves, which are causing serious health issues among Irish children (and adults). We’ve all read the media coverage about the rise of sugar consumption and its negative effects on weight, immunity, behavioural issues, energy levels and the risk of many chronic diseases. But how do we get past the barrage of confusing health messages on food products and know which ones are truly good for us and our children?

Well let me start with the shock factor …

A "healthy" oat breakfast bar contains 2-5 teaspoons of sugar per bar

Granola breakfast cereal contains 4 teaspoons of sugar per bowl

Non-fat fruit yogurts contain 4-5 teaspoons of sugar per pot

Probiotic fruit yogurt drinks contain 3 teaspoons per 100g serving

A bagel contains 1-2 teaspoons of sugar

A typical low fat ready meal contains up to 15 teaspoons per meal

Flavoured water contains 6-7 teaspoons of sugar per 500mls

The World Health Organisation recommend we consume no more than 5-10 teaspoons (1 teaspoon is approx. 4g sugar) of added sugar per day and after seeing the level of sugar in many common food products, I’m sure you’ll believe me when I say I regularly meet clients who believe they are making healthy food choices and are shocked to discover they are consuming 8-10 times this limit every day (and that’s without eating treats) in the processed foods they are consuming.

It is not easy to cut sugar completely from your diet but by being mindful of your food choices means it is a habit that can be broken.

So here are my top tips for keeping your family's diet healthy and developing good food habits for your children in the future.

Tip 1. Don’t keep sweets, chocolates and biscuits in the house. Buy them as occasional treats. I find if they are in the press the children are more likely to keep asking for them (and I’m more likely to eat them!).

Tip 2. Stock up on healthy snacks. One of the best ways to reduce sugar cravings is to stabilise blood sugar levels. Reduce this urge for sugar by offering foods like eggs, hummus, nut butters (all natural), chicken/fish salad wrap/pitta, natural yogurt with fruit and seeds, beans on wholegrain toast, smoothie made with natural yogurt and fruit, nuts, guacamole. My children love to make their own snacks and when left to their own devices, they often create a healthier snack than I would!

Tip 3. Get to know your labels. To help minimise the amount of sugar your child consumes, it’s a great idea to learn to read food labels. As a rule of thumb, high sugar items contain 15g of sugar per 100g of food and low sugar items contain 5g or less per 100g of food. When checking out the ingredients take note of where sugar appears on the list. As items are listed from highest to lowest volume, if sugar (or one of it's many other names) appears in the top five, re-think purchase!

Tip 4. Avoid ready meals and processed foods (which are generally high in sugar). Keep meals in the evenings and weekend simple. Young children like simple meals (and let’s face it so do we!). Scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast with a few chopped tomatoes, hummus on a wholegrain pitta with chopped celery, cucumber and grapes are two examples of simple nutritious meals that you can prepare in 2 minutes. Don’t put yourself under pressure to cook “gourmet” meals for the family after a long day at work, keep them simple and easy using a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, dairy products and protein rich foods.

Tip 5. Keeping an attractive fruit bowl in easy reach of children is a great way to encourage nutritious snacking. I am always amazed how this consistently works.

Tip 6. Don’t offer dessert after meals as a matter of course. Instead of sugary desserts try offering natural yogurt, a fruit salad or sliced melon. Fruit is loaded with fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which boost our little ones health and immunity. For the days you do offer a sugary dessert keep portion size small e.g. 3 pieces of chocolate rather than the full bar.

Tip 7. If choosing a breakfast cereal makes sure it is wholegrain and without sugar (or has a very low sugar content). Breakfast cereals are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to hidden sugar. Some of the healthier cereals (wholegrain and low added sugar) I buy in the supermarket include Shredded Wheat, Ready Brek, porridge oat, no added sugar muesli and Weetabix. I add some chopped fruit and a handful of mixed seeds to these cereals to boost them nutritionally and to help sweeten them up. Other quick, protein rich and nutritious breakfast options are eggs - omelette, french toast, scrambled eggs.

Tip 8: Make Gradual Changes Instead of cutting out all sugar in one swoop, think about cutting down slowly. Children as well as adults don’t cope well with drastic dietary changes. If two sugary treats are being eaten daily, aim to cut back to one a day for a week and gradually reduce your intake further.

Tip 9. Walk the Talk. Most importantly, monitor what YOU eat and drink. Be a strong, healthy model to your children. While your children might not eat everything that you eat, they will follow your lead. Changing the whole families eating habits will benefit you too.

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Image from Daily Mail