AT face value Dr Jane Bowen is a hard-core academic. With a PhD in nutrition and two bachelor degrees, her work as a research scientist and dietician might seem a little removed from the trials of the daily grind.
But there are plenty of practical challenges in Jane’s life too. With three children aged 6, 4 and 2 to love and nourish, Jane and her husband know all about the sleep deprivation, the emotional highs and lows and the apparently endless daily chores that come with parenting.
So amongst all the cuddles, washing and toddler negotiations, what does a nutritionist feed her kids?
Here are Jane’s top 10 tips to surviving meals with children, and setting your kids on the right track towards nutritious eating for life.
1. Be a good role model
The general approach I have is to be a good role model when it comes to food. I think it’s not reasonable to expect the kids to eat something if I’m not eating it too. The food I keep in the house is mainly the stuff that I’m happy for all of us to eat. Having non-ideal food options available all the time normalises them, and makes them a part of everyday eating. There are enough of those foods wherever else they go.
2. Think about food behaviours
One of my children does not have a sweet tooth at all. But the behaviours that we often show about sweet foods being highly prized – such as ‘you’re not getting dessert until you finish that’ or ‘you have to wait until the end of the party for the lolly bag’ – are subtle hints slowly teaching her that maybe she should be wanting those things. I avoid using such motivators whenever possible. I also try and have a solid routine with food to keep my childrens’ appetites regular and less prone to snacking.
3. Eat dinner early
The typical time for our evening meal is 5-5.30pm. We have dinner early because I think the more tired they get, the less they can control their emotions. And especially when they’re little, this means they can get overwhelmed and food is a classic thing that can overwhelm them.
4. Have strategies up your sleeve
If we get home after a full day at work, school and childcare, my favourite go-to options for dinner are pasta or stir-fry, because they’re quick and I can easily throw a few vegetables in there. If they can’t handle a plate full of food, I put it on a smaller plate and call it ‘mini dinni’ – somehow it helps them wrap their head around it. If we’re really entering meltdown territory, I’ll steam some vegetables and give them a plate of that with some watered down soy sauce. I let them eat it while they watch TV. To be honest, that combination of vegetables with soy sauce and TV is quite magical.
5. Plan ahead
I plan the meals for the week ahead before I go shopping, and buy according to that. During the working week we generally have the same kinds of things for breakfasts and lunches, and variations on the same themes for dinners. On non-work day dinners I can spend a little more time being creative and involving the kids – which is slow and messy but worthwhile for them. In the cooking too, it’s all about organization. For stir-fry: start cooking the rice, and by the time it’s done you can have the vegetables ready with a bit of egg, throw in canned legumes, ready to go. Sometimes I cook on weekends for the week ahead.
6. Don’t insist on an empty plate
Insisting on an empty plate teaches children to override their appetite and eat until everything is gone rather than until they feel full. Having said that, I have a fair idea what it takes to fill up my kids. So if they say ‘I’m finished’ and they’re way below their normal volume, I do encourage them to eat more as otherwise in half an hour they’ll be saying ‘I’m hungry’.
7. Avoid making dessert a permanent fixture
We have dessert sometimes, and it’s usually fruit or yogurt or both. We rarely have a tub of ice-cream in the freezer, as I think once it’s there we just eat it every night until it’s gone and then their taste buds get attuned to that level of sweetness.
8. Let your children make some food decisions
I don’t think it’s wise to completely deprive children of making decisions around food. For example, on the odd occasion we use our school tuck shop I guide my daughter in making a decision about what to eat. We’ll talk about it, I’ll show her several items as options that I’ve okayed and then leave her to decide what she wants.
9. Make eating about nutrition not fullness
I think about foods in terms of what they have to offer in terms of nutrition. Brown foods are often good foods – nuts, wholegrain breads, pasta and crackers for example. In contrast, foods like white rice crackers or plain biscuits are not intrinsically ‘bad’, they’re just not giving your children any nutrients, any protein, any healthy fats or fibre. They’re just empty, nothing kind of foods, often salty too. For breakfast, I offer muesli, WeetBix, toast and fruit. In lunchboxes, I include cut up vegetables, cheese, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs. And I always put in something that I know they don’t really like, just so it’s there to remind them to try things.
10. Talk about food and health
Some research says that it’s demotivating if you tell kids ‘this food is healthy’. I disagree. My children respond really well to me telling them the reasons they should eat something in particular. I encourage them to eat certain foods, and say ‘the meat is good for you and it will help you to be able to do cartwheels because you’ll have stronger muscles’. I don’t focus on weight, just on health and what our bodies can do. When they ask for less healthy options, I say ‘no, because it’s not good for your teeth’, or ‘it’s not going to make you feel good’, and ‘it’s going to fill you up so there’ll be no room left for the foods that make your body strong.’ Kids are way more intelligent and capable of taking on information that we often give them credit for. It also takes some of the reason for saying no away from me, and puts it back on them and how their body will respond to treat foods.
Jane is a member of CSIROseven, a group of Australian scientists working towards research breakthroughs. She is a Research Scientist and Dietitian for CSIRO Food and Nutrition, based at South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.