Most agree that breakfast for kids is essential but sometimes getting them to tuck in to their morning meal isn't as easy as it sounds, writes Dr Joanna McMillan.
Some kids leap out of bed in the morning and sit, bright eyed and bushy tailed at the breakfast table ready to tuck in heartily. Others take some time to warm up, say they’re not hungry and push their food half-heartedly around the plate. If you have one of those kids I’m sympathetic.
As parents we are constantly told about the importance of breakfast for our kids. For school age kids we know that after eating breakfast, their ability to concentrate is much improved, they have more energy throughout the morning and their behaviour is usually better as a result. So I agree wholeheartedly that getting your kids to eat a good breakfast is pretty essential. But what do you do if you have a child that is a reluctant breakfast eater?
I’m absolutely convinced that some of our eating habits are just a part of who we are and probably imbedded in our genes. Some kids are just more interested in food and have bigger appetites, and some like eating first thing while others don’t. As adults we are just the same. Why should it be any different with kids?
There are of course many other factors that influence our eating habits. With adults who say they are not hungry in the morning, I always ask them how late they are eating at night, and whether they are overeating in the evening. The first thing to check with your reluctant breakfast child is the same. What is the evening routine and are they eating too close to bed? Are they snacking during the evening before bed? Try to develop good eating habits whereby they eat dinner at the table, then at most have one healthy snack later if need be. Avoid the constant grazing that just means they are never properly hungry for meals.
The morning routine also makes a difference. Those slow to warm up kids need a little time. You might have to alter the routine so they get dressed, brush their teeth, make (or help make) their bed and complete any other morning tasks before sitting down to breakfast. Where there is a deadline to get out the door for work or school, you might have to get them up a little earlier to allow for this warm up time – and put them to bed a little earlier at night.
Then look at what you are serving for breakfast. I have one child who loves muesli or cereal with fruit, milk and yoghurt, while the other one would much rather have eggs. Kids have food preferences just as adults do, and provided their favourite foods are healthy choices most of the time, it’s fine to cater to that. Of course what you don’t want to do is find yourself preparing several different breakfasts. I’ve heard myself saying to my kids "this is not a café!" But what I think is acceptable is to give two healthy options. Kids love having a sense of autonomy, that they have at least some control. It’s a tried and tested technique that works with younger children – give them a choice of two healthy options and you are much more likely to get them eating, instead of simply telling them what they are having. In fact I’d go so far as to say this approach is crucial in establishing long term eating habits. Otherwise you risk them veering straight off the healthy eating path as soon as they have the ability to choose for themselves.
So what makes a healthy breakfast for kids? Breakfast cereals are popular for a reason. They’re quick, easy and convenient, and most kids like them. However you don’t need me to tell you that the vast majority of cereals out there are highly processed, with added refined sugars, colours, flavourings and the like. While giving your kids something is better than nothing at all, falling into the trap of giving sugary coloured, refined starch shapes in a bowl is a surefire route to health and weight problems later.
Don’t be fooled by front of pack health claims. Get into the habit of reading the ingredients lists of all the packaged food you buy so that you know exactly what you are feeding your family. There are some good cereals on the market for kids. Look for ones made from wholegrains – this at least ensures they are getting more fibre and in addition many of the nutrients are in the husk of the grain. Then look for how much added refined sugar there is in the product. The nutrition panel is difficult to interpret, as it won’t tell you whether the sugars present are coming from those naturally present in the food ingredients, and how much is added. I always look to the ingredients list. Its written in order of weight so the higher up the list sugar ranks the more is present. You might also find that the list includes sugar, syrup or one of the many other guises of sugar – if they were combined sugar might well be the first ingredient on the list.
Encourage your children to taste all sorts of foods. Don't just assume they won't like it. It’s easy to be bought into the marketing of children’s foods, and automatically buy them. Both my kids will eat muesli – although I’m perfectly certain they’d tuck into a sugary kids cereal with fun characters on the box if it was on offer. On the weekend we all have poached eggs with sourdough, lean bacon and sausage. I just can’t get them to eat my wilted spinach and grilled tomatoes … but at least they’re having real food. Another firm favourite with my boys is boiled eggs with vegemite and avocado toast soldiers. Or an omelette with smoked salmon or ham and cheese. It seriously doesn’t take long and I make it while packing school lunches or emptying the dishwasher.
For the truly reluctant child you might want to consider this breakfast alternative. You can make your own breakfast smoothie by blitzing up Weet-Bix soaked in milk with banana, berries and natural yoghurt. If it comes to it they can drink it on the run.
Whatever you do it’s just about getting yourself and your kids into the breakfast habit and giving it the priority it deserves.
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