Empowering Parents To Get Kids Eating Well

Flinders University has developed a program to empower parents to get their kids eating well. Dr Lucinda Bell explains how.

We know that childhood obesity is associated with an increased risk of premature mortality, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, increased school absences, asthma, musculoskeletal issues, psychological problems, cognitive impairment and some cancers. We also know that overweight children tend to become overweight adults. This means that these issues can start young and continue throughout life.

Australian children are simply not meeting the healthy lifestyle (eating and activity) guidelines.

In fact, a recent local study found that less than one percent of South Australian primary school children are meeting healthy lifestyle guidelines; more specifically, just 22 percent of children surveyed ate enough vegetables and only 17 percent of children watched screens for fewer than two hours per day. However, this is easier said than done.

Three top tips for keeping your kids healthy are:

1. Work as a family to improve children’s health. Changing habits requires everyone’s involvement. You need to lead the way. Going for a family bike ride or a walk, or activities like mini-golf, can be fun ways to get your kids moving.

2. Be good role models. Practise what you preach as children learn from you.

3. Make healthy choices easy choices. Ellyn Satter, a prominent child feeding expert, uses the motto: “parent provides, child decides”. This means that the parent chooses what food is provided, and the child decides which foods are eaten from the selection and how much is eaten. Have several healthy foods in the house that the child can choose from. For example, offer a choice of fruit or vegetable sticks and dip for a snack rather than a choice of fruit or potato chips.

Flinders University has developed the PEACH (Parenting Eating and Activity for Child Health) program to provide parents of primary schoolers with the skills to improve habits in the whole family. Research finds that parenting programs are more successful than those which deliver information directly to children. A randomised control trial of PEACH found that moderately obese 5- to 9-year-olds experienced a 10% weight loss.

PEACH Lifestyle is a free online support program with tutorials, forums and live group discussions available here. Your child doesn’t need to be overweight to join in; the idea is prevention.

Been there, done that

Emma Northcote, from Adelaide, mother of two, aged three and five, has used the PEACH program.

Both my children were on or over the 100th percentile for weight on the growth chart. Every time I went to the doctor, someone brought up my children’s weight. I knew it was partly their build – they had never been ‘small’ – but their diet wasn’t as good as it should have been. The children snacked a lot; their dad had a lot of junk food around the house and they used to help themselves.

Mealtimes were becoming increasingly stressful as the children got older.

There was a reluctance to sit and eat, there were always complaints about the meal and demands for alternate choices. I was stressed and tired and too often compliant in agreeing to their demands for takeaway or pre-packaged foods.

Then the childcare centre told me about PEACH.

I was always on the lookout for up to date professional advice about all aspects of parenting because I preferred to not just rely on Google. The main thing I have learned is that, as a parent, you are responsible not just for the foods you put on the table, but for teaching your children about nutrition. I learned that even with young children, it’s important to have group family discussions about food choices, because if you get their input at the start, they are more likely to participate long-term. If you get their investment, you get their compliance.

Of course, you also need to learn tips and tricks for keeping things palatable; you can’t just stop putting sugar in bolognese and expect them to love it – now we use apple instead. The easiest change was replacing all fluids with water; it took a bit of getting used to, but the short-term pain was worth the long-term gain.

Their weight hasn’t changed much because they are always growing, but I know they are healthier and establishing life-long patterns that will serve them well in the future. The hardest part is making sure my husband sticks to the rules on ‘dad days’.

His junk cupboard is no longer accessible to the kids; I just wish I could forget where it was!

The biggest surprise was discovering that completely removing iPads from their lives not only improved mood and concentration, but it made meals time a much more peaceful and engaged occasion.We’re also saving money because we are spending less on takeaway and there’s less food wastage. The kids are healthier and happier and I’m less wired because I am satisfied that we are achieving what we need to regarding nutrition.

Dr Lucinda Bell is Coordinator, School of Health Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Flinders University, Adelaide.

Words by Kim Richards / Image by Brooke Lark