It always seems amazing how quickly Christmas comes around. While I don’t want to be a Grinch, I do think kids’ food (and our grown-up tucker too) can do with a little extra thought in the festive season. If it was only Christmas dinner I would say just enjoy it and don’t give it another thought. However festive indulgence can go on for weeks, and for some lucky families, it’s swiftly followed by January summer holiday treats.
As a dietitian, I have to preach a little moderation. It’s not just to limit the excess sugar, fat and calories our kids don’t need. Young children are growing and developing, and this depends on a steady supply of protein, vitamins and other nutrients. These come from eating balanced amounts from different food groups. If your little person fills themselves up too much on Christmas treats, they might not fit in the fruit, vegetables and other food groups required to provide the vital nutrients their bodies do need. This doesn’t matter if it’s just for a day or two, but it’s a problem if it goes on for weeks on end.
Here are ten tips to help keep the balance in your little one’s nutrition and lifestyle without taking the joy out of your family’s festive season.
- Start each day with a healthy breakfast. Research supports the old wives’ tale that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – children who eat a healthy breakfast are more likely to meet their vitamin and mineral requirements than those who don’t, and studies have suggested it may help them maintain concentration levels as well. I realise this may prove to be almost impossible on Christmas Day itself – if you can get any food at all into your over-excited children that morning you’ll be doing well!
- Focus on the weak points in your child’s nutrition. What does this mean? Well most of us already know which food group our kids try to weasel out of, whether they attempt to hide their vegetables on their brother’s plate, or just dislike most meat, legumes or other high-protein foods from this food group. Try to make a point of including the recommended amount of this food group each day, because it will be the one your youngsters will naturally skip if they can. If you can fit some in early in the day, for breakfast or maybe morning tea, all the better. For more information on children’s food groups, see the Eat for Health leaflet in the For More Information section at the bottom of the blog.
- Celebrate summer fruits. I don’t think there’s any lovelier time for fruit than around Christmas, with fuzzy peaches, soft plums and fragrant mangoes ripe and ready. Serve a selection of chopped fruit with evening meals to make sure this food group is included each day. It will also tend to reduce the serving size of other unhealthier puddings that might be served at the same time.
- Bring on the veg. There’s no better meal for including lots of vegetables than Christmas dinner. From vibrant salads if you’re having a cooler meal to maple-roasted pumpkin, honey carrots and Brussels sprouts with bacon if you’re going for a traditional roast, I often think the side dishes are more exciting than the ham or turkey. They may not be the healthiest way to prepare vegetables, but it’s an ideal time to convince children that veggies can be delicious.
- Keep treats child-sized. While Santa may bring a few small treats, try to discourage him (and grandparents!) from giving lots of unhealthy foods as gifts.
- Ask Santa to bring toys to help your kids burn off some energy. Try to encourage Santa to bring an active toy such as a bat and ball, a soccer goal, Totem Tennis, Twister, or a skipping rope slipped into a Christmas stocking.
- Enjoy some active family fun. One of the biggest reasons for families not being active together is the lack of time, and it’s absolutely true that it can be difficult to find a spare moment during a regular work week. The extra time most of us have over the Christmas break may be the perfect time to play some active games with the kids, or take a family trip to the pool or playground.
- Sweet drinks are treats too. It’s not just unhealthy food but also sweet drinks that can fill kids’ tummies. However Christmas does come but once a year and your family might have a fizzy drink or bottle of fruit juice to celebrate the occasion. Rather than putting the whole bottle on the table, just set out one cup per person and put a jug of water on the table for refills.
- Ration the snacks. The same applies to snacks – instead of leaving out a bag or big bowl of chips or other treats, give a suitable individual serving to each child in their own bowl. This also guards against one child saying another ate the whole bag!
- My last suggestion is to chill out a little. This might be a time of the year to allow for a certain amount of relaxation in your child’s nutrition. Remember, it’s what we eat most of the time that determines our health, rather than the occasional treats. Food is about so much more than nutrition, and food traditions can make wonderful family memories for our children – my memories of a shiny bag of chocolate coins hiding in the toe of my Christmas stocking, and our family’s traditional fruit platter and cheerios for Christmas breakfast are an integral part of my childhood. And part of my Christmas joy now comes from watching my children carry on these family traditions.
I wish you all a wonderful healthy and happy holiday season!
Visit ‘Eat for Health’ for further information on Healthy Eating Guidelines for Children.
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: Please note that this blog is for general information only, and should not be taken as a substitute for qualified medical advice. Please discuss medical issues with your child’s doctor before taking any action.
About Fiona: Fiona Hinton is a dietitian, but describes herself as a nutrition translator, taking the science of nutrition and translating it into foods we love to eat, to nourish both body and soul. She has over 20 years of experience as a dietitian, working in a wide range of areas from hospital wards to running her own private practice. Fiona has a special interest in children’s nutrition. As a mum of three school-age boys, she has first-hand experience of the issues associated with feeding young children, such as weaning and fussiness. Fiona specialises in real-life strategies and practical suggestions to convert nutrition advice into food kids will eat. Fiona has collaborated on several books, including one with best-selling children’s food writer Annabel Karmel, as well as training childcare staff in children’s nutrition.