The importance of healthy eating is so obvious that it shouldn’t need stating in too much detail here. Poor diet is a major cause of chronic health problems, including obesity, which can in turn lead to a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Encouraging healthy eating in children can set habits that will continue into adulthood, undoubtedly giving them a better quality of life.

On the other hand, many parents worry about being too strict with their children’s eating habits. Some feel that letting them eat what they want, within reason, is the best policy. Being too prescriptive about food can take the fun and joy out of childhood, and if taken to extremes can even set up psychological problems and eating disorders in later life.

A balanced diet

The best approach is to strike a balance, but this should always be weighted more towards the healthy eating side of the scale. Give your children the freedom to eat what they want within certain clearly defined boundaries, and be prepared to step in and give them a nudge if they seem to be straying too far towards junk food and sweets.

Ideally, children should never get into the habit of enjoying sugary drinks, sweets and junk food. These provide an instant hit and a craving for more, but are actually unsatisfying. As they don’t give you the feeling of being full up, they lead to overeating as the child is never truly satisfied.

Part of the school curriculum

Healthy eating habits should be encouraged at school as well as at home. A healthy diet enables a child to concentrate on their studies better, and healthy eating is part of the process of preparing a child for life that is the role of the school. At the Stamford American International School, healthy eating habits are actively encouraged, and the school canteen serves only nutritionally balanced food provided by caterers Chartwells, which operates a “smart foods” program designed to meet USDA dietary guidelines.

A healthy diet also needs to be accompanied by plenty of physical exercise – another area in which the Stamford American School excels. It is the combination of diet and physical activity that will most influence a child’s health, and teaching them to cook as early as possible also gives them an interest in food preparation, and the skills to eat healthily as independent adults.

Learning for life

Children respond well to having set regular mealtimes, including a limited number of healthysnacks. Teaching them about including all the major food groups is something they will enjoy and appreciate. Don’t try to cut out fat and sugar altogether, but encourage them to look out for hidden sources of these things. Giving children agency in their own healthy diet is better than just giving them orders. Food should also never be used as punishment or reward as this sets up unhealthy associations that can be counter-productive.

Teaching children about healthy eating as opposed to just giving them healthy food and insisting that they eat it, or banning sweets and cakes, is the best way forward. It allows them to take charge of their own health with guidance from parents and teachers, and will stand them in good stead for the future.