Healthy Habits for Children

Date Posted: 20.09.2012

A HEIGHTENED sense of mortality is an intrinsic part of becoming a parent. Being responsible for a new little being opens up a whole world of health concerns – not just for your baby but also for you.
One minute you’re worrying about unexplained infant rashes and high temperatures, the next you are concerned that your partner’s unhealthy, stressful lifestyle might suddenly take its toll and leave you raising the children on your own.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer for both men and women in Ireland – causing 36 per cent of all deaths. And although it is seen as an illness of adulthood, the foundations for it may be laid in the family home as children grow up eating too much of the wrong kinds of food and not getting enough exercise. They are habits that are likely to stick.
At least one in five Irish children is now overweight or obese. There is evidence of children aged four to eight already having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and impaired glucose tolerance.
The sharp increase in obesity within the past two decades is, according to the medical director of the Irish Health Foundation (IHF) Dr Angie Brown, likely to reverse the constant downward trend in the rate of cardiovascular deaths from its peak in 1974, when it caused 54 per cent of deaths.
Home is the biggest influence on children’s health and parents are the role models, says the IHF’s health promotion manager, Maureen Mulvihill.
“Parents have a responsibility to provide a wide range of [nutritious] foods,” she says. “We know that Irish children have a diet high in energy-dense foods and low in essential nutrients: calcium, iron, folate, vitamins A, C and D.”
However, she acknowledges that parents are up against a lot of influences outside the home – marketing, what is available to eat in schools and the local environment. Unlike many other European countries, there is no requirement for secondary schools here to offer hot lunches and there are not even any guidelines for healthy eating in those schools – whereas there are for primary and pre-school.
Typically couples are starting their family after a decade or more of working – and playing – hard. The arrival of a baby is the catalyst for many lifestyle changes at home – not least in the kitchen.
Some of these couples “didn’t really pick up how to cook – they got by eating in work or eating ready-made meals”, says nutritional therapist and Ballymaloe-trained cook Dee Daly. “When they are responsible for someone else, they become interested in nutrition and cooking but don’t know where to start. We may now have a generation where their mums didn’t cook.”

Through her business Deeliteful, Daly offers classes showing people how to prepare nutritious food in their own kitchen. For new parents, the focus is on simple, fast but healthy meals and she also covers weaning.
“A lot of it is giving people reassurance – getting them started really and then they take off.”
Daly acknowledges that feeding a family a range of healthy foods can be difficult, not least when children are testing the boundaries.
“Food pushes a lot of buttons and they pick up on that,” she points out. However, she adds: “If you build healthy habits – even if they are not eating the things – they will come back to what they know.”
So what should the priorities be when it comes to building healthy habits – and hearts – in your family?
As with all aspects of parenting, leading by example is key. And those little eyes are watching your every move – from what you eat to how much you sit around instead of being up and about.
Babies who are breastfed longer and weaned onto solids later have a better chance of avoiding obesity in childhood, a study based on the Growing Up in Ireland survey concluded earlier this year.
As soon as your baby is starting solids, try to introduce a wide range of tastes and textures to expand their palate. Don’t lose heart when certain foods seem to be spat out time and time again – with a little perseverance your baby can like pureed broccoli too.
That can seem nigh impossible if you have no time to be choosing recipes, shopping for ingredients and cooking the meal. But there is a huge benefit in taking control of what is going into the food your family is eating, particularly when it comes to salt, sugar and saturated fat.
Make water or milk your child’s standard drink and limit all others. Even with natural fruit juice and smoothies, children can get too much of a good thing – one serving a day is plenty.
Beware of rewarding children with food. Telling children to eat up their dinner so they can have a chocolate bar afterwards is, says Mulvihill, sending subliminally the wrong message that one food is dull and the other is a treat.
The need to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day is a target we’re all aware of but don’t always reach. The Health Behaviour in Schools (2005) survey found that only 20 per cent of children were eating their five – that’s “horrendous”, says Mulvihill, because fruit and vegetables are nutritious and a natural source of sugar, fibre and nutrients.
Switching from the more refined versions of kitchen staples such as bread, rice, pasta, flour and cereals to their wholegrain equivalents may meet with resistance if it’s not what your children are used to. Phase the “brown” versions in gradually but aim to make them the norm rather than the exception. However, high fibre diets are not recommended for children under five.
There is plenty of evidence that the ritual of the family meal encourages healthier eating, says Mulvihill. Try to get as many members of the family as possible around the table at one time as often as you can – even if there is only going to be 100 per cent attendance at weekends.
Playing freely outdoors is the biggest determinant on children being active, says Mulvihill. Helping them find some sort of physical recreation that they love enough to want to continue into adulthood is invaluable.
Build walks and cycle trips into the routine; children are motivated by active parents.
The bottom line is that children aged five to 18 need to be active for at least 60 minutes a day, while for adults it’s a minimum of 30 minutes.
For further information, see Your Child’s Heart, a magazine published by the Irish Heart Foundation and available on its website:

Mother of two Cathy Fleming has always been conscious of good food and healthy eating but the big difference since giving up her job as HR manager for Dell in Dublin is that she has more time to shop and cook.
She and her husband, Fergus, who have two sons, Matthew (five) and Samuel (three), decided to uproot for a better quality of life two years ago and leave Dublin for his native Kilkenny. While he commutes to work for Abbott in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, she combines part-time work from their home on the Freshford Road with caring for the boys.
Cathy is doing her best to pass on the good eating habits which her mother instilled in her when growing up in Roscommon as one of eight children.
“There was never loads of junk around in our house – there couldn’t be because we had a brother who was a diabetic. I think starting early is the secret to success.”
The big thing for her, she says, is giving the children a full spectrum of foods. “Being at home does allow me to think about the food that they eat.”
She reckons they have a very healthy diet – everything is wholemeal, lots of vegetables and fruits, lots of smoothies. “I am always trying to find ways of getting good stuff into them.”
They’re not great when it comes to fish, she admits. “It is an area I struggle with. I will make homemade fish-fingers – but all that takes time and it is not an easy thing to do when you’re working.”
She finds persistence pays off. They wouldn’t eat broccoli, for instance, and she just kept presenting it until finally they realised it wasn’t that bad. “It is really about developing their palate.”
She has her dinner with the boys in the middle of the day. “I think they have a better appetite. When they are tired they are least likely to eat and that makes the whole thing more stressful.” Fergus is not back until about 8pm most weekdays, so family dinners are at the weekends.
Her children do have treats, she says, such as natural jellies, Pom-Bear potato snacks rather than crisps, and bars from the health food shops. One of her pet hates is lollipops being offered to them in shops everywhere they go.
Getting the children to play outside is never a problem; it is getting them in for bed during the summer that can be difficult. They are lucky where they live, she explains, that there is a green area in the middle of their small estate and there are always other children there hurling, playing tennis or throwing Frisbees.
Cathy is a runner but was “quite sporadic” during the summer; Fergus runs as well but “he finds it hard to fit it in”. He might just go for a walk straight after dinner instead.
Kilkenny has been chosen for the first Healthy Town project in Ireland, which is a collaboration between The Irish Times and Pfizer Healthcare Ireland. The aim of the two-month programme is to show people how, by simple adjustments, they can make a real difference to their health.
While it does not sound as if the Fleming family needs to alter its lifestyle, Cathy is looking out for the various events and health promotions and says: “I think you can always learn.”
Meanwhile, Caitríona Redmond says she also had the need for a healthy lifestyle drilled into her from an early age growing up in Malahide, Co Dublin, where her grandmother grew a lot of her own food. Caitríona’s mother, Carmel Wallace, was a nurse by training and a volunteer “happy heart” counsellor with the Irish Heart Foundation.
However, Caitríona has never quite forgiven her for the Philadelphia cheese and raisins on brown bread she found in her lunch box in fourth class. “She was trying to expand our taste buds – she meant well but it went straight in the bin.
“Our family culture was all about cooking from scratch and making the most of the ingredients we had and that is what I am trying to do now that I am at home with the children.”
Being at home full-time wasn’t a choice – she was made redundant from her PA job with a property company when she returned from maternity leave after the birth of her first son, Eoin, four years ago.
“It was a real culture shock.” She was looking for another full-time job but “it just didn’t happen”.
That was when she and her husband, John, who also has a daughter, Rebecca (13), had to make real changes in the household.
“I would have always bought quality food but erred on the side of convenience because I was out working,” she explains. “When you are left with €70 to feed a family of four – that’s when you have to grow your own food, if you can, and cook from scratch when you can.”
The arrival of Fionn 10 months ago means returning to the workplace is now out of the question because of the high cost of childcare. Instead, Caitríona has applied some of her passion for cooking to a blog,, and she also writes a monthly food newsletter for She knows all about picky eaters and weaning Eoin, who had severe reflux, was a “rollercoaster”. “I would say I am nearly still weaning him – he has a strong gag reflex so certain foods and textures would really not be a good idea.”
She has to produce a main family meal at home in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, for no more than €5. “It is making stuff stretch and going back to basics – this is the stuff I learnt from my grandmother and I am really sorry I didn’t pay more attention.”
Both the Redmond and the Fleming families show how the baton of healthy eating is passed from one generation to another. It is our responsibility when we become parents not to drop it.
For more information on the Healthy Town project, see

Do everything you can to get your offspring through their teenage years without smoking – because the chances are they won’t start after that. Eurobarometer research published earlier this year showed that 80 per cent of smokers in Ireland had started smoking regularly when they were aged 18 or under.
Although cigarettes are most associated with lung cancer, they are extremely detrimental to heart health, as is passive smoking.
A non-smoker living with a smoker has a 30 per cent increased risk of heart disease, according to figures from the Department of Health. Passive smoke exposure also increases the risk of stroke by 82 per cent.
At least 1 in 5 Irish children is now overweight or obese.
There is evidence of children aged 4 to 8 already showing signs of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and impaired glucose tolerance.
Irish Times, 18th September 2012


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