This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times.
With the new year comes a slew of worrying statistics about our nation’s health. In particular: the health of our kids. Ministry of Health figures show that 10,000 more New Zealand children are now classified as overweight or obese compared to last year. It’s a number that’s been steadily growing, putting us ahead (in a way we don’t want to be) of Australia and the US, where childhood obesity rates have plateaued. Where Australia is investing heavily in healthy eating and activity programmes in schools, here in New Zealand there’s no comprehensive plan to tackle what is not just a serious health issue but an economic one as well.
What can we do, as parents and concerned citizens? Well for a start, it’s an election year. The time will soon come to quiz your local political hopefuls about what plans they and their parties have to make some real and meaningful changes to this urgent health problem, and to use your power as a voter to make change happen.
In the meantime, though, at a family level, we have to set our kids up to make good choices, and give them the best chance of growing into healthy-weight adults with great attitudes towards food and eating.
That means modelling and establishing great habits in the home environment. Here are some goals to consider for 2014.
Be adventurous. One of the best gifts you can give your child is to train their taste buds to enjoy many different flavours, not just sugar, fat and salt. A child may have to try something up to 10 times before they start to enjoy it, so don't give up. Take them shopping and let them choose new foods to get them excited.
Eat five or more colours a day. Different colours have different health benefits, so make it a fun adventure and get the kids involved in growing and cooking their colours, too.
Make water the main household drink. Buy cool water bottles for everyone, and serve water with meals. Keep juice and other sweet drinks as 'sometimes', not 'everyday' food.
Eat breakfast. Even if it is just fruit and a glass of milk, this teaches that some food in their stomach kick-starts the body for the day, giving energy for work, study and play.
Sit at the table to eat. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s becoming less and less common. Not only does sitting down at the table reduces snacking and grazing, it also teaches social skills such as table manners, conversation skills and patience. Research has found that families who eat together are twice as likely to have five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; consume less fried food and sugary drinks; and have diets that are higher in fibre, calcium, iron, folate and vitamins.
Teaching a love of cooking is another hugely valuable gift. This, along with regular activity and limited junk food, may just help the next generation beat the statistics.