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How do you make sure your child eats a healthy diet?

Many children eat too many high-calorie foods and too few vegetables from an early age. PhD candidate Merel van Vliet researched the role of parents in this. ‘Don’t force children to clean their plates.’ PhD defence on 15 June.

For parents meals with toddlers can be a real ordeal; broccoli everywhere except in your child’s mouth because many toddlers see vegetables more as a projectile than a tasty meal. Studies show that most Dutch toddlers do not eat enough vegetables every day. And half of the children between the ages of 1 and 4 eat when they’re not hungry, which may cause them to overeat later on in life. 

‘The parent decides what is eaten and the child decides how much.’ 

Encourage healthy eating right from the start, says Merel van Vliet. She studied the interaction between parent and child at meal times and its effect on the eating behaviour of babies and toddlers. ‘I advise parents not to put too much pressure on their children and not to expect them to clean their plates all the time. It’s important that children become aware of when they are full from a young age. The parent decides what is eaten and the child decides how much.’ 

Baby’s First Bites

Van Vliet also studied the effectiveness of video coaching. She used the long-term Baby’s Eerste Hapjes (Baby’s First Bites) study, which 246 parent-child pairs participated in. In one of the programmes the eating sessions were filmed and the parents given feedback afterwards. Some of the parents took a more sensitive approach after this and stopped offering food when the child indicated it was full. But this has not yet significantly improved their offspring’s eating behaviour (eating more vegetables and not eating if they’re not hungry). However, the lowest percentage of overweight children was found in the group that received both video coaching and advice on vegetables, at both 18 and 24 months. 

More research needed

As there were only a few overweight children at this age, the next data collection point, at around 36 months, will show whether the effect continues. The provisional results show that follow-up research is needed in a different population, says Van Vliet. This would focus on certain risk groups, such as vegetable refusers and families from vulnerable neighbourhoods where obesity is common. Van Vliet: ‘Unhealthy eating is a major social problem and more studies are urgently needed to prevent overweight and obesity.’

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