Nowadays, we’re all short on time and tend to rely on quick convenience meals for mid-week meals and snacks. But the truth is, ready-made meals are often loaded with hidden sugar (even the supposed healthy meals and snacks). Too much sugar in the diet can cause a host of health-related problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. If you want to reduce your child’s sugar intake, it’s important to read labels carefully and make informed choices.
Food is fuel
Remember, food is the fuel that powers our children and helps them to develop optinally, says best-selling cookbook author, Annabel Karmel. It makes them grow up to be “big and strong” and gives them enough energy to thrive. However, food does more than just this – the food we eat doesn’t only affect our health, but also our behaviour and mood levels.
If your children eat a lot of processed sugar, they could become hungry more frequently, and have more pronounced “ups and downs” in their mood levels. They’ll also get a sugar high after eating a source of quick-release energy (such as a chocolate bar), but this will soon be followed by an energy slump, which will result in a lack of concentration and increased irritability.
Because sugar is in almost every product you’ll find on shelf, aim to reduce your child’s sugar intake slowly and consistently. Here is a smart week-by-week approach;
- Try to prevent your children from grazing between meals on unhealthy snacks. This will mean they’re more likely to try new foods during mealtimes.
- Beware of many of the so-called “healthy” snacks. Cereal bars are often substituted for confectionery or biscuits in school lunchboxes, but not all cereal bars are healthy. Many contain over 40% sugar and over 30% fat.
- Look at packaging before you buy snacks and lunchbox bits for your children. Often, foods that claim to be low in fat can sometimes be high in sugar. This is often the case with children’s yoghurts, which generally contain lots of sugar, and juice drinks which are often 90% sugar and water and only 10% juice – so check labels!
- Pack healthy lunchboxes, and don’t limit yourself to making plain old sandwiches. Try making pasta or couscous salads or wraps, with lots of different fillings. Your child is also more likely to finish easy-to-eat fruit, so include a bunch of grapes or a peeled tangerine in her lunchbox.
- There are certain times in the day when you know your child is going to be hungry, such as after school or a certain activity. It’s a good idea to have something already prepared to give them, rather than relying on a sugar fix. Try having raw vegetables and a dip or a pita pocket filled with tuna in the fridge. Cut-up fruit is always far more likely to be eaten than a whole piece.
- Many young children prefer raw vegetables to cooked ones, so it’s a good idea to give them some carrot, cucumber or sweet pepper strips with a tasty dip.
Top tip: Try mixing two tablespoons of Greek yoghurt, two tablespoons of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of tomato sauce, half a teaspoon of lemon juice and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce to make a thousand island dip. Alternatively, hummus is very nutritious. If you want to take raw vegetable sticks out with you, wrap them in damp kitchen paper to keep them fresh.
- Remember, food isn’t just sustenance – it can also be fun. Be a little bit inventive in how you present food, as children are more likely to eat healthy food if it looks more appealing. Mini portions of dishes such as cottage pie can be served in a ramekin dish, so that it looks appetising. Noodles or stir fry dishes are a great way to increase your child’s intake of vegetables – make it fun to eat by giving them child-friendly chopsticks. When it gets warmer, purée fresh fruit to make your own ice lollies.
- For long-lasting energy, give your children more complex carbohydrates like baked potato, pasta, wholewheat bread and vegetables. These are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than simple carbohydrates like white rice, sugary refined breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits are, providing a more constant supply of energy. As a result, your child won’t feel hungry too often.
- Try to include as much fruit as possible in your child’s diet. Add fruit to breakfast cereals or give your children fruit smoothies.
- Desserts like cakes or ice-cream should be a treat rather than the norm. For variety, present fruit in different ways, for example, thread bite-sized pieces of fruit onto a straw or a skewer. You can also make delicious ice-lollies by mixing fruit purée with pure fruit juice.
- Set a good example. You can’t expect your child to eat well if you graze in front of the TV and live off of junk food and takeaways. It only takes about 15 minutes to make a delicious meal for the whole family.
- A great way to get your children eating healthily is by asking them to help you in the kitchen. Not only will you get them interested in trying new things, you’ll also enjoy quality time together. Once your children are a little older, give them the responsibility of cooking a simple recipe that you help them with first time round. Then, let them make it once a week for a month, after which, they’ll know how to make one dish really well and be proud of their achievement.
- For a sweet treat, bake your own healthy mini muffins; they’re the perfect size for little fingers and have much less sugar than shop bought muffins. Flavours like apple and carrot or courgette and raisin are delicious and easy to prepare. You can also bake healthy mini cookies like oat and raisin, or cranberry and oats. Even children as young as two years can help in the kitchen by mixing ingredients or flattening small balls of the mixture to make cookies.
In an ideal world, we’d always have the time and energy to cook for our family, but this isn’t always possible in our busy modern lives, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for occasionally opting for convenience. There are some great options in supermarkets now for “cheats”, so mix convenience with fresh veggies, but check the labels when using these, as they can often contain lots of salt and sugar.
SA’s new sugar tax
The new sugar tax, which has just come into effect and targets the sugar content in beverages, is aimed at reducing sugar-related illnesses and obesity in South Africa. The tax is levied on sugar content above 4g per 100ml at a rate of 2.1 cents per gram. This means that the average of price of sugary beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks and concentrates will be more expensive.