Holidays and Christmas are upon us, which means our kids are hit with a double whammy of loads of free time combined with a glorious array of Christmas treats to indulge in. This is a valuable time to teach our little ones lifelong habits to keep a moderate, healthy, balanced diet even throughout the silly season – a time when even grow-ups tend to lose their heads about food and health!
Firstly remember that this is a natural time for treats and indulgences. Creating rigid rules around how many mince pies or chocolate balls are allowed will only create a feeling of deprivation and may lead to food sneaking or overeating when at friends’ houses. Don’t create drama about the difference between “healthy” foods and “unhealthy” foods – quite simply, most kids don’t care, and this will only make those forbidden pleasures more enticing. Encourage the idea that all foods are equal, and cultivate a moderate intake of all sorts of foods: “Gingerbread men are a delicious part of Christmas and of course we will enjoy them, but turkey meat and roast vegetables and nuts are also delicious Christmas treats so let’s have some of them too!”
Remember the great thing about kids is that they don’t yet have a preconceived idea of what a Christmas tradition is, so you can create your own and make healthier habits an exciting part of your family’s Christmas. Christmas cheer is about so much more than the food, so place great emphasis on non-food activities. You can even make a Christmas calendar with a different festive activity scheduled for each day: Putting up decorations together, singing along to Christmas Carols and attending Carols by Candlelight, Christmas treasure hunts, creating homemade gifts, enjoying crafts such as painting or clay with a Christmas theme, dressing up, going to see Christmas lights, reading the story of Jesus’ birth. Create your own advent calendar with healthier treats, or even include non-food surprises in the calendar such as a challenge for the day or small inexpensive gifts such as marbles or stickers. Put a Christmas spin on healthy foods and sell them as being just as exciting as the marzipan and chocolate:
- Have lunch as a “picnic” by the Christmas tree
- Use fruit pieces to create Christmas tree shapes
- Make treat bags as a craft project (using anything from Christmas gift wrap to fabric), and decorate them with a Christmas theme, then filling them with nuts, dried fruit or biltong as a Christmas snack every day
- Using Christmas cookie cutters to shape sandwiches, cheese slices or even to mould starches
- Putting red or green food colouring into otherwise white foods such as pasta or porridge (for the adventurous child and parent!)
- Getting the kids involved in choosing red and green foods for meals (e.g. tomato sauce on meat with broccoli)
The best thing you can do for your little people during this season is model healthy food behaviours and create an environment that supports healthy behaviours. Don’t buy tins and tins of treats and then forbid everyone from touching them. Buy appropriate quantities – a small pudding for the family, a pack of 6 mince pies for a family of 6. If you buy a bigger quantity, or even better, if you are baking, take the excess and use it as a lesson the gift of giving – take your children to hand out treats at retirement homes, orphanages or a charity of your choice. Even driving about and giving Christmas treats at traffic lights or to neighbours can be a valuable lesson and will have the bonus of removing the foods from your home. Eat a healthy balanced diet throughout the season to model to your children a moderate way of enjoying Christmas foods, and avoid negative food talk such as “I shouldn’t have any more”, “I’m cheating on my diet” or “I’m being very naughty by having an extra slice of cake”. Remember: a neutral, moderate attitude to all foods is important for fostering healthy habits.
In the meantime, use all this free time to go wild with lots of fun physical activity! Go for bike rides, walks, play games in the garden or games on your Wii. Create activities that will require movement such as scavenger hunts or decorating large areas. This will benefit you and your little people.
Of course you can try healthier ways of preparing traditional Christmas foods, like baking a sugar free Christmas cake or gluten-free shortbread (no end of recipes for this online or in cook books). There is nothing wrong with trying this and it will benefit the whole family physically. However, it is more important to use this time to teach your children (and maybe some adults!) to exercise moderation and balance with eating, and to cultivate a healthy, happy and moderate relationship with all food ranging from carrots to cookies. This is a lesson they will benefit from for the rest of your lives. Have lots of fun during this special time with your children!