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Dr.ª Marina Augusto Estêvão


Childhood nutrition
Healthy eating from an early age, at home and school

HPA Magazine 14


When childhood nutrition is mentioned, most parents have doubts and concerns. Setting the example, persistence and the child’s positive involvement with food are three steps that pave the way for good eating habits that will remain for life contributing towards a correct physical and cognitive development.



Children learn from the example set by their parents’, developing a gastronomic culture according to their lifestyle. If, for example, we choose to always drink water with meals and we are not in the habit of having soft drinks or sweetened juice at home, our children will easily get used to always drinking water at mealtimes to the detriment of other drinks.
Not all foods are pleasing to the taste, when children grow up they tend to become more selective. It is important to continue feeding them food that they don't like that much. We must not be content because they are eating pureed soups; it is important to introduce a large variety of vegetables, prepared in different ways (eg courgette and aubergine cut into slices and oven baked, raw vegetables cut into sticks or creatively prepared, for example in the form of happy faces, cooked steamed or grilled). A varied and balanced diet is essential to ensure health nutrition and should include all the macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) needed for a healthy development.
Involve the child with food preparation. Providing him with positive experiences will motivate him to adopt healthier choices in the future when it comes to food. Let the child prepare his own breakfast or snack, let him make his own sandwiches and take to school the fruit of his choice. 
There are other activities that the child can also be involved in, which will serve the same purpose: encouraging the child to participate in growing his own vegetables by having a small patch in the garden or a pot in the porch for the purpose; let the child help in preparing meals at home; let him peel and grate carrot or cucumber (with adult supervision) or let the child use the electric mixer to make a sweet potato puree and let him add the spices; let him choose a recipe that he might wish to try. All of this will help the child create a positive relationship with food.
What about school can we rest assured concerning the meals served to our children?
School cafeterias/canteens are privileged space for a healthy education, with the objective of promoting healthy lifestyles and social equity. They provide nutritionally balanced, healthy and safe meals to all students, regardless of their families' socioeconomic status, according to legislation Decree-Law No. 11/2017 of 17 April.

In addition, legislation guarantees cost free milk to all preschool children up to the 7th Grade. Fruit is also provided for 6th and 7th Grade children. 
Schools must also have vegetarian option, where recommendations on nutritional composition are provided by the General Health Department.
Information and recommendations has also been issued by the same department on products sold at school tuck shops, banning the sale of savories, cream cakes, soft drinks and chocolates. 
In principle, we can rest assured concerning school meals provided to our children. However, contrary to our desire, children don’t always eat the meals provided by their school cafeteria/canteen, either due to taste/food preferences or because of social influences from colleagues/friends. This is especially the case with teenagers. It is during this phase that habits acquired in childhood will play a central role.
Nowadays a large number of children and teenagers have inappropriate eating habits, for example, eating lunch in snack bars, fast food restaurants, or even food/snacks that they bring from home. This type of meal is generally richer in saturated fats, low in fiber, high in sugar and an excessive amount of salt. In addition to decreasing the feeling of satiety and the ability to concentrate, they increase the risk for developing certain pathologies such as obesity, dyslipidemia, high blood pressure, type II diabetes or decreased self-esteem and depression.
Encourage children and young people to choose healthy snacks: fresh fruit, salt-free dried fruits, whole-wheat or brown bread sandwiches which include vegetables (lettuce, grated carrot, tomato), vegetable sticks that can easily be carried in a container (cucumber, carrot, cherry tomato, radishes), boiled egg with whole-grain toast, cheese with corn or rice crackers, popcorn made using coconut oil and cinnamon.
A child who has had a positive relationship with healthy food, who for example was not forced to eat soup, but was taught in a playful and natural way to like soup, will be more likely to maintain these habits throughout his life and will become a healthy adult.