Our eating habits, tastes and preferences are shaped very early on in life, by the example set to us by our parents, carers and later on educators and by the food offered during infancy. These early influences often mould our attitude towards food and eating throughout school and adult life.

A healthy balanced diet from a very young age helps to reduce the risk of developing many common diseases later on in life such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dental decay, obesity and osteoporosis.

A healthy balanced diet consists of eating from all the food groups (refer to Eatwell plate).  The food groups are Bread, pasta, rice, cereals and potatoes (Five portions a day); Fruit and Vegetables (Four/Five portions a day);  Milk and Dairy Foods (Three portions a day); Meat, fish pulses and nuts (Two portions a day); and Fatty and Sugary foods (eat sparingly).

Milk and water are the best drinks to give between meals and snacks.  Ideally should be taken from a cup or a beaker and children should be offered to drink especially water several times during the day especially during the summer months to avoid dehydration.

The ideal food for babies to start life with is breast milk and breastfeeding should always be encouraged as the first choice in infant feeding.  Breastfed babies are at a lower risk of obesity since human breast milk provides food constituents in the correct balance for human growth and also provides the baby with maternal antibodies and helps protect the child from infections such as diarrhoea, vomiting, chest, ear, urine infections, eczema and nappy rash besides being cheaper due to less equipment and sterilising equipment required, whilst promoting more mother and baby bonding through breastfeeding.  WHO encourages at least the first six months, the baby will be fed on milk.  Around six months of age, the parent should start weaning the baby by introducing food at first pureed vegetables and fruit and later on lumpier foods such as pasta, small pieces of meat, pieces of cheese and bread along with plenty of water and diluted unsweetened fruit juices.

Young babies and children spend a lot of time in a Child Care Centre and later on at School, so they should be provided with healthy snacks and ample water to drink.  Different types of bread should be used having different healthy fillings like tuna and tomato, chicken and salad, salmon and cucumber, hard-boiled egg with low fat mayonnaise etc.

Ideas to supplement the traditional sandwich can include fresh or dried fruit, sticks of raw vegetables, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cheese cubes, potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw, low fat yogurt, soup in a flask, healthy cereal bars etc.

If parents and educators and the community collaborate together, we can promote a more healthy lifestyle to our young children and reduce the high rates of overweight and obesity in children, thus reducing health risks later on in life.

Christine Schembri

Senior Lecturer
Institute of Community Services