As parents, we try to protect our children from anything and everything that we feel may harm them. We warn them of the dangers of strangers; we teach them the importance of safety on the playground and during other outdoor activities; we caution them about crossing the street. But how much care and concern do we have about their nutrition and the food that goes into their bodies? Of course, we are worried about them getting enough to eat and drink; we want them to have three meals a day, we want them to want for nothing, but do we really care enough to ensure that they have eight glasses of water, five servings of fruits and vegetables, 5-7 servings of grains, etc? For most of us, the answer is an embarrassed “No.” Surely, we care about our children, but we are just not diligent enough nor do we have enough time in the day to be sure that they have exactly the right amount of every type of food that they need.
Whether Toddler or Teen: Making Nutrition Fun
No matter how old or young our children are, it’s always our job while they are under our care and supervision to be sure that they are healthy and well cared for. One way to be sure of this is to be sure that they are eating well and making sure that they understand the importance of good nutrition. When our children are toddlers, this seems to present a completely different set of challenges. Young kids are picky about the colors and smells and textures of foods. They don’t like to try new things. Some studies indicate that it could take as many as eighteen attempts or suggestions before a child will try something new. As a parent, this can be frustrating and time consuming.
However, there are a few strategies that we can try to encourage our youngsters to eat their colors, shapes, textures, and everything in between:
1. Eat meals together. A family that eats together is likely to enjoy a variety of foods and the kids are more likely to eat broccoli or whole-wheat rolls if everyone else is eating them, as well. Also, in the midst of conversation, everything tastes better.
2. Disguise as many foods as you can, as a parent and cook. When possible, puree the spinach in your pasta sauce, serve whole wheat pasta instead of semolina. Be as creative as you can be and need to be; your family will get their essential vitamins and minerals, and you will have to fight with the kids that much less.
3. Offer variety whenever possible, as soon as possible. The older a toddler will get, the more he can get set in his ways. Kids can become incredible creatures of habit. Once they decide they love mac n’ cheese, for example, they might decide that this is all they want to eat for the next two months. If you can introduce many other foods to them and they are willing ‘to bite,’ then they will be more likely to not latch onto any one food. This will enable them enhance their diet significantly.
4. Set a good example. When our kids see us eating our fruits and veggies, drinking our eight glasses of water, choosing frozen yogurt over ice cream, they will begin to recognize the importance of taking care of the bodies that Allah Almighty gave us. More importantly, we can also teach them the importance of taking care of the bodies that Allah Almighty gave us. More importantly, we can also teach them the importance of moderation: Our children should learn as early as possible not to waste and not to overindulge. In fact, the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, recommended that we fill our stomachs one third with food, one third with drink and one third with air. Anything more than that would be considered indulgent – not to mention harmful to the body and can cause illness and laziness.
Food Fun for Toddlers
For older kids and teens, involving them in the food preparation process helps get them interested in food and nutrition. When they are between the ages of about 5-10, parents can ask children to help with simple tasks like the following:
1. Planning meals. Ask your child for ideas and suggestions on what they would like to have for lunch at school or for dinner for the whole family. Give them two or three choices and have them select one. They should choose a meat, a fruit and/or vegetable and some grain. Explain to them the significance and necessity of the different types of foods that our body needs.
2. Have your children help with the preparation whenever possible, and try to make it fun. They can chop the veggies and wash the rice; if you measure the spices, they can dump them into the saucepan. If you supervise, they can blend or puree with the blender or mixer.
3. Make your recipes fun. If you are having pizza for dinner, make mini pizzas instead. Buy mini dough and have each child prepare his or her own pizza. Lay out the sauce, cheese, and toppings and let them go wild. Of course, they have to help with the clean up, but you will be pleasantly surprised at how many veggies a child will eat when she makes her own pizza.
Teaching Teens Nutritional Essentials
Teens obviously can take on a lot more than merely chopping some onions and grating some cheese for you. Rather than dictating to them what’s for dinner, why not have them tell you for a change? Let them choose one or two nights a week (when their school work’s not such a load) and they can prepare dinner from start to finish. This can include deciding what to make, giving you a grocery list of what they’ll need (or they can do the shopping themselves), making the meal (with or without your help) and then serving it. And yes, if they want to use our good dishes, we must allow it!
Teens will develop most of their habits and manners by this age about how they will raise their own children.
Allowing them to ‘practice’ in your home before they have one of their own is the best way to make sure that they know the importance of balanced meals, good nutrition, family meals together, gracious hospitality, and appropriate Islamic manners. As a vital part of their training, we should be sure that they know how to not only provide good food for themselves and their family, but how to do so efficiently, on a budget, in a pleasant manner, and with the best intention. This means that they need to keep in mind their health, their manners, their enjoyment, and their lifestyle.
As with every aspect of our lives, we have to incorporate Islamic manners and etiquettes. We have to be sure to give thanks before our meals; be grateful after each meal; be sure to give charity regularly to remember those who don’t have as much as we do; avoid wasting food and throwing food out; avoid eating from that which is unlawful, and choose from foods and drinks that are permissible and good for us. There are manners and etiquettes that we should observe when it comes to eating and drinking. There are things that we should (and should not) say and do.
Our children learn from us these manners and it’s up to us to teach them the best way to not only observe them but remember them at the opportune times and then be able to teach their own families when that time comes. As parents, we must set an example by showing them that it’s not only important to put good food into our bodies but understand the significance of caring and respecting our bodies. We show our children respect for our mind and body by exercising, eating right, worshipping and giving due thanks. What our children learn from this will extend far beyond their youth; it will yield for them a lifetime of healthy and happy memories.